Cal AD Knowlton responds to criticism after swim coach scandal

Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton, responding to criticism that he and the university for years have ignored or mishandled bullying allegations against women’s swimming head coach Teri McKeever, told team parents in an email Friday that he and school officials shared their concerns.

The email was sent against the backdrop of mounting calls for the firing of McKeever as well as Knowlton and Jennifer Simon-O’Neill, Cal’s senior associate AD, McKeever’s longtime close friend, who until recently was the direct supervisor of the women’s swimming program.

Parents of Cal swimmers are particularly enraged by Knowlton’s appearance on a Tuesday video call with them in which several parents said Knowlton didn’t appear to have an agenda for the call or a long-term plan for the program and ended with the AD shouting, “Go Bears!”

“Knowlton totally misread the room,” the parent of a current Cal swimmer said.

Cal placed McKeever on paid administrative leave May 25. McKeever, 60, is one of the most successful coaches in the sport. In 29 seasons at the school, McKeever has led Golden Bears swimmers to four NCAA team titles and 36 Olympic medals,

Cal’s decision to place McKeever on leave came a day after the publication of an investigative report that revealed at least six Cal women’s swimmers since 2018 had made plans to kill themselves or obsessed about suicide for weeks or months because of what they describe as McKeever’s bullying.

To date 34 current or former Cal swimmers, 17 parents, a former member of the Goldens Bears’ men’s swimming and diving squad, two former Cal coaches and two other athletic department employees have told SCNG how McKeever routinely bullied swimmers, or used embarrassing or traumatic experiences from their past against them, used racial epithets, body shamed and pressured athletes to compete or train while injured or dealing with chronic illnesses or eating disorders, even accusing some women of lying about their conditions despite being provided medical records by them.

The university has also commissioned a Los Angeles-based law firm to conduct an investigation overseen by the school’s human resources office into the allegations.

Knowlton told current team parents during the video call Tuesday the investigation could take up to six months.

“The general take-away from the meeting is the lack of urgency on something that should have been taken care of a long time ago,” the parent of a current Cal swimmer said of the video call.

In an apparent attempt at damage control, Knowlton touched on the video call in Friday’s email to current team parents.

“I hope it was helpful and, based on feedback I have heard, I wanted to follow up with a note to ensure that I clarify areas where there might have been confusion,” Knowlton wrote.

Knowlton said the intent of the call was “to listen to your concerns; help you understand the process we are now in; the efforts we are making to support your student-athletes; and the process moving forward.”

Knowlton was hired by Cal in May 2018 and on Tuesday acknowledged that some of the alleged bullying took place during his watch.

Current and former Cal swimmers and their parents have said Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill have either ignored or failed to take seriously repeated complaints about McKeever’s behavior.

Four Cal seniors on the 2021-22 roster recently met with Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill and alleged bullying and verbal and emotional abuse by McKeever, according to three people familiar with the meeting. Knowlton told the swimmers that McKeever was just a hard, tough coach who they would appreciate in the coming decades, according to the three people.

“As a parent of five graduated college student-athletes, I sense and share your concern regarding the well-being of your student-athletes, and your desire to better understand our process,” Knowlton wrote in Friday’s email. “Hopefully this will clarify what Eugene Whitlock— the university’s Human Resources lead— and I covered during the Zoom meeting.