University Investigation Led to Joe Spahn’s Dismissal at Pepperdine

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Joe Spahn’s dismissal as Pepperdine women’s swimming coach was sparked by a university investigation into complaints from within the team, a leaked university document reveals.

Members of the team charged that Spahn “had acted inappropriately in engaging in behaviors that were bullying and abusive, sexually harassing, retaliatory and which created a hostile environment for members of the team,” and while a university investigation didn’t find much evidence for those claims in its initial report, Spahn was placed on administrative leave before being replaced.

The memo is dated Dec. 20. Sent by the senior associate dean of the school’s Seaver College, its Title IX coordinator and deputy general counsel, the memo doesn’t specify action to be taken against Spahn, who was placed on administrative leave in November, before being replaced this week by Jana Vincent on an interim basis.

The results of the formal investigation were underwhelming, despite involving interviews with 47 people, including the entire women’s team. The report acknowledged that the methods used by Spahn, hired in March 2018, differed sharply from his predecessor, Nick Rodionoff, which was “challenging for some athletes” who were recruited by and swam for Rodionoff. It also determined that Spahn “appears to be a technically exceptional swim coach, a point nearly all team members acknowledge.”

The investigation raised concerns without drawing concrete conclusions. The committee “did not find sufficient or substantive evidence to support allegations of bullying,” nor did its findings support claims of abusive behavior or sexual harassment. It also forwarded concerns that Spahn required swimmers to exceed NCAA-mandated 20-hour-per-week maximum for athletically related activities to the school’s compliance staff.

The report did find troubling signs, however, including at least one instance of “degrading and dismissive comments” and favoritism toward athletes that was “the cause of a significant fracturing of the team”. The committee found Spahn to have violated on at least one occasion the school’s policy on when athletes can return to training after an injury or illness, and the report lamented a “culture where some athletes have perceived that they can’t freely voice concerns about sickness or injury.”

The substantive remedies, however, were vague, including the implementation of a team handbook or published rules of conduct and Title IX training for Joe Spahn.

In the two weeks following the report, however, matters obviously changed. Spahn, a former assistant at Notre Dame and Hawaii, was replaced Jan. 5 by Vincent, who started as a volunteer assistant in the fall of 2018. Vincent was a 15-time All-American at the University of Washington, where she coached from 1995-2000, and the University of Florida.