Former UK swim coach says he dated his young accusers. If so, was that ethical?

In our Reality Check stories, Herald-Leader journalists dig deeper into questions over facts, consequences and accountability. Read more. Story idea?

Lars Jorgensen, former head coach of the University of Kentucky swimming and diving team, denies allegations of sexual assault and harassment that were made against him in an April 12 lawsuit. Instead, Jorgensen says he and his two accusers were in consensual dating relationships while they worked for him at UK as assistant coaches.

But there are problems with the story Jorgensen offers as his defense.

First, his accusers say they never had consensual relationships with him. In their lawsuit, they say he was a “serial sexual predator,” not a romantic partner. And they indicate they have copies of confrontational text messages with the coach that support their version of events.

For example, one of the accusers says in the suit, she responded to Jorgensen groping and propositioning her for sex on Dec. 28, 2022, with angry texts reminding him that he was her “mentor/boss” and in “a position of power over me.”

“I am not attracted to you in any way beyond a coach/professional role,” she texted him, according to the suit.

“I don’t want to meet up,” she added in the text. “I just wanted to be clear that I did not enjoy what happened and do not want that to happen again.”

“Agree!!!!” Jorgensen replied, according to the suit.

Former University of Kentucky swimming and diving head coach Lars Jorgensen
Former University of Kentucky swimming and diving head coach Lars Jorgensen

Second, UK officials told the Herald-Leader that Jorgensen’s claims, if true, would violate the university’s employee code of conduct because he never disclosed dating relationships with subordinate members of his coaching staff, as would be required.

UK strongly discourages “amorous or sexual” relationships between “individuals in positions of authority” and the employees who report to them, according to the school’s code. If such relationships do occur, they must be reported to the university so that someone else can conduct performance evaluations of the lower-level employee.

“No records exist of Jorgensen reporting any consensual relationships at any time with people he supervised,” UK spokeswoman Kristi Willett said.

Asked for comment on the failure to report the relationships, Jorgensen’s attorney, Greg Anderson, replied: “If he did not, that’s not a fact the plaintiffs need to be focusing on. I’ll find out there. If indeed this is part of about every AD (athletic department’s) rules across the country, then about 50% of coaches — the single ones — are in breach. Not a defense … just sayin’.”

Coaches hold power over others

Finally, a former college and professional basketball player who has advised the NCAA on the ethics of relationships in college sports programs says Jorgensen acted improperly even if his denial is taken at face value.

“Even his defense does not hold water. Coaches should not have sexual relationships with any of their staff, including assistant coaches,” said Mariah Burton Nelson, co-author of Staying In Bounds: An NCAA Model Policy to Prevent Inappropriate Relationships Between Student-Athletes and Athletics Department Personnel.

“The assistant is in a one-down position, dependent on that coach for continued employment in the job itself; promotions; raises; plum assignments; and recommendations for future jobs,” said Nelson, an author and speaker who continues to write about women in athletics.

“This is the same dynamic in any workplace,” she said. “Bosses must not take advantage of their staff with sexual overtures, demands or ‘consensual’ relationships. It’s unethical.”

The accusers in this case originally swam for UK as student-athletes, with Jorgensen as their head coach. Because of that, he never should have pursued them for sexual relationships, not even after they quit swimming and joined his staff, Nelson said.

“When the sex began does not matter,” she said. “Ethical coaches draw a clear boundary between themselves and their athletes, communicating through their behavior and words that they are not available for any sort of dating — now or in the future.”

“Many coaches groom athletes to prepare them for sexual relationships through special attention and dates that may or may not be sexual, then later claim that the sexual relationship didn’t begin until the athlete graduated,” she said.

All that said, Nelson added, she is not inclined to give Jorgensen the benefit of the doubt.

“We need to start believing women. The athletes in this situation are claiming this was predatory behavior and abuse,” she said. “When a coach claims it was consensual and didn’t start until after they graduated — and besides, he has the right to date his assistant coaches — we should see through these weak defenses and take the women at their word.”

‘The plaintiffs dated Lars’

In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Lexington, former UK swimmers Briggs Alexander and a woman using the pseudonym “Jane Doe” seek damages from Jorgensen as well as the university, athletics director Mitch Barnhart and previous UK swimming and diving head coach Gary Conelly.

Briggs Alexander, a transgender man, began transitioning in 2021.

Briggs Alexander
Briggs Alexander

Alexander and Doe allege a “toxic, sexually hostile environment” inside the UK swim program under Jorgensen. They accuse the coach of grooming them once they arrived as first-year college students and then bullying them, harassing them with sexually crude comments and questions, groping them and eventually raping them.

They say UK ignored repeated warnings about Jorgensen’s predatory behavior toward young women in the swim programs that he oversaw, starting when he was hired in 2012 and continuing up through 2023, when he finally quit UK following concerns over NCAA training violations.

“Despite years of complaints, the university did not take any steps to stop Jorgensen from abusing students and employees. In fact, he was permitted to resign and even received a partial payment on the remainder of his contract,” the plaintiffs said in their lawsuit.

Alexander and Doe were teen-aged high school students when Jorgensen recruited them to swim for UK in 2013 and 2016, respectively.

After they completed their four to five years of student-athlete eligibility, they separately joined Jorgensen’s staff as assistant coaches in their early 20s, which is when the dating occurred, said Anderson, Jorgensen’s lawyer.

Jorgensen is presently 53 years old.

“Each one of the plaintiffs dated Lars. They were each an assistant coach,” Anderson told the Herald-Leader.

“Each one of them dated Lars for several months — and in the timeline, long after any of the alleged events,” Anderson said. “If this was so traumatic and such a bad act, why would you keep dating and sleeping with the perpetrator?”

“None of them were ever fired, none of them were ever demoted. He wrote recommendations for every one of them,” he said. “Certainly we all understand that no means no. But in the dynamics of a relationship a lot of things happen that can be spun later, particularly if there is a dollar involved.”