The first time senior Pat Ford and Head Football Coach Damon Tomeo met, Ford remembers his new coach called him a thug.
Tomeo had brought Ford in for a meeting after hearing about an argument the wide receiver had at a party with a student who was not on the football team.
“He told me to go back to Chicago and drink a 40 ounce,” Ford said. “That was my freshman year.”
Last spring, Ford and two other football players, junior Demarcus Thompson and sophomore Donnye Sommerville-Thomas filed separate complaints of discrimination against Tomeo. All three students are black. This January, the investigation prompted by their allegations against Tomeo closed. The verdict: In none of the three complaints had Tomeo violated the College’s policy on discrimination and harassment.
After attempting to reach Tomeo for comment via email and phone and receiving no response, The Knox Student visited the football offices twice to ask the coach for comment. Tomeo declined both times.
TKS reached out via email to multiple members of the administration and received a reply from Dean of Students Deb Southern saying that in order to protect the privacy and confidentiality of those involved, the College is unable to comment publicly. Southern was however able to answer select questions about the investigation process.
When Tomeo told the team before practice that the investigation was underway, sophomore Matt McCaffrey, a white quarterback, assumed the complaints came from players unhappy with the opportunities they were being given on the team.
“It’s not surprising to me that when people are uncomfortable with a decision or they do not agree with a decision that they would pick something like race or use that as trying to justify a decision that was made about them,” McCaffrey said.
Opportunity to Play
While McCaffrey, who says he has a close relationship with Tomeo, believes that the coach treats some players on the team differently from others, he doesn’t think that treatment is based on race.
Instead he cites qualities like punctuality, accountability and hard work both in practice and the classroom to be the deciding factors of who the coach favors.
“Those are all the things that are going to determine whether you have an opportunity to play on Saturdays,” he said. “Not race.”
This sentiment is not shared by every player on the team.
The first time Thompson met Tomeo was the summer before his freshman year. Thompson remembers the coach was friendly and cracked a few jokes. When football camp started later that summer, Thompson was having fun. He thought this was where he wanted to be.
But as the team neared the start of the season, Thompson felt a change in the genial coach he had initially met. “It got to the point where we wouldn’t talk unless he was criticizing me about something,” he said.
Thompson noticed that this pattern continued beyond his own relationship with Tomeo. He remembers observing a difference between the way Tomeo handled issues with black players and the way he handled issues with the rest of the team.
“For us, it was like if we did something wrong it was always at the forefront,” Thompson said. “It was always brought back up in meetings, in practices.”
The wide receiver also noticed divisions between the team members.
“You can physically see it,” Thompson said. “You can see where the black guys are and then everybody else.”
Thompson quit the team Fall Term of his sophomore year, and filed his complaint the following spring.
These are not the first complaints filed against Tomeo in his career as a football coach. Local news reports show that after three years as head football coach at Minnesota State University-Moorhead, a complaint was filed against him in late 2009. He was placed on administrative leave for almost three months before resigning in early 2010. MSUM did not reveal the specific nature of the complaint to the public.
Director of Athletics Chad Eisele also worked as a football coach at MSUM before coming to Knox to assume his current position in 2006. Tomeo was hired as head football coach at Knox in late 2012. According to the Knox College website, he beat nearly 200 applicants for the position.
TKS emailed and called Tomeo, Coach Andy Gibbons and Eisele for comment on this issue and received no reply from Tomeo, an email from Gibbons declining to comment and a voicemail from Eisele inviting TKS to send him a list of questions to review and answer what he could.
“I don’t mean to be evasive,” Eisele said in the voicemail, “but I don’t want to say something that I’m not supposed to say when it comes to personnel matters. We want to protect everybody in this situation.”
Until I Quit
At the beginning of his senior year, Ford sustained a back injury that stopped his season before it began. He remembers Tomeo tried to get him to quit during his time on the team.
