'Religious comment' made to woman cause of Jerry Reighard's 2017 sexual harassment case
Jerry Reighard's religious beliefs are well-known throughout the college gymnastics community. His team prays together before every meet. In the eyes of some, he has created a "Christian community" for his gymnasts at Central Michigan University.
During the April 1 warm-up period prior to the start of the 2017 NCAA Regional Gymnastics Championship, Reighard approached a woman who was kneeling while tying her shoe. Together in the back of the gym, where no one else was close enough to hear, Reighard reportedly said to the woman, "... On your knees, where you belong. That's right, on your knees where you belong."
Those words were uttered to a woman Reighard had just met her for the first time at the event – a woman who was a coach from a different university that was competing against CMU at Barnhill Arena, home gym of the University of Arkansas. Those in the competition were CMU, Arkansas, Missouri, Auburn, California, Denver and Utah.
The phrase would come back to haunt Reighard. His comment would become the centerpiece of a sexual harassment case launched against him.
A July 27, 2017, letter from the Office of Civil Rights and Institutional Equity (OCRIE) detailed the allegations against the head coach, but all witness statements – several pages worth – were redacted. Central Michigan Life received a copy of Reighard's personnel file through a Michigan Freedom of Information Act request. The university charged the newspaper $404 to fulfill the request.
As mentioned in ORCIE's report, investigators believed there was sufficient evidence to support that Reighard's words constituted "subjectively unwelcome conduct." However, OCRIE said there was insufficient evidence to support that Reighard created a hostile environment or meant to sexually harass the woman.
Reighard never denied making those comments. Instead, he told investigators, "The comments were made as part of his strong religious convictions, which are known throughout the collegiate gymnastics community, and his public displays of religious practices during CMU sponsored events," according to the report.
On June 20, Reighard met with Phil Squattrito (his representative), MEA UniServ Director Kurt Kline (attorney), Interim Director of Athletics Marcy Weston, Director of Faculty Employee Relations Scott Hoffman, Executive Director of OCRIE Kathy Lasher and Assistant Director of OCRIE Mary Martinez. At this meeting, Reighard recounted what happened at the meet that day.
According to the university's Sexual Misconduct Policy, sexual harassment includes nonconsensual sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct of sexual nature where: "Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interring with a Complainant's work or academic performance, or creating an intimidating or hostile environment regarding education, employment, housing or participation in CMU activities." CMU has declared, in its policy, that all acts of sexual misconduct are prohibited anywhere on-campus or off-campus – even at athletic competitions other than in Mount Pleasant.
The investigation was completed July 27, nearly two months after it began.
Reighard was found to have not violated CMU's Sexual Misconduct Policy.
"OCRIE concludes that, based on the evidence available to OCRIE there is insufficient evidence to conclude, by a preponderance of the evidence, that (Reighard) engaged in conduct that constituted sexual harassment, as defined by the University's Sexual Misconduct Policy," the report detailed.
Even though OCRIE did not find Reighard guilty of violating the sexual misconduct policy, the investigatory report said his actions potentially invoked the university's Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Protocol due to his admitted religious intent behind the statement.
The protocol outlines a situation where there are unwelcome conduct or communication by a University Community member in that individual's role as a University Community member that is based upon, real or perceived, religion.
It's not the first time Reighard was called out for utilizing his religious beliefs in the CMU gymnastics program.
One former member of the team, whose name was redacted in Reighard's personnel file, emailed the coach to express her thanks over supplying the team with his Christian beliefs.
"Thank you for being servants for the Lord and never being afraid to speak His name," the gymnast said. "Through you, I was always able to be reminded of the reason I was on this team and the reason I am here, for Christ."
On May 16, 2005, Weston, the associate athletic director at the time, asked Reighard to put an end to referencing religion during recruiting, coaching and training as the gymnastics coach.
"Jerry must discontinue his practice of making comments to student-athletes about his personal religious beliefs," Weston said in an evaluation report. "Jerry will modify his behavior in accordance with said parameters."
However, former gymnast Shaila Segal, a member of Reighard's gymnastics team from 2014-17, said his religious beliefs played a key role in his coaching. Reighard's team prayed together before every meal and before each event.
"He gives God all the glory every day," Segal said. "I think he's just thankful to be in our lives, good or bad."
Even after Weston's warning in 2005 and OCRIE's statement in 2017, Reighard continued to implement his religious beliefs on his gymnastics team at Central Michigan – a public university.
On August 15, 2017, Athletic Director Michael Alford emailed Reighard following OCRIE's determination to provide expectations for his future conduct.
"I must impress upon you the seriousness of the incident by highlighting the fact that future instances of this nature will be addressed in a more formal and serious manner," Alford wrote.
Alford also asked Reighard to do four things:
1. "You will interact in a respectful and professional manner with your colleagues throughout athletics and the university."
2. "You will be mindful of the requirements and standards of behavior required by CMU's Sexual Misconduct Policy, CMU's Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Protocol, and all other CMU policies."
3. "You will not make inappropriate comments to others."
4. "You will carry yourself in a respectful and professional manner that conforms to CMU's values and in a manner becoming of a CMU head coach."
In the report, OCRIE recommended that, in any future gymnastics competitions, Reighard should not be paired with the opposing team's university while the opposing coach involved in the sexual harassment claim is employed.
Reighard is currently on paid administrative leave as CMU has called an internal investigation due to complaints that the longtime coach told a member of his team to lie to the training staff about an injury to continue competing for the Chippewas.
Reighard's contract, which has him receiving $145,349 this year, is set to expire on April 30, 2019. A February suspension email to Reighard instructed him to cease all contact with current or former student-athletes, staff, volunteers, students and faculty. He also was told to have no contact with current or potential recruits or the media.
The CMU coach of 35 years interviewed with the investigative team on March 28 after the university waited for more than three weeks for his representatives to accept a date.
Now that all interviews are complete, the committee will build a report and send it to Alford, who will review the information and make a final decision on Reighard.