Lacrosse coach released from contract amid potential cuts to scholarships and roster spots of five players
Former coach raises concerns of gender bias against AU
This article has been updated with corrections since it was first published. Three players have now transfered from the University. Additionally, four out of the five players that received Petrucelli's initial letter on Nov. 25 had scholarships and a quote from Petrucelli has been corrected.
American University released former lacrosse head coach Jenna Petrucelli from her contract in December without a public statement after an investigation conducted by the University determined that she had committed “violations of university policy.”
The University launched the investigation in response to complaints about misconduct and mismanagement of the team. On Nov. 25, Petrucelli drafted a letter to five freshmen lacrosse players, which stated that the five athletes would likely be denied playing time during the season and removed from the roster at the end of the year. The letter further informed players that, if they chose to leave the program, their athletic scholarships would not be renewed.
Four of these five student-athletes have officially left the lacrosse program since the incident, and three of the four student-athletes have transferred from the University. Multiple players have hired an attorney to represent their interest in the matter.
After Petrucelli was placed on leave on Dec. 4, the University invalidated the contents of the letter and informed players that they would remain on the team’s roster if they wished.
The lacrosse supervisor at the time, Andrew Smith, is no longer in the position of lacrosse supervisor, but he is still employed in the athletic department.
Petrucelli said that she acted within the University’s rules as a coach and correctly followed the University’s procedure for making potential roster cuts, which included informing her superiors, Smith and Athletic Director Billy Walker, ahead of Nov. 25. Petrucelli also said that both of her superiors gave her the freedom to “manage the roster as [she] saw fit,” and supported her decision throughout the process.
AU hired Petrucelli in July 2018 after head coach Emma Wallace’s resignation. This was the first head coaching position for Petrucelli, who previously served as an assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati and Bucknell University.
Freshman Shaylah Devlin, one of the players who transferred from AU in Dec. 2019, accused Petrucelli of creating a “toxic and fearful environment,” by engaging in harmful dialogue with the players and, at the verbal direction of Smith, adding a document into the team handbook which prevented players from communicating about the lacrosse program with individuals outside of the team.
Petrucelli hired civil rights and employment lawyer Thomas Newkirk to represent herself but has not filed a lawsuit against the University. Newkirk’s firm specializes in implicit gender bias cases and has asked the University to investigate their claims that gender bias occurred in the process of her release. Newkirk and Petrucelli argued that their case mirrors that of dozens of others across the country.
“We have asked them to look into this, and we hope they are going to reach out to us to embrace the information that we are glad to provide to them,” Newkirk said. “They haven’t done so yet, but I am hopeful that they will.”
The Eagle reached out to the American University athletic department, who declined to comment on specific personnel involved in this situation but responded to other relevant claims in the piece.
On Nov. 25, 2019, Petrucelli called five freshman lacrosse players into her office, who entered one-by-one to meet with her and assistant coach Lindsey Ronbeck. Petrucelli handed these five players a letter (pictured below) and informed each player that they had to sign it before she could talk to them. All five players signed the letter as they were asked.
In the letter, Petrucelli explains that the players’ membership on the team was in limbo, telling the five freshmen “it would be very unlikely that you are kept on the roster at the end of this academic year.”
Additionally, the letter stated that although players would be given the option to stay on the lacrosse team, this was “with the understanding that you will likely not be getting any reps at practice or earning any minutes in game.”
Petrucelli said that the decision to give players this letter came after several conversations with Walker and Smith. Petrucelli approached Smith ahead of Nov. 25 to inform him of the players who she felt were not meeting the “level and expectation of performance and skill set for a division one program,” and she received permission from Smith to move forward with her decision. Smith agreed and contacted Walker, who also agreed to support the decision.
The student-athlete handbook states that coaches should talk to the student-athletes who may not have their athletic scholarship renewed “as early in the decision-making process as possible,” and that coaches should document concerns in writing to that athlete and Andrew Smith.
