Coaches wield enormous influence over their players, and in close-knit sports programs can be the most important authority figure in their young charges' lives. This is how it's always been, and in most cases the relationship is one of encouragement and growth. But when the relationship shifts, when the coach begins to exert not just influence but power ... that's where the problems begin.
Two separate publications, the website Deadspin and the newspaper the Toledo Blade, have reported that Kevin Hadsell, the former director of the University of Toledo cross country and track programs, resigned as the university was investigating his alleged improper and unprofessional contact with athletes in his program.
"I want to apologize to the University, the Toledo community and the student-athletes, past and present, for letting them down," Hadsell said in a statement announcing his resignation on Jan. 24. "I have always told my student-athletes that there are rules, and that they must follow the rules or face the consequences. I hold myself to the same standards; it would be hypocritical not to. Therefore, I have submitted my resignation today as the director of women's track & field and men's and women's cross country."
However, that resignation was prompted by the actions of one of his former runners, whom the Blade identified as All-America runner Emma Kertesz. (Deadspin concealed her identity, referring to her as "Andrea.") Kertesz turned over months' worth of text messages that indicated Hadsell pursued her and acted in an unprofessional and inappropriate manner.
Deadspin's published investigation was farther-reaching than The Blade's, although the Blade was able to quote Hadsell on the record. Deadspin was unable to reach Hadsell for comment. The damning passages from Deadspin include:
Interviews with former athletes, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggest a charismatic coach who maintained few boundaries with his runners. There were physical and romantic relationships with athletes and at least one non-athlete student from the beginning of [Hadsell's] time in Toledo. Those relationships, in our sources' telling, tended to unfold in similar fashion.
In addition, the runners we spoke to said Hadsell would regularly talk to them about sex and send them sexually suggestive text messages. He hounded runners who tried to quit the team. He used his authority as a coach to exert dominion over the private lives of his athletes, pressuring his female runners to stay off birth control. Former runners also recall Hadsell drunk-driving the team van, drinking during practices, and buying alcohol for underage runners.
One source described a "cover-up culture" among the athletes—female athletes too uncomfortable to bring up the matter with each other or with school officials. Some worried that nobody would believe their word against that of a highly respected coach. Some didn't want to risk their position with the team. Others worried about outing their friends.
One of the key charges against Hadsell is that he showed favoritism to the runners who returned his attentions: "Several female runners from different eras described a similar process," Deadspin's Doug Brown wrote. "The texting would begin early, during freshman or sophomore year. A runner who paid attention to Hadsell would be repaid with a bigger role on the team. A runner who ignored his personal intrusions would be ignored as an athlete."
Deadspin's sources indicated that Hadsell had inappropriate relationships with many of his athletes, even amid protests and challenges from other athletes, but Kertesz was not among them. There were also no NCAA violations involved in Hadsell's actions.
Even his most ardent detractors agree that Hadsell was an impressive, motivating coach. Kertesz indicated that while Hadsell helped her development into a nationally-ranked runner, it came at a price: “He played a major role in why I was so good,” Kertesz told The Blade. “He’s a good coach, very knowledgeable. I did owe him in that aspect ... If I were to not respond to his texts, whether it be because I was busy or I was ignoring him, he would get upset at me and he would ignore me. That would come in the form of not paying attention to my training. I felt I needed to be friends with him to get the training I needed to be good.”
“I should have never put her in a position where she felt this was the only option,” Hadsell said. “This was the root of everything, allowing people to get close to me.”
Hadsell, age 42, had been coaching at Toledo since 1998 with substantial success. The five-time Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year, he had coached several nationally successful runners throughout his career and won five league championships. And, to hear him tell it, he was at the job of his life:
"I'm like the eternal optimist as a person," Hadsell told The Blade in 2011. "I love to make people laugh, and that's the thing that kids will tell you over the years, if you're feeling down you can't wait to get to practice because something funny is going to happen. I think a lot of energy just comes from loving what I do. I can't imagine doing anything else ... I wouldn't trade this place for anything."
He offered his own context on the text messages to the Blade: "There was more to the conversation than what was printed off," he said. "A lot of this is out of the actual context, but it still doesn’t take away what I said, and I shouldn’t have said it ... She initiated those conversations with me. I wasn’t just having those conversations out of the blue."
For Kertesz, the pressure became too much to handle in December, when she went to the University of Toledo's human resources department with the texts. Interestingly, Hadsell later inquired whether Kertesz had heard anything about an investigation, not realizing that it was her actions that had initiated it.
The university launched a formal investigation on January 8 into what The Blade termed Hadsell's "inappropriate text messages, profane language and inappropriate romantic advancements." He tendered his resignation to the university two weeks later.