“One time my sophomore year I missed a treatment for my knee,” Ford said, “and he told a position coach to make me run and do push-ups until I quit.”
TKS attempted to reach position coach Chris Archie for comment on the interaction, but Archie no longer works at Knox and recently moved on from his subsequent position at Davenport University. No one TKS called at the Davenport University Athletics Department knew how to reach him.
Ford kept to himself on the team, but something in his attitude bothered Tomeo.
“He said I had a bad attitude, but I don’t see how I had a bad attitude if I don’t talk to nobody; I don’t speak to nobody, I go about my day,” Ford said.
The One Who Stayed
According to the Knox College Policy Against Discrimination and Harassment, this investigation will not remain a part of Tomeo’s “conduct record” because he was not found responsible for a “bias-related incident.”
Only one of the three students who filed a complaint leading to the investigation remains on the team.
Sommerville-Thomas doesn’t think the investigation has impacted his relationship with the team, a bond he says is getting stronger.
Sommerville-Thomas participates in all activities required of the other players: practices, lifting sessions, study hall hours and meetings. Unlike many of his teammates, he doesn’t visit the football offices unless required to. He doesn’t feel he has that kind of relationship with the coaches.
“I think he’s knowledgeable and knows what he’s doing,” Sommerville-Thomas said of Tomeo. “He’s just not a people person with everybody. Me and him don’t vibe. At all.”
Sommerville-Thomas has had multiple interactions with Tomeo that have strained their relationship.
Sommerville-Thomas was walking across campus with two other black students when he passed Tomeo. He says Tomeo saw them and switched paths, then approached them and suggested they take their hoods off because they had scared him.
“He definitely recognized us,” Sommerville-Thomas said. “It’s not like our hoods were in our face.”
The incident was especially impactful to Sommerville-Thomas, as it occurred around the time of the Mike Brown jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Maybe because of that hype we were still thinking of that,” he said. “That’s what it felt like.”
Fall Term this year, Sommerville-Thomas was struggling with a class and faced a tough decision: whether or not to quit football to focus more on school. He quit the team on a Tuesday, but after speaking with the professor and deciding to drop the class and take on an independent study instead, he felt better about the term. Sommerville-Thomas asked to rejoin the team on Wednesday. His request was approved by Dean of the College Laura Behling, who supervises athletics, but stalled when it reached Tomeo. Sommerville-Thomas said he missed two weeks of the season and two games while the investigation was going on, including a game against rival Monmouth College.
“I wanted to be part of the Monmouth game,” Sommerville-Thomas said. “I really wanted to help the team out with that.”
Eisele was contacted, and after missing two games, Sommerville-Thomas’s return to the team was approved.
When he started back on the team, Sommerville-Thomas was disappointed to find out that the other coaches hadn’t known he’d even wanted to come back on the team or that he had tried to return the day after quitting. He wanted them to know he hadn’t made the decision light-heartedly.
“After I came back it was definitely different,” Sommerville-Thomas said. “You could look them in the eye and tell on their face it was just different than it was before I left.”
Strive for Inclusion
Senior Brennan McGlauchlen, a white teammate, doesn’t think that Thompson, Ford and Sommerville-Thomas, along with himself, were treated well on the team, but he isn’t sure whether or not the treatment had to do with race.
“We all disagreed, so for me to go, well he was upset with me and that was fine and he’s upset with these other guys, maybe is there something else going on? I don’t know,” McGlauchlen said.
The investigation began a term after senior Knox basketball player Ariyana Smith’s courtside demonstration protesting the jury decision on the shooting of Michael Brown.
Southern said that the Athletics Department continues to work toward full equity and inclusion.
“We can always be better in everything we do, and we strive to do that every day,” Eisele wrote in an email. Both he and Southern mentioned that the Athletics Department has voluntarily undertaken Intergroup Dialogue training and sends two members annually to the NCAA Equity and Inclusion Forum.
