Gordon Monson: A BYU tennis coach called ‘abusive’ and ‘vulgar’ by his players

After players said they were frustrated by a lack of response initially, BYU officials this week said they will address the concerns internally

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sun lights up the "Y" east of the BYU campus. The school says it will look into the treatment of the school's men's tennis team by its coach.

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Dave Porter is a veteran college men’s tennis coach, now heading the program at BYU. He’s been described as “crusty” and “old school.”

His treatment, though, of the players under his wing, according to some of them, blows past those descriptions straight into the realm of what they consider abusive, unsafe and psychologically harmful.

Those players have asked administrators for “protection.”

This, then, is about BYU and its tennis program, but it’s bigger than just that. It’s the way some coaches — one coach, in this case — feel(s) empowered to behave, and the manner in which the school reacts to that behavior.

After a match against Boise State on Friday, Feb. 11, which the Cougars lost, Porter criticized one of his players, telling the entire team that in the past his body language after a bad shot made him look as though he found out someone had “raped and killed his mother.”

The player was hurt by the coach’s words, and other members of the team were upset and angry. It was the latest in a long line of mistreatment, they say, put upon them by a mentor they are subjected to, but no longer respect or trust.

They have complained to Porter about his coaching methods, and when those complaints changed nothing, the players reached out to BYU athletics director Tom Holmoe and deputy director Brian Santiago, who subsequently met with the team, saying they would discuss the matter with Porter.

Frustrated heretofore by what appeared to the players as ongoing inaction, they contacted other administrators. One of the team leaders huddled up with teammates to craft a letter in an email that was sent on Feb. 15 to Sarah Westerberg, BYU’s dean of students. Thus far, at this writing, there has been no indication that any measures from the higher-ups have, in fact, been put in place. The team is in the middle of its season, having just completed a road trip to New Mexico.

The players met with Porter on Monday, letting more of their anger out, making it clear to him the toxic environment needs to be corrected.

“We are aware of the issues being voiced currently within our men’s tennis program and are addressing these issues internally, while continuing to have dialogue with our players and coaches at this time. The welfare of our student-athletes is our No. 1 priority, and we are committed to addressing these issues and providing safe environments for everyone,” Holmoe said in a statement Tuesday.

Some of the players were scheduled to meet with Holmoe and Santiago again this week.

Attempts to reach Porter for comment this week were unsuccessful.

Two players have left the program this past year, another is on the verge of quitting, an assistant coach left, as well as a team manager. Others have given serious thought to bailing on the program. Porter, who helped start BYU-Hawaii’s tennis program in the early 1980s, has been BYU’s director of tennis and men’s head coach since he was hired in 2020.

The aforementioned letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Tribune, described instances of the coach’s methodology that led to the players’ distrust and discontent.

It read: “Many on the team are feeling scared to step forward and feel threatened as time after time our head coach has gotten away with many wrongful and abusive actions.”

It claimed that players have been “forced off” the team because of Porter’s “choice of actions and abusive remarks, but he always makes it look like it was the players’ choice.”

It read: “… We feel very vulnerable and scared to bring up the topic because most of the time based on comments and careless responses so far by Athletic Directors. We feel we are reaching a point where we will not be able to tolerate bullying and abuse by our coach as many of us are reaching the point of severe mental breakdowns which include stress, anxiety and depression as tennis players and students.”

It should be noted that most high-level tennis players are accustomed to working with demanding individual coaches through their time spent on junior circuits. It’s not a matter — typically — of them wanting to be babied.

The letter continued: “Moreover, staff assigned to look out for us, Brian Santiago and Tom Holmoe, have ignored our concerns and their response made us feel that we do not matter so we are now forced to look for help to be heard from someone else who can help us as students being abused. Brian Santiago and Tom Holmoe have acted as if we do not matter, which for us is an act of discrimination, and negligence.”

It read: “On multiple occasions, coach Porter has made aggressive, vulgar, and inappropriate comments to the majority of the team. …”

The claims against Porter included him telling the players to choose between, in certain instances, going to class and doing school work or playing on the team. “He threatens and mocks us if we do our school work at tournaments in our off time,” the letter said.

According to NCAA rules, players are allowed to spend 20 hours on the court weekly, but the letter indicated that BYU players, at times, were made to stay for 36 hours.

The letter said that Porter deprived the team on some road trips of meals, that the coach “did not let us eat until we got back to BYU.” At one tournament, Porter left two of his players allegedly at the hotel where the team was staying, threatening anyone who had intentions of going back to pick them up, that they would be removed from the team. Those players left behind were forced to pay for an Uber for transport to their matches.

Porter threatened one player, the letter said, that if he lost his match, he would be “immediately kicked off the team.” If players quit the team, the coach threatened to “freeze their transcripts” if they failed to return all their clothes and gear.

During one set of matches, Porter allegedly left the courts, and went to his car, leaving his players un-coached.

“Embarrassing,” a former player called it.

One opposing coach said Porter disappeared over long stretches during a match against his team, but that coach was too busy with his own players to see where the BYU coach went.

At one juncture, Porter allegedly told his players that, according to LDS Church beliefs, Christ wanted to enable people to choose for themselves how to behave and Satan wanted to force people into obedience. If his players wouldn’t choose to do it Christ’s way, [Porter’s way], “we will do things like Satan.”

That might not mean much, stirring guffaws even from players at most schools, but at a place like BYU, nobody was laughing.

Porter also allegedly ridiculed players for periodic dips in their academic performances, telling them in front of the entire team to “get a brain transplant.”

One player who was returning from rehab on an injury was informed by the coach that if he was tired and couldn’t perform, and wanted to quit, he should never come back. He did quit.

“What would you do if you were in our shoes?” the letter asked Westerberg.

All told, such demeanor from the coach caused and causes the athletes to take the court with fear that they will be punished, the team leader wrote.

“Some of my team members are already reaching out for psychological help to be able to cope and deal with the damage that coach Porter has cost them this past year. A psychological analysis has shown that some of the team members have mental issues and trigger words after being under the watch of coach Porter. …

“It is hard to believe that one person, coach Porter, is destroying our will to play tennis. … We are sending a plea to you for your help to find a resolution.”

The letter mentioned one other bit about the coach — that the team, while never having discussed the matter with Porter, is aware of a “condition” he is facing that “impacts his ability to do his job. While everyone feels empathy [for] his situation, it is not an excuse for the way the team has [been] and continues to be treated.”