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Still reeling from $36M defamation judgment, Oberlin risks new suit from censored coach

Athletic director allegedly told women's lacrosse coach to stop telling players about how menstrual cycles affect performance. Kim Russell's secret recordings may be waiting for lawsuit.

Published: September 13, 2023 11:00pm

A year after Oberlin College finally agreed to pay more than $36 million to family-owned Gibson's Bakery under a defamation judgment — dragging out appeals until both father and son had died — the Ohio liberal arts school is facing new allegations of character assassination.

Administrators have tried to silence head women's lacrosse coach Kim Russell about gender ideology's threat to women's sports since she questioned transgender swimmer Lia Thomas's victory in the NCAA women's 500-yard freestyle last year, she claims.

Russell, who says she has coached "multiple" transgender athletes, reposted an Instagram post declaring swimmer Emma Weyant "the real woman who won" the race. (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) issued a proclamation to that effect as well.)

"What do you believe?" the 56-year-old mother of four asked followers. "I can't be quiet on this" as a veteran coach and athlete who was seriously injured by a man in a coed field hockey game.

A team member showed the repost to athletic director Natalie Winkelfoos, prompting a series of disciplinary meetings, a two-hour "struggle session" and a formal warning in Russell's human resources file after the season ended, according to the coach, who joined Oberlin in 2018.

Russell provided secret recordings of those meetings, likely allowed under Ohio's one-party consent law, and the printed HR letter — the only version she received — to the Independent Women's Forum. 

The right-leaning nonprofit released a narrative and eight-minute video interview with Russell that includes portions of the recordings and the letter. Among her allegations: Winkelfoos told Russell to stop talking to players about how their menstrual cycles affect athletic performance.

Just the News asked IWF for the recordings, letter and other materials backing Russell's claims, and its sibling Independent Women's Law Center whether the materials were being kept under wraps pending litigation.

IWLC senior legal fellow May Mailman appeared with Russell on Laura Ingraham's show, where the coach notably declined to rule out litigation and called Oberlin a "hostile work environment." Mailman told Just the News that Russell has "supported and fought for women her entire career, and she will continue to do so, wherever that takes her, including the courtroom, if necessary."

Oberlin acknowledged receipt of Just the News queries about current or past investigations of Russell and her precise status, but did not provide answers.

The college gave Ingraham a statement distinguishing freedom of expression — "a cornerstone of our democracy [that] is certainly important to our Oberlin College community" — from employees' obligations to "reflect upon any potentially negative posts" on social media "and the impact they could have upon your ability to effectively perform the roles and responsibilities of your job."

With students who accuse the cafeteria of cultural appropriation and campus concerts of being too white, and professors who host a "bodily fluids" film festival and endorse Iran's fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, Oberlin has long been an easy punchline for conservatives.

But Russell's allegations, the subject of international media attention, threatens to worsen Oberlin's precarious financial position. 

Last month the Chronicle Telegram reported Oberlin had sued its four insurers in April to recoup the $36 million payment, which grew from $25 million due to post-judgment interest and legal fees during appeals, after only receiving $1 million from a single insurer.

After the jury awarded Gibson's $11 million in compensatory damages alone, Cornell law professor William Jacobson predicted one of Oberlin's insurers was likely to refuse the claim based on its motion to intervene.

Jacobson's Legal Insurrection website sent a reporter to cover the full trial in 2019, which probed Oberlin's facilitation of a student-led defamation campaign against the bakery for tackling a black student shoplifter. 

The Student Senate falsely claimed Gibson's had a history of "racial profiling," while then-Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo joined student demonstrations, using a bullhorn to declare the Gibsons "racist."

Jacobson shared Oberlin's July amended complaint against its insurers in Lorain County Common Pleas Court with Just the News. It claims two of its insurers "observed mock jury exercises" — putting them on notice of the potential judgment — and had "numerous pre-trial opportunities" to settle for under $10 million. Oberlin itself could have paid just $1 million, apart from insurers, under pretrial negotiations.

Athletic director Winkelfoos and assistant AD Creg Jantz berated Russell a day after her Instagram repost, saying she was "filled with hate" and that opposing "Oberlin College’s beliefs" is "a problem for your employment," according to recordings in IWF's video. 

They ordered her to disclose the repost to the whole team, where a "mob mentality" took hold and players banned her from that day's practice, Russell says. Winkelfoos allegedly told her some players were calling Russell "transgressive, transphobic and unsafe."

The AD asked Russell to stop being a "unicorn" and "just be a horse," demanded she write an apology letter, and urged her to "feel remorse" for her actions, Russell says. 

The coach said her refusal prompted the purported struggle session that included the team, Winkelfoos, the department's Title IX and diversity officials and Oberlin's Title IX director, who allegedly told Russell to remain silent except to "repeat back" each statement.

The meeting had "very dark energy," with chairs set up in a "huge circle," Russell told IWF. "I felt like I was stoned and hanged all at the same time."

The recordings include players' comments at that meeting. One said the "focus" should be the "impact" Russell's repost had, and another said "being a coach, especially at Oberlin where there's such a high like LGBTQ-plus population," requires "a little more accountability."

Another said Russell could not limit herself to "women's issues or white feminism" but that "your feminism has to be inclusive for everybody." By the end "it didn't matter what I said," Russell says in the video. "I felt like it broke our family apart, meaning our team."

The experience illustrates the increasing tendency of students to avoid "difficult conversations" with their coaches and professors and instead go to a "higher-up," who will sacrifice their jobs rather than risk losing tuition payments, Russell told IWF.

The most serious warning to stay silent came at season's end with Winkelfoos's hand-delivered HR letter, which said Russell's repost "caused damage to your credibility" and "devalued your role, notably as a frontline support advocate for student-athletes." It ordered her to "immediately modify your behavior." 

Russell says she asked Winkelfoos for a written explanation of how she was violating university policy and to "please do it now" if Oberlin was going to fire her.

The uncertainty has left Russell "walking on eggshells" at work for the past year, wondering every day if she'll be fired. She asked rhetorically "where's the #MeToo movement now," with men using women's locker rooms.

"Every time I've spoken up I've been silenced," Russell says, but now "it is my job to be a voice for everyone who is too afraid, who needs to keep their job, who thinks they have to stay in line and toe whatever line that is, who is stuck in the mob and too afraid to rock the boat."

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