ANN ARBOR — Former Olympic high jumper Erin Aldrich planned to die with a secret she kept quiet for two-plus decades: an affair with a college coach she began falling in love with as a teenager and with whom she had an sexual relationship as a young woman.
When Aldrich watched “Leaving Neverland,” about a year ago, the documentary featuring stories of men who say the late Michael Jackson sexually abused them as boys, she decided it was time to share her story.
“I had always told myself I was going to take this to the grave,” Aldrich said during an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday night in which she he claimed John Rembao began grooming her for a romantic relationship when she was a high school junior. “When I watched “Leaving Neverland,” it suddenly dawned on me that I was one of those boys, just a little bit older.”
Aldrich is one of three former student-athletes who say, in a lawsuit filed against the NCAA, that they were sexually abused by a track coach and allege the governing body and its board of governors didn’t do enough to protect them.
Londa Bevins, Jessica Johnson and Aldrich — who represented the U.S. in the 2000 Olympics — are seeking class action status for the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, California. The women say they were sexually abused and harassed by Rembao while he worked at the University of Texas and the University of Arizona.
The suit aims to include NCAA student-athletes, who also say they were put at risk by the inaction of the governing body since 1992.
Rembao led the Longhorns’ cross country program and was an assistant for their track team from 1997 to 2001. He was an assistant coach for the Wildcats’ track program from 1993 to 1997.
“The behavior alleged in this story is disturbing,” Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte said. “Our current coaches and staff know that such behavior is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated at the University of Texas.”
Rembao declined to comment, via email, on the allegations in the lawsuit.
The suit filed by law firms FeganScott and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein says the NCAA failed to stop sexual abuse and harassment of student-athletes by coaches at all member schools.
The Associated Press left messages seeking comment with the NCAA as well as the University of Arizona.
Rembao was suspended Dec. 18, 2019, for undisclosed allegations of misconduct by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an organization that investigates sex-abuse claims in Olympic sports. He has worked at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for more than seven years, according to his LinkedIn profile, and is currently the assistant director of employer relations at the school.
In an interview on Tuesday with USA Today, Rembao denied the allegations brought against him by the three women in the lawsuit.
“This is ridiculous,” Rembao said in a story published by USA Today. “It never happened. This is completely false. This is just making me angry because this is all crap.”
The NCAA, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, is a member-led organization comprised of nearly 11,000 colleges and universities and nearly a half-million student-athletes competing in 24 sports.
The plaintiffs are asking for new policies to be adopted immediately regarding coach-student relationships and for compensation for those subjected to abuse because the NCAA did not implement best practices.
The filing comes in the wake of revelations at the University of Michigan along with allegations and investigations of sexual abuse made by patients of sports doctors at other universities, including Michigan State, Ohio State and Minnesota.
Aldrich was on Arizona’s track and field and volleyball teams during the 1996-97 season and she transferred to Texas to compete in the high jump from 1997 to 2000. Rembao was one of her coaches. The Olympian and NCAA champion runner claims Rembao sexually abused her at Arizona and later harassed when she was competing for the Longhorns.
“He was my first sexual experience,” Aldrich recalled in a telephone interview. “When we were going to world juniors, when I had just turned 18, he put a blanket over my lap and he penetrated me with his fingers.”
Johnson and Bevins say Rembao sexually abused and harassed them while they were on Texas’ track team as a freshman during the 1999-2000 season.
“We had been at Texas for eight months and had enough,” Bevins recalled in a telephone interview.
Both Bevins and Johnson gave up their scholarships after one school year and transferred to Arkansas.
“After the spring semester of 2000, I was depressed, anxious and cutting myself,” Johnson recalled.
Johnson said her concerns about Rembao were expressed in a formal complaint to the University of Texas in the summer of 2000, detailing alleged abuse in a 22-page document.
“I thought because they’re adults, I’m going to tell them my story and they’re going to believe me,” Jonson said in a telephone interview. “No one did. None of them had my best interest in mind.”
New York-based lawyer Annika K. Martin, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit, said the three brave women are speaking not only for themselves, but for all student-athletes who the NCAA put at risk and allowed to be harmed.
“They are not just asking the NCAA to pay for past wrongs, they are also asking the NCAA to change to protect current and future student-athletes,” Martin said.
The lawsuit raises the second issue of serious misconduct by a Texas women’s track coach in the early 2000s. Former women’s head coach Bev Kearney was fired by the school in early 2013 after one of her former athletes alerted them to a consensual relationship between the pair a decade earlier.
In dismissing Kearney, Texas officials said she had crossed a line between athlete and coach. Kearney sued Texas on race and gender discrimination claims and later reached an undisclosed settlement with the university.
And in 2009, former football assistant Major Applewhite was disciplined for an improper relationship with a student trainer on a bowl game trip. He was not fired.
Martin said a team of attorneys is willing to represent anyone who says they were put at risk by the NCAA after the U.S. Olympic Committee stated all sexual contact between coaches and student-athletes should be prohibited 28 years ago.
“The NCAA should have made that same prohibition to its member schools in 1992, if not before,” Martin said.