Utah college soccer player sues after being asked sexual questions in ‘initiation ritual’

Naomi Kehl said senior Westminster College players led the questioning but the coach joined in. She also said the school did not take a Title IX complaint about it seriously.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune and courtesy photo Lento Law Group) A former Westminster student and soccer player, Naomi Kehl, is now suing the school for harassment she says she faced on the team and from the coach with a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, March 7, 2023.

One by one, each of the new players was called up to the front of the bus as it weaved its way out of Utah toward the first out-of-state match of the season for the women’s soccer team.

From the back, Westminster freshman Naomi Kehl watched the “initiation ritual,” worried about when it would be her turn. She hadn’t known about it before the trip.

She didn’t want to sit in what the team leaders had dubbed “the hot seat” — a spot directly across the aisle from their male coach — where they’d pulled a light fixture down from the ceiling to shine on the occupant like an interrogation. Over a microphone forced into their hands, freshmen and transfer players were instructed to answer sexually explicit questions while looking at the coach.

“How many sexual partners have you had?” “What is your favorite sexual position?” The questions would become increasingly explicit until the player answering had nothing left to say, Kehl said, or broke down crying from embarrassment or anxiety.

Kehl recalled the coach joining in with his own follow-ups and laughing throughout. And the understanding was if the new players didn’t take part in the ritual, she said, they’d be shunned by teammates — who were previously made to do it — or worse, some whispered, they might be benched by the coach.

“You can’t just say no. This is what’s expected,” Kehl said in an interview with reporters Friday about her experience from April 2021. “And your coach is allowing it to go on.”

She said several, including her, didn’t want to participate. Her best friend had a panic attack before her name was called. They felt pressured, though. And they went through it.

Now, Kehl reflects on that experience as sexual harassment allowed by a trusted adult, who could’ve stopped it but instead participated. She’s suing Westminster College, a private school in Salt Lake City, and the women’s soccer team coach, Tony LeBlanc — who is also an assistant attorney general for the state of Utah.

In her federal lawsuit filed this week by the Lento Law Group, Kehl details how her dad, Ed Kehl, tried reporting their concerns to several administrators at the school and filed a complaint with the Title IX office, which is supposed to ensure students receive education without sex-based discrimination and provide support services to students who have been sexually assaulted or harassed.

But after doing little to investigate, the Kehls say in the suit, the office told the coach about the complaint, and he retaliated against Naomi Kehl by benching her for four games.

“I had started in games and played full games,” she said. “… After that, I got no minutes at all.”

In a statement Friday, the school responded: “Westminster College takes sexual harassment complaints seriously. The college maintains the privacy of any student’s complaints and/or investigations and will respect the legal process.”

Kehl said she felt she had to come forward so the team initiation would stop. But, she said, she was then bullied by teammates and felt she had to leave. She transferred from Westminster. And she’s stopped playing soccer.

The coach has remained.

Reporting the alleged harassment

Kehl, who’d attended Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, knew she wanted to go to Westminster, so she was excited when she was recruited by the school. She started her freshman year in fall 2020 with a full scholarship to play on the soccer team — as well as on the women’s basketball team.

For her first year, she was a soccer standout, starting in games and playing full matches as the team’s goalkeeper. Even with the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, that first fall was a dream. But then the spring 2021 season started with “the hot seat.”

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify sexual assault or harassment victims, but Kehl agreed to the use of her name.

When Kehl was called up to the front of the bus, she remembers, she was asked about her recent experience kissing a guy with a beard and having what’s called “beard burn,” an irritation on her face from his facial hair.

The coach “was asking me questions about my experience, more in-depth,” Kehl added. “He’s just laughing and interacting and participating in it.”

Kehl said the new players were also instructed not to talk about the ritual outside the team. “This is not to be recorded. This can’t go anywhere,” she said students told her. “What’s said on this bus, it stays on this bus.”

As an explanation, Kehl said, team leaders said a player in the hot seat had discussed being LGBTQ, and although she was not yet sharing that information publicly, it spread across campus after her disclosure on the bus. But Kehl thinks students were told to “keep it hush-hush,” she said, so the team could continue asking the questions without repercussions. And for awhile, Kehl did stay quiet.

But by the following fall, she said, she felt overwhelmed and worried about why she was asked those questions with the coach there.

She confided in her dad, who played college football at Brigham Young University before going to the NFL. She asked if he had experienced anything like that, if it was normal.

Ed Kehl felt strongly that it was a violation, he said, and tried reaching out to administrators at Westminster, starting with President Beth Dobkin in September 2021. She told him that she was too busy, Ed Kehl said, and directed him to speak to Glenn Smith, the vice president for student affairs and the dean of students.

