At Occidental College, a tiny liberal arts school in eastern Los Angeles, the pool is more likely to be used for tanning than laps, and political canvassing is considered a form of exercise. The college has earned accolades for its commitment to social justice, but hasn’t won a football championship in more than a decade. So it was curious that in 2017, the football season—or rather, the lack of a football season—was the biggest story on campus.
Early that fall, administrators decided to cancel the team’s five remaining games due to the dwindling size of their roster, citing safety concerns. But what should have been a dry administrative issue quickly escalated into a battle between the football team and the openly gay, female athletic director. The story polarized the campus, made national headlines, and ended with the athletic director in the hospital, facing down a formal complaint of “anti-male bias.”
Now, the director, Jaime Hoffman, is suing the school to make sure nothing like this happens again.
“If it could happen at Occidental,” she told The Daily Beast, “it could happen anywhere.”
A former college basketball player and New York native, Hoffman started as Occidental’s women’s basketball coach in 2005 and ascended quickly to the role of athletic director, overseeing 21 varsity sports teams and various club sports. She hadn’t anticipated a career in athletics, but in retrospect, it should have been obvious: She’d grown up in a house with three brothers who all played college sports, a mother who worked for the U.S. Tennis Association, and a dog named Yankee. Working with athletes—even in Los Angeles—felt like coming home.
Managing football, however, proved harder than expected. In 2012, Hoffman fired Occidental’s longtime football coach Dale Widolff over multiple NCAA violations. The football community was outraged. Commenters on the school’s Facebook page accused Hoffman of overreacting and being jealous of Widolff’s success. Others called for her resignation. The school eventually deleted the worst of the comments, but the damage was done. Hoffman says it was the first time she’d seen a current or former Occidental student call her a dyke.
Two years later, in a report to the board of trustees, a task force led by Hoffman warned about the growing safety risks of the football team. The number of recruits had been shrinking for years—part of a larger national decline in high school football—leaving Occidental with fewer, smaller players from which to choose. While some had recommended shuttering the program altogether, the task force recommended increasing safeguards and keeping a close watch on the team’s standing. “Should the competitive level of the team create an unsafe environment,” the group wrote, “the administration is encouraged to intervene.”
By 2017, Hoffman felt that time had come. A healthy small-school team usually starts the season with at least 75 players—enough to account for drop-outs during the year and still field a full team, plus subs. On the first day of Occidental training camp that year, only 47 students showed up.
In the first game of the season, against a team that would go on to be one of the lowest-ranked in the conference, Occidental lost by 55 points. The Tigers folded so easily that the opposing team fielded seven different quarterbacks. Occidental, meanwhile, was on defense for almost 90 snaps. More worryingly, Hoffman says, the Tigers lost three players to injury in a single play. “This is literally exhausting our team,” Hoffman recalls thinking. “And with exhaustion comes greater risk for injury.”
The Tigers’ roster numbers continued to drop over the next several practices. By Sept. 14, two days before their next game, the team was down to 36 eligible players. The opposing team had 117. Hoffman called an emergency meeting with the college’s general counsel, head athletic trainer, head football coach, and President Jonathan Veitch. Together, she says, they decided to cancel the game.
“When it comes to a sport like football where someone can be paralyzed or someone can die, I have to be the parent in this situation,” Hoffman told The Daily Beast. “I have to make a responsible decision.”
That night, Hoffman, Dean of Students Rob Flot, and Chief Diversity Officer Rhonda Brown were dispatched to deliver the news to the unsuspecting players. Walking into the meeting, Hoffman recalls having to tiptoe past more than 50 players and coaches crammed into the school’s trophy room. She wanted to give them answers, she says, but was provided only a tightly worded statement to read. She says she was instructed to avoid talking about safety issues, for liability reasons. In sports parlance, she said, “I was playing with one hand behind my back.”
