Return to Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault in Sports

Smith’s Lawsuit Against Michigan Demonstrates the Cost of Speaking Up About the Emperor’s New Clothes

The Emperor at Michigan has no clothesMay 18, 2020
Derek Helling

As the evidence that the Emperor’s clothes aren’t real grows, the cost for adding your voice to the chorus spreading that message escalates as well. No one is more painfully familiar with that price than Kellen Smith.

If everything Smith alleges is true, the campus of the University of Michigan for athletes has not been the utopia of achievement and development that those who profit off the existence of such programs market it as. In reality, it is more like a criminal organization where athletes’ bodies are exploited for the chattel profit and illicit pleasure of others. Her recently filed complaint against multiple defendants is just another sign that the Emperor is indeed naked.

Smith filed her complaint in the federal court for the Eastern District of Michigan on May 7. She named the University of Michigan, the Michigan Board of Regents, Michigan’s associate dean Sarah Daniels, Michigan Title IX investigator Daniel Ferency, Michigan Title IX coordinator Pam Heatlie, Michigan Women’s Track and Field coach James Henry and Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel as defendants. Smith makes five claims against the defendants.

  1. Deliberate indifference and sex discrimination in violation of Title IX
  2. Sex discrimination in violation of the Mich. Elliot-Larson Civil Rights Act
  3. Retaliation in violation of the Mich. Elliott-Larson Civil Rights Act
  4. Retaliation in violation of Title IX
  5. Violation of the Equal Protection Clause

Smith seeks compensatory and punitive damages. She also wants the court to compel the university to protect her from her assailant and restore her benefits. Even if a jury awards all she desires, however, nothing can restore her bodily autonomy or the relationship she has lost with her family. A court may be able to restore her tuition but it can’t grant her relief from the post-traumatic stress disorder she now suffers.

When Smith was a freshman at Michigan in 2016, she redshirted as a member of the Wolverines’ women’s track and field team. It was during that time that Blake Washington, a member of the Wolverines’ men’s track and field team, sexually assaulted Smith on three separate occasions as Smith slept. Washington confessed the assaults to Smith on two separate occasions and has never denied assaulting Smith in any other setting. After the incidents, Smith disclosed Washington’s attack on her to a teammate. At the behest of that teammate, she reported the incident to the university’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center and a popular group for athletes on campus, Athletes In Action.

SAPAC assigned a staff member to Smith’s case. The first sign that Smith would suffer the consequences of speaking up surfaced with AIA’s response to her, however. Washington was also a part of the group and the group insisted he could still participate in AIA activities with Smith because he deserved a “second chance.” Unfortunately for Smith, that was just a prelude to perhaps the greatest betrayal she would suffer.

Smith obtained testing for STIs from the university’s health center. Despite the fact that Smith expressed her desires for the center to bill her directly, the center billed Smith’s private health insurance provider. Smith’s mother carried her on her policy. Upon learning about the situation, Smith says her mother blamed her for the assault. Smith also says the two are now estranged and because of that, she is not only without a mother but without support for daily living like health coverage.

After that situation, Smith made a formal report to the university. Heatlie assigned Ferency to handle the process of investigating her claim. Smith alleges that Ferency’s first act was to put the onus of maintaining distance between Smith and Washington solely and squarely on her, including requiring Smith to leave a physical location if Washington entered the space. Smith also states Ferency directed her not to discuss the incident with anyone else. A few days later, the university requested that campus police take a statement from Smith. Campus police allegedly declined at that time, saying it was “short-staffed” due to officers being out on vacations and that unless it was an “immediate need” they would follow up with her during the next week. According to the complaint, campus police did not take her statement for a full 74 days after the university’s first request and 39 days after a secondary request.

When the university finally issued a no-contact order against Washington, Smith says it did nothing to enforce the order or hold Washington accountable for his repeated violations of it. The complaint says SAPAC encouraged Smith to let Henry in on the situation to allow the team to handle Washington’s repeated violation of the distancing requirements. The filing goes on to claim that when Smith finally received permission from the university to do so, Henry responded by saying that the incident would likely result in the termination of her spot on the team. Smith alleges Henry also stated that Smith should be “flattered” that Washington showed a sexual interest in her.

According to the complaint, that was just one example of Henry’s trail of disparaging and sexist comments made to members of the Wolverines’ women’s track and field team. Smith alleges that when several members of the team brought similar allegations to the attention of Manuel, Manuel’s response was that his friendship with Henry was important to him and that the complaints would have no effect on his status with the university. Smith says she made a second request for Henry to use his authority as a coach to enforce the university’s distancing requirements but he refused to do so and suggested she quit the team.

Emboldened by the university’s lack of enforcement, Washington enrolled in a class that was not part of his degree track to be in close proximity to Smith, according to the complaint. Smith says this was part of what led to a gradual decline of Smith’s academic performance and then performance as a sprinter for the Wolverines. Eventually, the team cut her and that resulted in the loss of her academic support. That led to Smith’s rescinding her enrollment at Michigan. Washington not only continued on as a student at Michigan but as a member of the men’s track and field team. He is also now a staff member at the Michigan AIA. When campus police finally completed its investigation and arrested Washington, the local prosecutor opted to deny charges against Washington because Smith was asleep during the assaults and could not recall Washington’s attacks.

Smith is now using student loans to pay for her education and paying for the treatment of her PTSD symptoms out of her own pocket. This narrative of destroying the lives of anyone who dares to sully the picture-perfect fallacy that University of Michigan employees endeavor to maintain is sadly all too common.

Just over a week prior, other athletes at several other NCAA-member institutions filed suit against the NCAA. The stories of the plaintiffs in Roedel et al v. NCAA et al are nearly identical to Smith’s in that the priority was preserving the image and the reputation of the institutions over the health and safety of athletes.

The truth about the landscape of college athletic programs is that the financial exploitation of athletes is just one facet of that exploitation. The fact is that the campuses of NCAA-member institutions can be a safer place for sexual predators than their victims and anyone who tries to call attention to the fact that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes risks the full weight of the powers these institutions carry coming down upon them.

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Freelance journalist

Derek Helling is a journalist out of Chicago. Illinois, who covers the intersections of entertainment and sports with business, law, media and technology. He publishes a newsletter, "The Ninth Circle of Helling," that focuses on labor issues in North American sport.

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