How will the U. decide if gymnastics coach Tom Farden crossed the line?

The university’s policy regarding athlete wellness addresses appropriate coaching methods and behavior. But some experts say it still leaves room for interpretation.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gymnastics coach Tom Farden speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Utes Dumke Gymnastics Center, on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023.

Missy Reinstadtler’s fall didn’t cost the Utes a victory.

And, as the 2017-20 University of Utah gymnast and former All-America all-arounder recalls, she wasn’t even the only member of her team to stumble during the meet. That didn’t stop Utah coach Tom Farden from letting her hear about it afterward.

“He singled me out and blamed me,” Reinstadtler said. “In that moment, I was like, ‘That is so mean.’”

Later, though, the gymnast’s perspective changed.

“On that particular day, it wasn’t my best and I have no problem owning that,” she said. “It hurts in the moment because you’re disappointed in yourself … but you have to just take that and use it to build yourself and be stronger and move on.”

As Farden, who became the sole head coach in 2020, awaits the findings of an independent investigation into his coaching practices — tactics and a demeanor one report has described as toxic and abusive — Reinstadtler is one of several former gymnasts who saw Farden’s methods as beneficial to her performance.

“I had similar experiences,” Reinstadtler said, “but just, I think, took them in a completely different way.”

In a report published last week, five former gymnasts, four parents and two former staff members spoke to the Deseret News. They accused Farden of creating a “toxic” environment in which he verbally degraded gymnasts, pressured them to perform despite being injured or suffering from mental health issues, threw objects in anger and rewarded athletes for reporting on teammates’ lives. In the wake of those allegations, though, a stronghold of his former athletes have come to Farden’s defense. They call the coach passionate, loud, even bombastic, but not abusive.

University officials say the investigation is expected to be completed soon.

Its results — and Farden’s fate as coach — will likely depend on its findings about the individual experiences of athletes as well as interpretations of the university’s detailed policy regarding athlete wellness, which specifically addresses appropriate coaching methods and behavior.

It warns that “emotional or verbal abuse of student-athletes is expressly prohibited.” Some examples of what it considers abusive include degrading language, making comments that devalue a person and isolating students by ignoring them. The U.’s policy also states it is a coach’s responsibility to use “interactions for instructional and motivational purposes.” Subjecting athletes “to cruel and unusual psychological conditions” also is prohibited.

“The problem is, it’s going to be squishy,” said Leslie Francis, a U. professor of philosophy and law who has been following the accusations against Farden. “Because there are going to be differences in perception. And I would guess there are particularly going to be differences when coaches are intense, as coaches get to be.”

Francis said some actions a coach might take clearly cross a line; for example, regularly screaming in an athlete’s face and telling them they’re worthless. Then there’s a gray area. What one person deems to be “excessively” singling out an athlete in a negative manner, which the university’s athlete wellness policy expressly prohibits, another person may call necessary criticism, she said.

The U.’s policy does not discuss coaches throwing items, which is rare but at times tolerated in college and professional sports. Parents and gymnasts allege Farden has thrown objects at gymnasts, including a cellphone and a bars scraper, a metal tool used to scrape excess chalk from the uneven bars.

“To throw down your piece of chalk in disgust or your towel in disgust” is probably not considered any kind of misconduct, said Francis, who also serves on the editorial board for the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. “Or a coach takes off their jacket and throws it on the bench — coaches do that all the time.”

But “throwing [an item] at a player is out of line,” she said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gymnastics coach Tom Farden reacts after the bars routine as the University of Utah fifth-ranked gymnastics team hosts No. 12 University of Kentucky during its home opener, Jan. 3, 2020, at the Huntsman Center.

Cristal Isa, who competed for Utah from 2019-23, including a voluntary fifth year, said she once saw Farden throw a brush used on uneven bars during a meet. Isa said she believed Farden “didn’t throw it at a gymnast, he chucked it into oblivion” and that a gymnast happened to be in the area.

“No one involved in this situation really thought much of it,” she said, though she added: “We didn’t think to ask the girls at the chalk box how they felt watching it.”

In a Twitter post made last week, however, another former Utah gymnast, Kim Tessen (2017-20) said it was clear Farden’s actions sent a different message to some than to others.

“It’s upsetting for me to see so many hurtful comments about this situation,” Tessen wrote in her post. “It’s nobody’s job to tell people what they did or did not experience. Even if you were there as a witness.”

The parents of multiple gymnasts had misgivings about Farden’s behavior when they approached Shannon Miller Cox, acting executive director of the Salt Lake nonprofit group Journey of Hope, five months ago. The team was about to leave for its summer trip to South Korea and, Miller Cox said, they “were very concerned ... they would be isolated with him there, that he would have lots of control and that it would make things worse.”

