I ran cross country and track in high school and loved it. When my dad retired from the Air Force, we moved to Florida the summer between my sophomore and junior year. I wasn’t happy about leaving my friends, but at least I had cross country to look forward to in the fall. The team wasn’t as competitive as the one I’d just come from in Kansas and there were two coaches, one for the boys’ team and one for the girls’, which was another change.
Things were strange from the beginning, and they got worse as the days went on. First, Coach Rocky stared at us. It was unsettling and constant, but hard to put a finger on exactly why (we were kids, y’all). Second, he didn’t like us hanging out with the boys team. I found this odd, because my team in Kansas had been very cohesive, with all of us hanging out and chatting before and after practices. You know, like a team? Third, he would also put his arm around us or drop a hand on our shoulders or backs. Some girls seemed okay with this. The rest of us weren’t, and we started to actively keep our distance. I’ve always had a thing about strangers touching me. I value my personal space and only want it breached by invitation. He made a habit of coming up behind you and pulling you into a half hug that felt all kinds of wrong. I clearly recall telling him to stop touching me. And it did stop, for a bit. And then it was back to unwanted hugs, his big, sweaty hand sneaking onto your back or shoulder, followed by the feeling of wanting to twist out of your skin. Keep in mind, we all ran in our shorts and sports bras (it was four p.m. in Florida and felt like running on the surface of the sun), so he was touching bare skin.
I eventually talked to some of my teammates about how uncomfortable this shit was making me. Another new girl, S, had been catching rides home with Coach Rocky after practice a few times a week. Her mom worked late and wasn’t always available to pick her up. Maybe because I was vocal, even in the face of one of the senior girls who didn’t see a problem with anything that was going on and told me so, S confided in me that the coach would put his hand on her leg on the drives home. He knew she was alone at home after practice, and often had her sit in the car in her driveway for several uncomfortable minutes before getting out of the car. I didn’t know what grooming was back then, but I understood this was fucked up. So, I assured S my mom could drive her home that night instead.
On the drive, I told my mom why S needed the ride and filled her in about all the other creepy incidents that had felt so wrong over the first half of the season. The following day, my mom made an appointment with the vice principal to discuss whatever the hell had been going on during our practices. In the meantime, I tried to get other girls on the team to agree to come in to speak to the VP with S and me. There were zero takers. I could see the prospect made many of them uneasy. But the senior girl confronted me, calling me a bitch for even considering doing something like this because I would ruin Coach Rocky’s life and he had a family to support. I was going to get him fired over nothing.
I’d like to say I called her a bitch right back, but I didn’t. I doubted myself and felt guilty at the thought of his family. Did I really want him to lose his job over this? Was it really that bad? Unwanted hugs? Repeated invasion of our personal space even after being asked to stop? It felt wrong, but maybe making a big deal out of it was a mistake…
The fact that I ever second guessed myself like this infuriates me to this day. An older girl who should have known slightly better than I did (looking back, I can appreciate that she was a baby herself) blamed me for whatever repercussions this grown ass forty year old man might face for his inappropriate actions. I internalized that blame and questioned my gut. I’d rather have just shown up, gotten through practice, and then went on my merry way without him leering at or trying to put his hands on me. I didn’t want any trouble, but I didn’t want any of this shit either. Even at 16, I understood this wasn’t right. Not to mention that my mother had already made the appointment with the VP and she would not have backed down on this for anything.
The appointment itself was an absolute shit show. S, my mom, and I were all crammed into the VP’s office. We told him all about what had gone on. S couldn’t even look up from her lap, but she told him everything, including the shady shit that had happened on the multiple rides home after practice. After hearing everything we had to say, the VP said: I hug students all the time and it’s never been a problem.
My mom shot back quick as you please: Do you make a habit of hugging students even after they ask you to stop?
The VP admitted that he didn’t do any such thing. We found out later that he was actually pretty good friends with Coach Rocky. There was quite a bit more back and forth between the VP and my mom, and then the meeting ended. The result? Coach Rocky was immediately fired and barred from reentering school property.
Just kidding! Gotcha!
What actually happened first is the girls were informed that we were no longer to run in just our sports bras. We needed to wear t-shirts to practice for hours in the blinding sun and ninety degree temperatures. Because having our stomachs and backs exposed was the problem, not the man in his forties who couldn’t keep his goddamned hands to himself. Senior girl was pissed about this development and blamed me, of course.
Meanwhile, my mom was still making noise with school officials. Eventually, Coach Rocky did get removed from his position with the girls’ cross country team, but he retained his job teaching handicapped students and was able to carry on coaching the girls’ basketball team. I had friends on that team who said he was doing the same shady shit to them too. He was later fired for sexual abuse of one of his handicapped students. I wonder if the VP asked her to stop wearing such provocative clothing first. Bros before hoes, amirite?
This story isn’t remarkable or earth shattering. It’s actually pretty commonplace. We all have one that’s eerily similar, right? We weren’t believed. We were told it wasn’t a big deal. We were blamed. We doubted ourselves and felt guilty for getting someone else in trouble. When we talk about the sickness inherent in our culture, this is what we mean: a society in which teenage girls are made to bear the responsibility for attracting the attention of a 40 year old man.
We were kids. We were there to run. We didn’t do a fucking thing wrong.