At Hotel Roanoke on October 5, members of the Roanoke College women’s swim team calmly and clearly delivered blistering indictments of what they described as failed, unresponsive leadership at their school, the NCAA, and USA Swimming. Some of their gut-wrenching stories about being forced to train, compete, and share facilities with a biological male are recorded in Parts One, Two, and Three.
At times choking back tears, team captain Kate Pearson painfully described the sense of emotional abandonment the girls felt, as they realized the school they had loved for years [and sent lots of tuition money to] was led by people who were turning both a blind eye and deaf ear to their concerns.
Pearson: “We tried numerous times to ask the school for support, but each and every time we were told to deal with it ourselves, or told nothing at all. The school refused to send out any information to our parents, and we were informed that even if our entire women’s team decided to stand together and not swim, and emphasized the unfairness that was happening, our coach would be allowed to have a ‘one-athlete’ swim team.
“A one-person swim team.”
With a breaking voice, Pearson bravely continued: “That information alone was the most discouraging and disheartening of all. Our school was prioritizing one individual swimmer over seventeen women, whose only request was fairness.”
Synergy and group effort are so universally-valued in organizations, they have become proverbs. Examples include: “Teamwork makes the dream work,” “There is no I in TEAM,” and “TEAM is an acrostic for Together Everyone Accomplishes More.”
The Roanoke Star has asked Ress and Campbell if they had any statement about these allegations or would confirm or deny they made the threat, but no response has been received.
Junior Susanna Price took the mic, explaining their ordeal took away “the joy and motivation. It’s so painful to consider that so many of us were looking for ways to get out. I began running track and cross-country because I did not know if I could remain motivated enough to stay on the swim team. I also quietly rearranged my academic schedule to put me on track to graduate early, so that I wouldn’t have to face this for as long.
“I have two younger sisters who, like me, are both multi-sport athletes. I never want them to have to experience this heartache. The thought of having to compete against a biological man is a message that ‘women aren’t worthy, that we don’t actually matter.’
Sophomore Carter Satterfield: “It is absurd to me that the biological differences between males and females is something that has to be proven or shown, but here we are. (…) We felt the weight of being told someone else’s mental health was our burden and responsibility to carry. What was asked of us was not just unfair; it was cruel.
Striking a positive tone, Satterfield claimed, “I do believe there is a silver lining to this, in that I’ve learned something that many people never do. I learned that you can’t wait for others to stand up for you. We thought the NCAA or USA Swimming would stand for us. We thought people in positions of leadership would know how to do the right things. But we’ve learned, if we want to make a difference, we’ve got to advocate and stand up for ourselves.
“We are fighting today, not just for ourselves, but for generations of women who will face this unfairness if we don’t win.”
After the last team member spoke, the audience rose to give a standing ovation.
It is common knowledge that public speaking is one of the greatest fears most people have. One poll shows more Americans fear “giving a speech” than “death.” So, the swimmers’ ability and willingness to speak to an audience shows they have tremendous courage, especially knowing their frankness would be condemned by many.
Next, parent representative Cady Mullens, mother of Lily Mullens, chocked back tears and spoke. “When we think back to what athletics was supposed to teach [our daughters], we expected our girls to learn things like time management, coachability, the benefits of hard work, and learning to win with humility and lose with dignity. (…) But never in our wildest dreams did we ever imagine that swimming and sports would teach those girls to be quiet, that they would have to compete with men, and to stifle all their excitement and all their hopes and dreams for the benefit of a man.
“In the name of ‘inclusion’ we as a nation have remained silent for way too long while our girls have to pay the price.”
Mullens said the girls told their parents messages like, “What a fool I was to come here and think that I could contribute to this team. Am I nothing? Why won’t anyone help us? (…) To think that having a man on a women’s swim team does not affect young woman is to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the ugly truth.
“She knew full well what she was saying was honest, was real emotion, and it was a legitimate concern. But she also knew that the NCAA and the school would do nothing to protect them. Bouts of insomnia, depression, feeling defeated, worthlessness, and guilt followed, all because they wanted a fair playing field in which to compete…as if it were their fault.
“I barely recognized my daughter after a couple of weeks at school. She lost noticeable amounts of weight, her eyes were dark, her cheeks were hollowed. But worst, her posture had changed. She hung her head low, her shoulders were slouched…she looked at her feet. This was not the kid that I sent to Roanoke College. This was a defeated young lady who had something stolen from her. Her passion for a sport that she loved was eviscerated. ”
“We wrote emails, and the school was silent. We were ignored. We wrote letters, researched NCAA rulings, USA Swimming rules, read court cases, and searched for answers on how we could help our girls. We were enraged that no one would respond!” (…) We learned that this is a much bigger issue than Roanoke College, and it’s happening in many sports at many different levels.”
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) and Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) have released statements supporting the women athletes and their right to compete in a safe, fair environment.
Despite the importance of this story, Roanoke Times’ columnist Dan Casey and the local NPR affiliate WVTF have ignored the story completely. WVTF’s silence is notable, in that they receive taxpayer funds, are a department of Virginia Tech which is noted for its sports, and according to WVTF’s website their mission is “to produce and acquire programming and services of value, reflecting the culture, events, issues, and ideas of our region and the world, and to combine them into an evolving communications service of the highest quality for the people of Virginia and its bordering community.”
The coverage from NBC-affiliate WSLS-10 was curious. It ran one news story covering the press conference, then ran another of almost equal length condemning it. In its second piece it introduced the letter, “Hate has no Home in Roanoke,” which clearly insinuated the girls and their supporters are “haters” for speaking out. The reporter, Duke Carter, encouraged viewers to read and sign it, with a link included in WSLS’s story.
The Roanoke Star asked the WSLS news manager Scott Flanagan and station manager Jaimie León about their coverage. Specifically, one, is it normal for their stories to include a call to sign a politically-related petition, and if so, how often do they do that? Two, is including such links to a petition unbiased news coverage or political activism? And three, since the letter smeared the swimmers and their supporters as “haters,” how would WSLS-10 respond to the charge that they are helping promote misogyny?
Flanagan responded with the following:
“The press conference that the Roanoke College women’s swim team held to speak out against trans athletes competing was a significant news event that required us to dedicate two reporters to cover all sides of the underlying issue.
“WSLS 10 News considers it paramount to provide our audience with all sides of the story. We believe in the power of a balanced approach to journalism, where every perspective is heard and respected.
“Our goal is not to tell viewers what to think but to equip the public with the information needed to form their own opinions. Whether people prefer to stay updated through our digital platforms, on-air broadcasts, we are working for all our viewers ensuring they understand the critical issues surrounding SWVA.”
Notably, Flanagan’s response did not directly answer the questions and contains three major omissions. One, the swimmers main point was not “speak(ing) out against trans athletes competing,” but rather, exposing the abuse they have endured at the hands of adults who were supposed to protect them. Two, it did not address the issues of WSLS urging viewers to read and sign a politically-related petition. Three, it gave a platform to the name-calling and smearing, branding those they disagree with as “haters.”
This story is ongoing. Speaking at Roanoke County’s Explore Park on Wednesday, October 11, Attorney General Miyares stated the state’s civil rights division has launched an investigation into Roanoke College to see if they committed human rights violations. Miyares said, “They felt alone and nobody was sticking up for them. I’m sticking up for them. We take gravely their concerns and we want to protect women’s sports, we don’t want to have female athletes be subjected by biological males on sports teams or in their locker rooms.”
You can watch the whole women swimmers’ press conference here.