Four of the five players who were given this letter had scholarships. Devlin said that the five freshmen met after their meetings and were upset that Petrucelli was taking their scholarship money.
“That’s when it clicked in our heads that she wants our scholarship money for her new recruits,” Devlin said. “Jenna was very, very, very focused on her recruits.”
Unlike some other sports, lacrosse is an “equivalency sport,” which means that the coach can only award their players with a certain amount of scholarship money.
An athletic department spokesperson told the Eagle that the University does not have 12 full scholarships budgeted to the lacrosse team, which is the maximum amount allowed by the NCAA.
The athletic department told the five players that they could rejoin the team if they wished. However, at no point were the players officially guaranteed their scholarship money for the following year. The student-athlete handbook explains that University policy dictates “Renewal of athletic grant-in-aid [commonly referred to as athletic scholarship] from year to year is NOT automatic.”
Of the five players who received the letter, only one decided to rejoin the team.
After players disclosed allegations of misbehavior to the athletic department, the University launched an investigation and placed Petrucelli on leave on Dec. 4 to look into the complaints. Two weeks later, on Dec. 20, the AU athletic department invalidated the letter Petrucelli had given to the five freshmen and announced that “appropriate action” had been taken.
Devlin explained that the timing of Petrucelli’s decision over Thanksgiving break was an additional source of stress for the players, who were informed just two weeks before finals – and after many transfer deadlines for the spring semester had passed. According to toptieradmissions.com, many schools have mid-October deadlines for students who wish to transfer.
These five players were off-campus during the break and were given an extension to take their finals from home. The University additionally provided several support resources for the students, including Director of Employment Compliance and Relations Brenda Harner and Executive Director of the Counseling Center Jeffrey Volkmann.
Devlin expressed additional discomfort with the letter’s timing, which came immediately after Petrucelli’s attendance at the IWLCA Presidents Cup from Nov. 22 to Nov. 24. The President’s Cup serves as a large recruiting event for women’s lacrosse and includes a convention for collegiate coaches.
Petrucelli affirmed that she followed procedure and believed it was the best timing for the students, despite the difficulty of the decision.
“I followed the policy and procedure that's listed in the athletic department handbook to make roster changes as soon as that decision has been made by the coach,” Petrucelli said. “That decision coincided with the end of the fall segment, which was the entirety of the evaluation period I needed to reflect upon in order to make that decision.”
After the fall semester, the five dismissed freshmen and several other players on the team met with AU’s Human Resources department. Devlin said that their goal was to make sure Petrucelli was held accountable for her actions so that no one else would have to experience what they went through.
The 2019-2020 season
According to Devlin, Petrucelli “made the team full of fear” and is responsible for creating a “toxic environment” within the program.
“It’s really unfortunate,” Devlin said. “A person in power that I was supposed to look up to and was supposed to be a role model to me was the person who knocked me down and ruined the sport that I loved.”
At the start of the season, Devlin said that Petrucelli made a number of the athletes uncomfortable. After Petrucelli gained wind of the athlete’s complaints to other AU athletes, she showed up at practice with what Devlin referred to as a “non-disclosure policy.”
One of the sections titled “External Communication” prohibited any “communication regarding lacrosse team personnel, information, issues, employment, processes, rules, operations, etc.”
The University invalidated this document as well, finding its language to be “not consistent with University policies or values.” Petrucelli claimed that the policy was implemented into the handbook to prevent any potential NCAA tampering violations between players and coaches at other universities.
According to multiple sources, Petrucelli took the policy seriously and reiterated the message to players after a parent had called her in the fall.
Additionally, according to Devlin and other sources involved, Petrucelli told the freshman in one-on-one meetings at the start of the year that she wouldn’t have recruited any of the current players, but that the administration had forced her to keep them.
While Petrucelli was investigated and released from her contract following the Nov. 25 letter, the other coaches at the University who have made cuts have received less pushback from the athletic department.