Hoffman says she hadn’t made it halfway into her statement before the team started yelling at her. The players called her a “joke” and her statement “bullshit,” demanding to know when she became a football expert. When she cited the carefully considered numbers, she says, they mocked her by asking if she was a math major. One player, she recalled, demanded to know whether she considered herself the CEO of the team. When she said yes, he stood up and pointed a finger in her face. “Then you need to apologize!” she says he screamed.
The best way she could describe the experience, Hoffman said, was “like being Hillary Clinton at a Trump rally.”
After more than half an hour, Hoffman excused herself to call the opposing team. Later, she said, Flot would describe the meeting as “mob-like” and compare it to Lord of the Flies. Flot did not respond to a request for comment sent through the school. But in an email reviewed by The Daily Beast, he apologized to Hoffman for the players’ behavior, writing, “You took the high road this evening, and I deeply admire and respect you for that.”
Rob Cushman, the school’s head football coach, later sent an email to the football team reprimanding them for their “reactionary, abusive and disrespectful behavior,” according to the Occidental Weekly. In a subsequent email viewed by The Daily Beast, he admitted that the players had used "foul language" and that he “failed to step up and calm the situation in a timely manner.” Hoffman says he later told her he’d cried after the meeting. Cushman also declined an interview request.
Michael Turner, then a freshman on the team, recalled the meeting as tense and emotional, though he sympathized with the players’ disappointment. But he said things took an ugly turn when the team retired to their off-campus house that night. He distinctly recalled one player calling the athletic director a “dyke bitch.” Turner quit the team not long after that.
Returning to her own home that night, Hoffman felt slightly in shock. “I was so confident in the decision being the right decision,” she said. “But the level of hostility in that room was like nothing I had ever seen before… It was literally like they were trying to humiliate me, in a room full of men."
Opening the front door to relieve her babysitter, she says, she saw an SUV drive by her house. Someone rolled down the window and screamed, “Cunt!”
As head of Occidental’s athletics department, Hoffman was one of fewer than 300 female athletic directors in the country—or less than a quarter of all NCAA athletics directors overall. In fact, while women’s participation in college sports has surged in the last 50 years, the number of women coaches and administrators has dropped. As of 2014, 11 percent of colleges did not have a woman in their athletic administrative structure at all.
The situation is even worse for openly gay women. While there is no official tally of LGBTQ athletic directors, Outsports recently counted fewer than 40 openly gay coaches across all college sports combined—a 62.5 percent increase from the year before. In a 2018 NCAA survey, more than one-third of LGBTQ coaches said they worried about losing prospective student-athletes due to their identity. Women coaches were twice as likely to say so as men.
A commonly cited barrier to entry for female administrators is a lack of experience with football. Because women are less likely to have coached a football team, experts say, they’re also less likely to be tasked with running an athletics department that prioritizes it. And even when they are, their expertise is often challenged. In a 2016 survey of female athletic directors, participants recalled having to prove their chops not just to coaches, but also to administrators and college presidents—the vast majority of whom are men.
“Many of the women interviewed mentioned the need to have thick skin and a short memory in the athletic director position,” the researchers noted, “because individuals around the athletic department, campus, and community are always going to be criticizing you and waiting for you to make a mistake.”
On Sept. 16, 2017, two days after the game was cancelled, Hoffman called another huddle with the football team. She had been staying with family members off campus for the past few days, fearful for her own safety and that of her children. She hoped the meeting would help her regain control of the department. On the field that day, she told the players that their behavior was “disgusting” and would not be tolerated. But her message only made them angrier.
Carlton O’Neal, then a junior on the team, said the players were already fuming about Hoffman’s curt answers at the previous meeting. The scolding on the field—where he says Hoffman threatened to expel anyone who drove past her house again—felt like pouring acid in the wound. “She was coming for blood in that meeting and everyone was just looking at the ground,” he said. “It was terrifying.”
Days later, the board of trustees received a letter from the “exceeding majority” of the football parents, demanding that Hoffman be relieved of all duties regarding the football team. The letter accused her of causing “irreparable harm” to their sons, and using the players’ alleged behavior as a “red herring” to distract from her own incompetence.
