Collegian file photo
ALISON MICCOLIS | EDITOR-IN-CHIEF | firstname.lastname@example.org
Content warning: explicit references to sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault and grooming
Three women’s soccer players filed lawsuits on July 26 saying they were sexually assaulted by former assistant athletic trainer Michael Howell. The suits are against Butler University, Howell and Ralph Reiff, the senior associate athletic director for student-athlete health, performance and well-being. The players are three of six athletes who reported sexual abuse from Howell to the university.
Howell was employed at Butler from spring of 2012 to October of 2021. During that time, Howell worked with the women’s soccer, men’s tennis, women’s and men’s golf, men’s baseball and cheerleading teams.
All three players, who filed under the pseudonyms Jane Doe 1, Jane Doe 2 and Jane Doe 3, are suing for negligence, gross negligence, battery, assault and intentional infliction of emotional stress.
The complaints say that “Howell’s misuse of his position of power and authority over Butler athletes and deviation from standard practices were numerous and obvious.” This included Howell giving some of the athletes multiple-hour full body massages, oftentimes in private locations such as his personal hotel room and offices with no windows.
Jane Doe 1 said in the lawsuit that Howell targeted her in 2021. Howell “massaged [her] breasts, touched her nipples multiple times, twisted her neck so hard it made it difficult for [her] to swallow, rubbed his erect penis against her hand and massaged his dripping sweat into the skin on her back.” Doe 1 had pain urinating after Howell rubbed her groin and outer vaginal area and believed he may have given her a urinary tract infection.
Throughout the fall of 2021, Doe 1 said Howell spent approximately 17 hours per week with her outside of practice and games. In addition to buying special foods and sending memes via text, he would often sit and talk with her, saying, “I know everything about you,” including her social security number. He also said he had files of the soccer players with photos of them underage drinking. He told Doe 1 and others, “If I go down, I’m taking you with me.”
Doe 1 said in her suit that a teammate caught Howell taking photos of her from behind while she was lifting weights in August 2021. Howell later sent Doe 1 a photo of herself taken from behind.
Jane Doe 2 said Howell targeted her in the fall of 2019 when she was a first-year student. During one of her prolonged full-body massages, she said Howell rubbed her groin so forcefully that her groin was bruised and hurt the next day. Jane Doe 3 said Howell once showed her a video on his phone and that she saw his photo gallery was filled with photos of her.
In September 2021, four women’s soccer players reported Howell’s sexual misconduct to one of their coaches, Tari St. John, who shared the information with then-Title IX coordinator Maria Kanger.
Butler retained independent legal counsel from the law firm of Church Church Hittle and Antrim to investigate the allegations. The suits all say, “Butler alerted Howell to the investigation before contacting law enforcement or seizing his work-issued phone, allowing Howell to destroy and/or transfer likely lurid photographs and videos taken of the athletes.”
Howell reported for work on Oct. 1, 2021, despite having been reported by the athletes. The suit says he was instructed not to interact with the women’s soccer players. On Oct. 6, 2021, Howell was placed on administrative leave, and a formal Title IX complaint was filed against him.
After approximately five months of investigation, the Title IX panel of outside attorneys found “that Howell had sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and stalked Ms. Doe, in violation of Butler’s sexual misconduct policies.” In an email sent to students and families on July 26, the university said Howell was terminated in summer 2022, and “Butler looks forward to the opportunity to show the high integrity and responsiveness of the coaches and senior personnel.”
The panel also found that “Butler had no written policies or procedures regarding proper athletic trainer conduct, setting boundaries with athletes, or working with athletes of the opposite sex.”
The athletes are alleging that in addition to a lack of written policies for proper athletic trainer conduct, they “were not provided training or education concerning proper protocols and athletic treatment and massage by trainers and personnel” by Reiff nor the university.
The rationale for filing the suits, as listed in the three complaints, is to “recover [Ms. Doe’s] injuries and damages, compel Butler to institute safety protocols to protect her current teammates and future athletes, compel Butler to contact former student-athletes to assess whether they were also abused by Howell and need resources and assistance, prevent Howell from maintaining licensure that would give him the ability to abuse others, and to hold Defendants responsible for their acts and omissions that enabled a dangerous predator to gain unfettered access to and abuse her and many other young female athletes.”
The athletes are represented by Monica Beck and Doug Fierberg from The Fierberg National Law Group. Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who publicly came forward after being sexually abused by USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University physician Larry Nassar, joins as counsel. In their suits, the three athletes request a trial by jury.
The Collegian will continue to investigate and report on this story.