“Several of the men's programs at American University were permitted to make cuts,” Petrucelli said. “And it didn't result in the tumultuous aftermath. They weren't investigated, and they are still employed.”
A spokesperson for the athletic department stated that all roster decisions, such as potential cuts, are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
“All of our sports programs compete at the highest competitive level in Division I, and roster changes are a part of that process,” an athletics department spokesperson said. “Each roster decision is based on individual circumstances regarding the student-athletes’ responsibilities and the team’s expectations.”
Petrucelli and Newkirk claim that Petrucelli followed procedure and that her release is a symptom of gender bias within the athletic department. They stated that they wish to educate the University on the issues of implicit gender bias and gendered socialization and avoid a lawsuit.
“I strongly believe that if this could happen to someone like me, who follows policy and procedure, who conducted themselves appropriately, who did everything right — it can happen to anyone,” Petrucelli said. “And I want to save the next female coach tomorrow from what I was very clearly a victim of today.”
Newkirk believes that the way young people are socialized causes people to expect them to report complaints differently, particularly with higher reporting rates for female coaches.
“Even if Jenna Petrucelli, never raised her voice differently, never raised her eyebrows differently … [followed] exactly the same behavior as every male coach on the University — she will be judged differently for some student-athletes, because she's a woman in a male-dominated job,” Newkirk said.
Newkirk is confident that gender bias affected Petrucelli’s employment because her case mirrors that of many others across the country.
“How do I know it affected coach Petrucelli? Because I've seen it 150 times because I've seen it again, and again, and again, and again, and again,” Newkirk said. “The complaints [made about the coach] all look the same.”
Petrucelli echoed his sentiments.
“Women and men should be able to coach in the same way, and female and male athletes should be subjected to the same standards,” Petrucelli said. “To think, believe or behave otherwise would be absolutely patronizing to women.”
Leaving the Program
Devlin said that leaving AU after just one semester was a difficult decision.
“I was on the fence about going back or not because I wanted to play in college,” Devlin said. “I liked American and loved my teammates. My teammates got me through a lot of those tough days.”
Ultimately, though, Devlin said that she was “miserable” and found the decision to be a necessary one.
“I was scared there would be grudges held,” Devlin said. “I know the seniors were upset because they thought their final season would be ruined.”
In an additional memo to the women’s lacrosse team on Dec. 5, Walker told players that “AU policy expressly prohibits any retaliation against anyone who files a complaint,” and that “any incidents of retaliatory behavior” would be “swiftly addressed.”
After Petrucelli’s dismissal
Petrucelli has continued to coach after being dismissed from the University and was in contact with the assistant coaches immediately following the University’s decision.
Four days after Petrucelli was placed on leave, she and both assistant coaches held a winter clinic for middle and high school players at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland. The clinic was planned before Dec. 4.
Petrucelli currently works for DEWLAX, a lacrosse club and education program in New Jersey that works with lacrosse players from the youth, middle school and high school levels. Petrucelli has had a relationship working on-and-off with DEWLAX since 2014 and is moving into a larger role to become the director of player development in addition to a mental performance consultant.
Harner stated in the University’s Dec. 20 memo that “additional measures are being put in place to ensure that such conduct is not repeated.”
Maureen Breslin served as the interim head coach this season while AU looks for Petrucelli’s replacement. Breslin served as the assistant coach of AU’s field hockey team from 2003 to 2006 and played one season of lacrosse at Bucknell University. She called the opportunity to coach challenging and exciting in an early February Linkedin post.
“Maureen Breslin did an outstanding job as interim head coach and we so appreciate her commitment,” a spokesperson for the athletic department said. “As detailed when she was hired, we will begin a national search for a permanent coach.”
The lacrosse team had its season shortened by the NCAA on March 12, due to the spread of the coronavirus and only played in non-conference games this season. The lacrosse team played all of its games under Breslin, during which they got off to the best start in program history and finished as one of just eight teams to go undefeated in Division I play (7-0).