Butler University, Ralph Reiff respond to negligence allegations in women’s soccer lawsuit

Collegian file photo

AIDAN GREGG | MANAGING EDITOR | agregg1@butler.edu 

Content warning: explicit references to sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault and grooming

Butler University and Ralph Reiff, the senior associate athletic director for student-athlete health, performance and well-being, have answered the sexual abuse and negligence allegations brought against them by four current and former women’s soccer players. On the same day, March 4, former assistant athletic trainer Michael Howell filed a crossclaim against Butler, alleging negligence by the university. 

Initial litigation 

Six women’s soccer players reported sexual misconduct by Howell to women’s soccer co-head coach Tari St. John in September 2021. Following these reports, then-Title IX coordinator Maria Kanger initiated an investigation against Howell. The investigation found that Howell “exploited his authority and power over Ms. Doe to isolate, manipulate, control, and sexually assault her, which he did on multiple occasions without her consent, and for his own sexual gratification.” 

Since then, three plaintiffs — Jane Does 1, 2 and 3 — filed an initial lawsuit against Howell, the university and Reiff in July 2023. A fourth player — Jane Doe 4 — also came forward in August, alleging grooming, manipulation and sexual abuse by Howell. The players are suing for negligence and gross negligence by Reiff and Butler and for battery, assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress by Howell and Butler. 

The defendants have objected to the use of pseudonyms by the plaintiffs, and Reiff and Butler filed for the dismissal of the charges of negligence and gross negligence brought against them. District Court judges have denied all of the defendants’ motions. 

Butler responds to allegations 

The university and Reiff answered the complaints of each of the four plaintiffs on March 4, 2024. The university said that after the report of misconduct, they acted “immediately” and “intensively.” 

The players said that they — along with their coaches, St. John and Rob Alman — lacked any education or training regarding appropriate conduct for an athletic trainer. They also said that Reiff knew that Howell stopped submitting his required written reports and that, as an athletic trainer, he had a unique position of authority. Despite this, Reiff “never inquired, investigated, raised questions about the safety of the female athletes, or implemented or followed safety protocols.” In their response, Butler and Reiff denied the above allegations. 

Butler and Reiff further state in their response that any allegations regarding professional standards of care should be barred because the defendants did not seek relief under Indiana’s Medical Malpractice Act. District Court judge James R. Sweeney II previously ruled against Butler, affirming that this case does not fall under the Medical Malpractice Act because “sexual abuse is not medical care.” 

The university and Reiff seek recompense for their legal fees and for the plaintiffs to receive nothing. 

Howell files crossclaim against Butler and Reiff, university moves for dismissal 

Howell filed his own crossclaim against Butler University, also on March 4. 

Similar to the complaint by the women’s soccer players, Howell said that the university “did not maintain any written policies, procedures, or protocols with respect to athletic trainers providing services to athletes, let alone providing services to athletes of the opposite sex.” He said that this omission left him vulnerable to the allegations brought by the women’s soccer players. The women’s soccer players say in their complaint that this omission by Butler allowed Howell to groom and sexually abuse them. 

Howell further said that the hotel rooms — where the women’s soccer team members said he sexually assaulted them — were reserved by the coaches and staff to allow him to perform athletic training there. These rooms were also equipped with the materials he needed to conduct said training, and he said that no one ever suggested that he should be supervised. The university admitted in their answer to the players’ complaints that St. John and Alman knew that Howell used his hotel room for massages. 

The first count in Howell’s crossclaim against Butler said that the university discriminated against Howell on the basis of his sex — as a male. Howell said that the Title IX investigation against him was mishandled and that he was “systematically disadvantaged” as the only male party in the proceedings. He argues that his subsequent termination, following the supposed discrimination, itself violated Title IX. 

He adds that “Butler caved to societal pressures to take a hard-line position against any alleged misconduct with respect to female student athletes in the wake of many high-profile cases addressing such conduct.” 

The women’s soccer players’ complaint referenced the high-profile precedent of cases such as that of the athletes sexually abused by Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University physician. Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who publicly came forward after being sexually abused by Nassar, has joined the women’s soccer players’ legal team as counsel. 

The second count concerns defamation by the university against Howell. He said that the Title IX hearing officer made false defamatory findings that the university republished to multiple third parties and in so doing “acted with actual malice and/or reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of statements about Howell.” 

The third count reiterates negligence by the university in failing to protect Howell and institute procedures regarding appropriate conduct. He said that there were no written policies for acceptable athletic training protocols, locker room usage, communications with student-athletes and necessary documentation of training services provided. He said that such policies would have protected him against the “false allegations” levied in the case against him. 

Howell seeks a trial by jury to address the counts of Title IX violation, defamation and negligence. 

The university has moved for the dismissal of the counts of Title IX violation and defamation. Since Title IX concerns education discrimination, the university argues that the statute is irrelevant to Howell’s allegations of employment discrimination. They add that Title VII is the statute governing matters of employment discrimination. On the count of defamation, the university seeks dismissal on the grounds that Howell did not provide any specific defamatory statement. Butler has not moved to dismiss the count of negligence. 

No date has been set for hearing of Howell’s crossclaim. The trial for the original complaint brought by the women’s soccer players is set to begin on June 16, 2025. The players seek to “recover [their] injuries and damages, compel Butler to institute safety protocols to protect [their] 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 [them] and many other young female athletes.” 

The Butler Collegian will continue to investigate and report on this story


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