The mother of one former Utah gymnast said she contacted the U.’s student-athlete advocate with concerns in April. The gymnast requested anonymity because she feared retaliation from others associated with the program.

Those allegations set the investigation into motion. In July, the university hired the independent law firm Husch Blackwell to investigate Farden, who has been with Utah’s program since he was hired as an assistant in 2011. Farden has not been placed on administrative leave and remains in charge of the program.

While the university’s conduct policy is detailed, plenty of room for interpretation exists within its language. That’s according to Brigid A. Harrington, a Massachusetts attorney who has worked with universities to draft nondiscrimination and harassment policies and procedures and has led many investigations into Title IX and other civil rights matters. She said terms like “degrading” and “devalue” can be vague.

Harrington suggests looking at situations through both a subjective and objective lens. It’s also important, she said, that the behavior in question be “severe, persistent or pervasive” in order for it to be deemed as problematic and actionable.

When it comes to how Utah may interpret its own policy and use it to adjudicate the allegations against Farden, Harrington said it’s all about context and the university’s expectations.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah's co-head coach Tom Farden celebrates MyKayla Skinner's performance on the vault as No. 3 University of Utah gymnastics team meets BYU gymnastics at the Marriot Center, Jan. 10, 2019.

“You would consider that this is a sports environment,” Harrington said. “You might look at athletes’ experiences in high school and in other teams, and make a decision. Is this something that, in the athletic community that they’re in, people reasonably expect? Or is it beyond the pale? Is it something that someone who is an excellent gymnast and signs up for gymnastics isn’t going to expect to be part of their environment?”

More than a dozen former gymnasts coached by Farden spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune about their own experiences at the U. Many said their interactions with Farden reflected what they deemed to be appropriate for an elite gymnastics program that has consistently competed for a national title. Some described receiving what they interpreted as tough love from a coach who they believed wanted to bring out the best in them.

Lia Del Priore, who competed for the U. from 2011-2014, remembers Farden as a man who “eats and breathes gymnastics.” She said he’d get so nervous before meets he’d sometimes get sick.

Del Priore said Farden’s coaching would get “intense,” but that she believed it did not cross “that line of aggressive.”

“He was our hype man,” she said. “He always wanted to know what he could do better as well. Of course, he had high expectations for his gymnasts and he helped us see how we could improve. But he also was extremely self-reflective in figuring out what else he needed to do to make our program great.”

Corrie (Lothrop) Dury, who was an alternate on the 2008 Olympic team and competed for the Utes from 2011-15, when Farden was an assistant coach, agreed. She felt Farden’s actions were in line with other elite coaching she received, she said.

“Someone might take his passion out of context but I never saw it like that because we wanted to do our best and he wanted the best for us,” Dury said. “I never saw him single out and blame people for losing. Everybody has their own experiences and might see things differently, but in the five or six years I was there I never saw a glimpse of that from him.”

Multiple former gymnasts said the coach was hard on them at times — even making them cry.

“I’m not going to sit here and say I’ve never seen Tom Farden yell. He yells,” Reinstadler said. “He’s a loud person. He’s a bombastic person.”

For some athletes, though, Farden’s methods went too far. They crushed students’ self-esteem, and caused emotional distress and transfers out of the program, said Miller Cox and the parents of two former gymnasts who spoke to The Tribune.

Francis noted that coaching styles vary, as do the types of coaching athletes respond to. “No one size fits all in coaching,” she said.

His supporters say his techniques were not unusual and made them successful.

“He did an amazing job transferring his motivation and excitement to his athletes in the gym,” said Mary Beth Lofgren, who competed for the Utes from 2011-14, before Farden was the program’s head coach.

“He was extremely motivated and driven but also extremely concerned for his athletes and I always felt cared for and respected,” she said. “He wanted to make me a better athlete, but my safety and well-being and health were always first.

“I can’t speak for anybody but myself, but my experience with Tom Farden and the entire gymnastics program was nothing but positive,” she said. “I came out of that program better than when I went in.”

In her post, Tessen said Farden’s behavior is not a matter of interpretation or expectations. Tessen did not say whether she felt abused by Farden.

“This isn’t just having ‘different experiences’ or having ‘high expectations’ that people can’t handle,” she wrote, “it’s experiencing degrading, humiliating, dehumanizing and unnecessary verbally and physically aggressive behavior.”

— Lya Wodraska contributed to the reporting of this story.