Ed Kehl recounted that Smith told him those types of reports, like “the hot seat,” were usually “the tip of the iceberg” with harassment. And he directed the father to Kathryn Holmes, who serves as general counsel for Westminster.

Holmes told Ed Kehl how to file a complaint through the Title IX Office on campus, he said, but she also allegedly warned him the coach would likely only get “a slap on the wrist.”

Without telling Ed Kehl, the lawsuit alleges, the college decided to handle the complaint as a personnel matter instead of a Title IX harassment case because it was not filed directly by the student alleging misconduct.

Prior to 2022 rule changes, that is how Title IX worked — though the school was supposed to inform Kehl of that.

Now a parent can report concerns to a college that receives federal funding, which Westminster does, even as a private school, and that school is expected to investigate and determine whether a student’s educational opportunities were hampered because of sex discrimination.

Did the coach retaliate?

According to the lawsuit, Westminster College put Coach LeBlanc on administrative leave for four days — he missed one soccer game — before concluding its investigation. Naomi Kehl said she and other freshmen on the team were interviewed, but no senior or former members who either participated in or been subjected to the initiation ritual were questioned.

The school’s response was to require all the players and coaches to attend a one-hour Title IX training. LeBlanc faced no further discipline or personnel action, according to the lawsuit.

During a coaches meeting, LeBlanc allegedly called Ed Kehl’s complaint “stupid” and “the dumbest thing” he’d ever heard, according to the lawsuit, which did not detail who attended the meeting.

Naomi Kehl said she was benched for the next four games in October 2021 without explanation, while the other goalkeeper played full minutes. The lawsuit claims LeBlanc was retaliating against Kehl for the complaint.

At that point, Ed Kehl said, he felt frustrated that the school did a “cursory” investigation and refused to handle the case as a Title IX complaint — which requires more thorough review and opportunities for appeal. He then filed a retaliation complaint for LeBlanc benching his daughter.

As soon as that was submitted, LeBlanc had Naomi Kehl playing again, the player said.

As the retaliation complaint process proceeded, Kehl said, some of her soccer teammates accused her “of trying to tear the team apart.” She became too exhausted to keep fighting, she said, dropped out of the case and left Westminster after that fall semester.

She transferred to Southern Utah University, where she initially tried to keep playing soccer, but her heart was no longer in the sport. “It’s not the same playing any more,” she said. “I don’t have the same love for it.”

She had planned on playing professionally after finishing school and had been playing in other countries on school breaks working toward that goal. Now, she’s done with the game.

Now 21, Kehl has transferred to Utah Valley University where she hopes to finish a degree in business management.

The fallout and a request for $1 million

A little more than a year after Kehl left Westminster, she said, she’s filing the lawsuit in the hopes of stopping the initiation ritual from happening. The last she heard, she said, the team was still planning to have “the hot seat” while making it optional.

Westminster did not comment on that assertion.

Kehl said she’s worried about other women being forced to answer the questions that she was, and doesn’t think claiming the ritual will be voluntary is the right solution.. “I don’t want them to have to go through that,” she said.

She has also submitted a complaint to the Office for Civil Rights, within the U.S. Department of Education, which investigates discrimination. Those cases generally take months to years before a resolution.

In the meantime, she and her dad want action taken against LeBlanc. “I don’t think he should be coaching,” if, as the suit alleges, he is allowing and participating in explicit questioning, said Ed Kehl.

LeBlanc is a Westminster alumnus and played for the men’s soccer team, according to his biography on the school’s website. He has coached the women’s soccer team for 16 seasons — the entire time it’s existed at the college.

In the lawsuit, Naomi Kehl is asking for a jury trial and $1 million in damages for claims that Westminster was indifferent to her reports of harassment and retaliation, “thus leaving plaintiff and other members of the college’s women’s soccer team vulnerable to continued harassment, abuse, and retaliation, of which the college had actual knowledge.”

It’s not the first time Westminster College has faced complaints about how it handles Title IX. It was cleared of wrongdoing from a 2014 complaint from a female student alleging the school had discriminated against after she was sexually assaulted.

In 2018, a former standout lacrosse player sued the school, saying it placed more value on the privacy of a male student who had allegedly sexually assaulted her than on her safety, when it put the two in the same dorm building and refused to move his room or make other arrangements for her safety.

That case was settled out of court in 2019; the agreement is not public.

Kehl said with her case, she’s given up a lot to fight for what she believes is right after a long trip on a bus that she said continues to haunt her.

“I’ve put everything on the line for this,” she said. “But I felt like it was important to be that voice.”