Utah gymnastics coach Tom Farden will keep his position after an independent investigation found that while his behavior caused some athletes to feel an “increased fear of failure,” it did not rise to the level of “severe, pervasive or egregious” acts of abuse as defined by the NCAA and SafeSport.
Husch Blackwell, a Kansas City-based law firm hired by the U., had been investigating Farden since June after multiple women met with the university’s Student-Athlete Advocate to voice complaints about Farden’s treatment of them. According to the report released Thursday, investigators did not find corroborating evidence that Farden had been abusive to athletes.
But in the face of numerous allegations — including accounts from multiple gymnasts that Farden threw objects in anger and an admission from the coach that he once told a gymnast she would be a “nobody working at a gas station” if not for the U. — Utah said it would implement five recommendations from investigators, including putting Farden on a performance improvement plan.
“... We still consider the experiences reported by members of the program over recent years with great care, compassion and sensitivity,” Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan said in a statement. “As you can read in the report, there were a handful of instances in which Coach Farden should have demonstrated greater compassion and self-control, and better professionalism.
“I met with Coach Farden this week to express my disappointment and to share with him my expectations moving forward.”
Harlan said he and his staff would be “even more vigilant in monitoring [Farden’s] conduct and his coaching methods, and he will be held to a higher standard moving forward.” Still, Harlan said, “I remain confident in Coach Farden’s ability to continue to lead our gymnastics program ...”
Farden offered his own statement on the findings:
“I take very seriously the concerns that were expressed about my behavior and my coaching methods. It has been painful to learn of the negative impacts that my words and actions have created, and I have thoroughly examined the accounts of every person who shared their experience through their participation in the program review.
“I have always placed a high priority on cultivating a positive and nurturing environment that allows our students to thrive not only as gymnasts but also as individuals, and I have learned of the areas that I must improve upon. I take to heart every lesson I have learned through this process, and I am fully committed to improving our student-athlete experience.”
In all, Husch Blackwell interviewed all 12 student-athletes from the 2022-23 team, seven former student-athletes, five parents of student-athletes, six members of the current coaching staff, 11 athletics department staff members and administrators, and four former staff members.
Multiple student-athletes alleged Farden had a tendency to use words to intimidate, according to the report, though Farden disputed most of the allegations.
• After a gymnast told Farden that his yelling made it more difficult to perform gymnastics, she said Farden told her that she would be a “nobody working at a gas station” in her home state if it weren’t for the university. Farden acknowledged making the comment, the report stated.
• A former gymnast told investigators that she was replaced in a lineup, and that when Farden told her about the change, he called her a “lost cause.” She further alleged that Farden had yelled at her one or two times per week, telling her that she wouldn’t have gotten injured if she’d listened to his advice, and that she needed to “quit b----ing.” The gymnast said that she had had other tough coaches, but Farden’s critiques felt personal. Farden, meanwhile, denied that he has ever called a student-athlete a “lost cause” or “waste of space,” as another gymnast reported.
• Another former gymnast said that Farden attacked her character, saying that Farden yelled at her after a grade check, “telling her that she was being lazy and wasting the University’s money and that if she couldn’t handle expectations, she could go somewhere else,” according to the report. The gymnast alleged that Farden told her “she was a failure and was not living up to expectations.”
• Another former gymnast reported that Farden told her “the only thing you will ever be is a specialist,” and that “specialists are walk-ons.” She said Farden’s behavior was confusing and manipulative; she said she did not know what mood she was going to get from him, and it caused her to dread practice and fear making mistakes.
• Four gymnasts reported that Farden threw a stopwatch when one gymnast wasn’t climbing a rope quickly enough. Three of the four told investigators they believed the throw was in the direction of the gymnast, one disagreed. Two of them also reported that Farden threw a clipboard in the direction of the gymnast. The gymnast involved declined to be interviewed, and Farden denied ever throwing either object.
• Seven gymnasts reported that Farden took a gymnast’s phone connected to the facility’s sound system, unplugged it, and threw it to the ground. Farden denied the allegation.
• Multiple witnesses recalled Farden throwing a bar scraper — a toilet brush attached to a piece of wood — at a gymnast, but the reports were inconsistent on whether the scraper hit someone, or whether the scraper was thrown or playfully tossed gently.
The report noted that most of the team, however, felt that Farden had “mellowed” in recent years, and that 2022-23 was a relatively good year for team culture with fewer dramatic incidents.
Ultimately, only the “gas station” complaint was found to violate the athletics program’s Well Being Policy,” which prohibits the use of degrading language. Other complaints were found to not be sufficiently corroborated, the report stated. The throwing incidents were found not to be “repeated or severe,” which therefore “did not violate SafeSport Code for Physical Acts of Emotional Misconduct.” Because the thrown objects weren’t conclusively found to have hit anyone, they were not found to have violated the athletic program’s policies, either.
Injuries and scholarships
Other gymnasts (current and former), along with former staffers, reported instances when Farden’s approach to gymnast injuries raised concern.
• One gymnast said that “when she had an injury Coach Farden did not believe she had an injury and yelled at her in his office,” according to the report. Staff members confirmed Farden questioned the diagnosis, the report stated.
• A former athletic trainer for the team said she felt she Farden pushed one gymnast to return to an event after she had surgery. The trainer told investigators that “it took getting a doctor involved to tell Coach Farden that the student-athlete was not cleared for the event,” and that “she had to medically retire the event for Coach Farden to accept it,” the report stated. However, the current staff described Farden as “cautious” with respect to returning from injury.
• One current gymnast and three former gymnasts reported that Farden wanted them to medically retire, after they were injured. They felt that they were being “pressured” to medically retire so that Farden could take away their scholarship and give it to another gymnast, according to the report.
• A former athletic trainer also recalled Farden presenting the idea of an athlete’s medical retirement, a decision which should be between a gymnast and doctor, the report stated. She told investigators she felt that students were worried that, if they got injured, they would lose their scholarship. According to the report, the former trainer recalled that Farden told one gymnast he would medically retire her after an injury and told the gymnast, “Get your s--- together, or you’re out.”
In the end, though, investigators wrote that they did not find “objective evidence” that Farden interfered with return from injury. The report called the interviews above “anecdotal evidence” that was insufficient to find fault. The report also found that there wasn’t enough evidence to find Farden had violated any standards on nutritional or body image issues.
Utah said it would implement the five recommendations Husch Blackwell made in its report. They are:
1. Create a performance improvement plan for Farden, including mandatory communication training, regular monitoring of team culture, and an annual review of the program by an outside body.
2. Continue to support the role of the Student-Athlete Advocate, whose report led to the investigation, and educate gymnasts and other athletes about the advocate’s role in the program.
3. Address communication barriers between the program and parents, who felt detached from the university and what was happening.
4. Ensure that all current and prospective gymnasts understand the terms of their scholarships.
5. Administration should consider regular attendance at gymnastics practices and meetings with gymnasts throughout the year.