The players drafted their own letter to the athletics community, after learning that Hoffman had briefed other coaches on her version of events. They argued that it was Hoffman who had acted inappropriately and claimed to have no knowledge of the drive-by at her house. They admitted to asking “stern, blunt and deliberate questions,” at the meeting, but accused Hoffman of smirking at or skipping over many of them.
In the following weeks, however, it became clear that the team’s qualms were not limited to the night in question. On Oct. 4, a handful of players submitted a complaint to the school’s Title IX office, accusing the administration of holding an “ardent anti-male bias.” They claimed students and faculty had made them feel “negatively represented, maligned and ostracized” on campus, citing everything from the lack of adequate football pads to posts on the anonymous “Oxy Confessions” Facebook page.
Hoffman, they said, had only bolstered this negative sentiment by spreading lies about their conduct.
“The AD wanted to punish the Players, and she has succeeded,” the players wrote.
Use of the Title IX process—a means of formally reporting gender discrimination to the U.S. Department of Education—holds a significant place in Occidental history. In 2013, 37 students came forward at a press conference with women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred to claim that the school ignored or mishandled reports of sexual assault on campus. The students filed a Title IX complaint against their school, sparking a wave of more than 300 investigations and, ultimately, a national campus anti-rape campaign led by then-Vice President Joe Biden.
Around the same time, reports surfaced of misconduct by Occidental’s sports teams—and of administrators acting on their behalf. In 2014, a student told BuzzFeed News he’d attended a meeting with other male athletes in which the college's general counsel, Carl Botterud, had suggested forming an all-male group to counter the newly formed Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition (OSAC). “Fuck ‘em,” Botterud reportedly said of the group. (Botterud told BuzzFeed he didn't recall his exact words but was sure he "never said 'fuck 'em'” in reference to OSAC.)
So it was perhaps no surprise that, while it was the cancellation of Occidental’s football season made national headlines, it was the players’ Title IX complaint that sparked the most debate on campus. While not everyone was sympathetic to Hoffman, most students appeared flummoxed by the team’s decision to cry gender discrimination. A number of students started sporting satirical “Anti-Male Bias” T-shirts, and dozens posted about the topic on the anonymous “Oxy Confessions” Facebook page.
“To the football players claiming there is an anti-male bias at this school, welcome to what the world is like as a woman,” one Oxy Confessions poster wrote. “It's not anti-male, you just aren't being treated better than anyone else because of your penis anymore.”
Hoffman, meanwhile, began to feel increasingly unsettled. Broken eggs and beer bottles started appearing in her lawn, she says, and nails turned up in her driveway. She had always fantasized about raising her children in their house on campus, and had even trained her kids to roar like tigers. But now, she was having panic attacks before work and feared bringing her children to sporting events.
After walking her to work one day, men’s basketball coach Brian Newhall told Hoffman that the feeling on campus made him feel “sick to my stomach” and “shook me to my core.” “Very, very sad day when you have to feel uncomfortable walking thru campus,” he wrote in an email.
Later, in an email to the school’s Title IX director, he wrote that Hoffman had been “badly mistreated” and that no one from the college had stepped up to support her.
“Jaime has been called a ‘cunt,’ ‘dyke,’ ‘bitch,’ and countless other things,” he wrote in an email viewed by The Daily Beast. “The college has either ‘frozen’ all together like the VPs did in this most recent case or been extremely slow to react/respond. Neither is acceptable.”
Other college officials also tried to get the administration to act. In emails viewed by The Daily Beast, head athletic trainer Joe Gonzalez contacted the assistant director of student conduct about the Sept.14 meeting, asking him to investigate whether the players’ behavior violated the Occidental Student Code of Conduct. The administrator told Gonzalez the behavior was unlikely to constitute a policy violation.
