They were shunned for accusing their coach of sexual harassment, and for years they said they kept quiet. On Monday, they gathered on a Zoom call — five former University of Maryland Baltimore County swimmers — and heard they had been vindicated.

The U.S. Department of Justice Investigation had concluded a three-year investigation and found that their coach, Chad Cradock, had sexually harassed and discriminated against swimmers for years while the university failed to protect them, ignoring complaints of the abuse when they surfaced years before.

It was one step in a long journey toward justice, two of them said, that had taken years. One swimmer said she had “a lot of emotions. Happy that the truth has finally come out for everyone but also disappointed that it had taken so long.”

She is one of six former students who has filed a federal lawsuit against the university for actions by Cradock.

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The former swimmer said the DOJ findings validated the sexual harassment claims she and other students made in the fall of 2020 when they told their stories to UMBC’s Title IX office, which handles complaints of sex discrimination. The Baltimore Banner does not name victims of sexual harassment and abuse.

After some swimmers, men and women, came forward, they experienced a backlash from teammates. “Even our teammates didn’t believe what we were saying was true,” she said. “It has been very hard since those reports were made to have our teammates trying to downplay what we knew and experienced. I am just glad that there can be some kind of peace now.”

A second former swimmer and plaintiff in the suit said some of her teammates “made us feel crazy or weak because we couldn’t handle the pressure.” The DOJ report showed the rest of the world “what we experienced was wrong, and it wasn’t because we weren’t strong enough,” she said. She believes some of her teammates loved the coach so much that they could not believe the allegations. In other cases, she believes Cradock preyed on certain male swimmers and not on others.

Women on the swim team, the lawsuit said, were called demeaning names, witnessed the sexual abuse of male teammates and were treated with indifference. In one case, Cradock blamed a female swimmer for inciting a male swimmer to abuse her and failed to take action as an employee of UMBC, according to the lawsuit.

“We had some of our teammates calling us murderers because they believed we had all made it up.”

— Former UMBC swimmer

In March 2021, Cradock died by suicide, after the investigation expanded. Teammates blamed his death on those who had come forward. “We had some of our teammates calling us murderers because they believed we had all made it up,” the first swimmer said.

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On the Zoom call, listening to their attorneys speak about the DOJ conclusions, she relived some of the experiences. “Seeing it published for the world to see was a little bit hard.”

But, the second swimmer said, “it feels good to know that, when you advocate for yourself and others, justice can be served.”

‘A game changer’

For the university, the DOJ report may be just the beginning of a larger reckoning, according to lawyers representing the six students.

The DOJ investigation found evidence that Cradock was allowed “to do as he pleased without consequence, including engaging in physical sexual assaults” against students from 2015 to 2020. His targets were male swimmers whom he sexually assaulted, but the report found he created a hostile environment for women swimmers.

The DOJ said the university’s Title IX office, located under the General Counsel’s Office, failed to take action when students came forward as early as 2015. A thorough investigation did not take place until the fall of 2020, when several swimmers came forward with allegations and the university hired a law firm to do an independent investigation.

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“I think the [DOJ] letter is clear that it wasn’t just the athletic department that failed the students at UMBC. It was the Title IX office,” said Rignal Baldwin V, who represents the six former swimmers in the federal lawsuit.

“It is tough to get the courts to hold universities accountable on these somewhat abstract concepts” in Title IX, the law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, said Baldwin, who is co-counsel with Jeffrey Bowman at Bowman Jarashow. “The fact that the DOJ has done it and the university has accepted responsibility is a game changer. You don’t see that. I think this will affect Title IX policy nationwide.”

The DOJ letter has excruciating detail about the abuse of the swimmers on the team but also damning information about how the university failed to protect students.

“The report will provide a better environment for future student-athletes and students,” Bowman said. “The institutional failure to protect our clients and other students is what we have been saying through the process.”

The report is an important step but doesn’t resolve all of the issues, the lawyers said. They still have many questions they want answered.

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UMBC President Valerie Sheares Ashby said in an email to the community Monday that the university takes “full responsibility for what happened, and we commit ourselves not only to addressing the failures, but also to rebuilding our community’s trust.”

Because of the DOJ findings, hundreds of students and former students could come forward saying they were harmed by the failures of the Title IX office or the culture that allowed a hostile environment to exist for women swimmers, Baldwin said. The DOJ letter said the university had made a commitment to provide financial relief to certain student-athletes. How large a group that might be is not in the letter from the DOJ, but the department said it “remains available to speak to any student who would like to share their perspective.”

The next step will be for the DOJ and the university to enter into what the DOJ called a “comprehensive settlement agreement” that would require the university to implement reforms and expand training to improve UMBC’s response to sex discrimination. The DOJ has the authority to force the university to take action because the university receives millions of dollars from the federal government.

The settlement between the DOJ and the university will not end the civil federal lawsuit brought by students.

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