Report and Procedure
According to the Reporting Protocol for Discrimination, Harassment and Bias Incident(s) available on the Knox college website, when a student is reporting an alleged act of discrimination and/or harassment of which the perpetrator is a staff member, that student is to seek assistance from the Dean of Students Office.
Southern and Associate Dean of the College Lori Schroeder are both members of the College’s Bias Response Team and are responsible for coordinating the investigation and resolution of any reported alleged instances of bias.
Ford remembers Southern and Schroeder were supportive when he met individually with them to tell his story
About a month after each player met individually with the two Deans, an email was sent to the three players saying they were going to meet with an outside lawyer chosen by the administration.
According to Southern, when decisions such as this are made about how an incident will be investigated, the nature of the allegations is reviewed on a case-by-case basis and consulted with College legal counsel.
After meeting with those involved in the incident, the investigator wrote a preliminary report that included the stories of Thompson, Ford, Sommerville-Thomas along with Tomeo and other players on the team, who are referred to as witnesses.
Of the 10 witnesses he estimates were involved in the investigation, Thompson recalls that only two were black. The witnesses TKS reached out to either did not respond or did not want to comment.
“I don’t know how you can have an investigation about discrimination when two of your — I think it was maybe 10 witnesses or fewer — but two of them were black and the rest were all white,” Thompson said. The former player believes the investigation was skewed in part because Tomeo got to hand pick the witnesses the investigator talked to.
Deb Southern confirmed that in cases like this, the parties involved have the right to name witnesses. The investigators may or may not seek additional witnesses at their discretion to “ensure a thorough investigation.”
The preliminary report was then distributed for those involved to review. In this document, everyone can see what other individuals told the investigator.
When Sommerville-Thomas read what Tomeo had said about him, he closed his phone and didn’t respond to the investigator.
“After seeing the prelim report… The way it was made and built up, it was a sure fact that he was made to look like a good guy,” he said.
Rumors of Renewal
By then, rumors had broken out that Tomeo’s contract had been renewed.
Southern said in an email that it is against College policy to comment on individual matters, but that “College administrators are evaluated annually and can be terminated for cause.”
The rumor of Tomeo’s contractual renewal was corroborated by three players TKS talked to, one of whom said he was told this by Tomeo himself.
While recruiting in McCaffrey’s hometown, Tomeo had dinner with the quarterback’s family. McCaffrey said it was then that Tomeo told him his contract had been renewed through 2019.
“Why would the school renew his contract without hearing first the outcome of this investigation unless they really didn’t care?” Sommerville-Thomas said.
If there’s one thing Sommerville-Thomas regrets, it would be not responding to the preliminary report.
“It was my choice that I did not text him and disagree with Tomeo like I should’ve, could’ve,” Sommerville-Thomas said. “I just didn’t take the time out to do it.”
At the time, he didn’t think anything was going to change.
Few players think the investigation affected the team in any significant way, even after Tomeo told them it was happening.
“He addressed it before practice and then we went on with practice and on with the season and never talked about it again,” McCaffrey said.
Regardless, McGlauchlen is glad the investigation happened.
“If you ever have a question with how things are run internally, I think you should always have an investigation,” McGlauchlen said. “And I think the results speak for themselves. If something was amiss it would’ve been found.”
Ford doesn’t expect everyone to understand the basis of the investigation, or what black players go through on sports teams.
“Do a regular white person understand racism as a black person? No, they do not,” he said.
Ford spends his time on the Track and Field team and participates in Boys and Girls Club.
“The pressure is more laid back,” Ford said. “I can sit there and be myself and still perform.”
Sommerville-Thomas has high hopes for the football team’s next season. “We’re gonna change some stuff, we’re gonna mess some stuff up next year,” he said. He wants the team to go undefeated. “It’s possible,” he said. “Our defense is pretty good.”
Despite his hopes, Sommerville-Thomas is not sure he will be invited back on the team.