In a public statement, Occidental said the college responded “promptly and fairly” to Hoffman's concerns, and hired an outside investigator to conduct a thorough, independent review of the situation. Interviews with 10 witnesses and a review of numerous documents found the conduct did not constitute gender or sexual orientation harassment, the college said.
“Respect together with equity, fairness, compassion and an adherence to process are key principles that guide the College and have been paramount in our actions involving Jaime,” the school said. “Oxy remains committed to sustaining a campus environment free of discrimination and harassment.”
On Sept. 29, 2017, Hoffman was hospitalized for what she calls a “mental break,” triggered by the atmosphere on campus and a growing fear that her superiors had turned on her. She was held over the weekend and prescribed medication for stress and anxiety. Under orders from her doctors, Hoffman requested time off and—on the advice of the school's insurance company— was granted several months of workers’ compensation. She says she hoped the respite would allow things to return to normal.
But when Hoffman attempted to return to her job that summer, the school pushed back. On the advice of her doctor, Hoffman had requested several accommodations, including the installation of an assistant athletic director to oversee the football team. Hoffman says that she repeatedly expressed flexibility in these accommodations and reminded the school that a number of teams already reported to an assistant AD.
But on Aug. 17, 2018—less than 10 days before the school year began—Hoffman says the school called to tell her she would not be returning as athletic director. In a letter reviewed by The Daily Beast, HR manager Karen Salce wrote that “because your documentation states you cannot interact in-person with those affiliated with football, and you cannot participate in administrative meetings without a support person, we have no reasonable accommodations to offer you.”
The letter said Hoffman was being put on “active unpaid status” and would have to vacate her campus housing in 60 days. Salce told her that her last paycheck had already been deposited, Hoffman says, and her benefits expired at the end of the month.
Shortly after she hung up the phone, Hoffman was copied on an all-campus email announcing that she would not be returning. The news set off alarm bells for several professors, who—like Hoffman—had assumed the athletic director was simply on extended leave.
“This seems opaque and unceremonious, far from the transparent ‘Oxy Community’ we claim to be,” professor Mary Christianakis wrote on a faculty listserv. “After all, a whole football team doesn’t fail because of one person.”
Hoffman had a different read on the situation. "They were trying to humiliate me,” she told The Daily Beast. “They were just stringing me along, and then, boom."
In a statement, Occidental said administrators engaged in multiple conversations with Hoffman about her accommodations, and determined that her limitations “could not easily be accommodated in a manner that would enable her to perform the essential functions of the athletic director position.”
In the months following, Hoffman floated between friends' and relatives’ houses, looking for a place to live and a permanent job. Because she was technically on “active unpaid status,” the college never offered her severance. But because she was, for all intents and purposes, fired, she struggled to find a job elsewhere. Lower-tier schools like Whittier and Laverne didn’t call her for interviews, and Claremont College—where she was previously a finalist for a similar role—didn’t even call her back.
In September of last year, Hoffman filed a lawsuit against Occidental for gender discrimination, whistleblower retaliation, and failure to accommodate disability, among other things. She is asking for her job back and compensation for her emotional distress. But she also hopes the lawsuit spark larger, institutional change for women at Occidental and other NCAA schools.
"This is a trend in athletics in higher ed,” she told The Daily Beast. “It's easier to get rid of the women.”
The school has denied all of Hoffman’s allegations in legal filings. In the statement, they said administrators publicly and privately supported Hoffman in “numerous ways,” making it clear that the decision to cancel the season was the result of “an accumulation of decisions made by the college”—not the fault of any one person. As evidence, they pointed to an email Veitch sent in September 2017, declaring that Hoffman had his “full support.”
But Carlton O’Neal—the player who previously criticized Hoffman for her behavior—said that at the time, he and the rest of the team believed the choice was Hoffman's alone. After learning the details of the decision, he said, it now felt like the athletic director had been "thrown into the fire."
“I feel like, how are you going to judge her for how she acts in that horrible situation?” he asked. “It kind of feels like her and our team were set on a collision course.”