Former UC Berkeley student accuses Cal football coaches, players of sexual harassment

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Update 3/26/19: This story has been updated to reflect additional information.

Content warning: Sexual harassment and sexual violence

A former UC Berkeley student who worked in the sports medicine division of Cal Athletics accused several Cal football coaches and players of sexual harassment in a public Facebook post Wednesday morning.

In her post, former campus junior Paige Cornelius alleged that “ruthless, endless and persistent” harassment from members of the Cal football staff and team forced her to withdraw from school to seek therapy.

As of Thursday afternoon, Cornelius’ Facebook profile and original post were no longer publicly accessible. Cornelius later reposted her story to her Facebook profile Friday afternoon.

Cornelius joined the Sports Medicine Program as a hydro technician — whose duties include setting up the field with hydration and medical equipment as well as giving water and Gatorade to players — for the Cal football team in spring 2018. A member of Cal Athletics who formerly worked with Cornelius and who asked to remain anonymous because he can’t speak publicly about his employers said Cornelius left the program in fall 2018.

Cornelius could not be reached for comment as of press time.

In her Facebook post, Cornelius alleged that the harassment began her first day working for the Cal football team — she alleged that she was “stared up and down, by coaches and players alike.” Cornelius also claimed that her Instagram account was flooded with “creepy” direct messages from several football players a few hours after her first shift ended.

The harassment continued, Cornelius alleged, when a new coach arrived during the summer and cornered her during practice asking her “deeply personal” questions.

“One day after practice, I realized he was following me home … before he caught up to me outside my front door,” Cornelius alleged in her post. “He asked me what I was doing that weekend, and that we should go to the pool, because ‘I would look amazing in a bikini.’ ”

Cornelius said in her post that the coach is still employed by Cal Athletics.

In a separate incident, Cornelius claimed that a different football coach began sending her unwelcome texts, which eventually led to an invitation to visit the stadium offices at midnight. She said in the post that she was under the influence and “not legally in a state of mind to be consenting to sex.”

“He snuck me into his office, I put my backpack and binder down, and he immediately grabbed for my waist,” Cornelius alleged in the post.

The coach then allegedly kissed Cornelius and pushed her against the wall, after which Cornelius claimed she left.

The next day at practice, Cornelius claimed, the coach cornered her.

“If you do not have sex with me, I will get you fired,” he allegedly told Cornelius.

The staff member involved in this alleged incident was a volunteer assistant, the anonymous source confirmed. The source added that the assistant no longer works for Cal Athletics.

Cornelius alleged that her calls and emails to Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox and Cal Athletics director Jim Knowlton — among other coaches and campus administrators — went unreturned.

She also said in her post that she has medically withdrawn from UC Berkeley for the remainder of the semester.

Cal Athletics released a statement Wednesday afternoon stating that it has referred the matter to the UC Berkeley Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, or OPHD, which is responsible for investigating sexual violence and sexual harassment, or SVSH, allegations on campus.

These allegations go against the very core of our values,” the statement said. “Cal Athletics is and will always be committed to fostering a culture where everyone feels safe, welcome and respected.”

Danielle Ireland, a Cal football sports medicine intern who worked alongside Cornelius, said she personally has not received any “lewd” comments from the coaches or players during her time with the program.

Ireland added, however, that though she has “never felt uncomfortable” doing her job, she believes it is important to support women in any instances of sexual violence.

“I want women to feel empowered to pursue what they’re passionate about,” Ireland said. “They should be able to do this without the fear of falling victim to sexual assault.”

In a statement released Thursday morning, Knowlton called the allegations “serious” and “disturbing,” emphasizing Cal Athletics’ dedication to fostering a culture of “dignity and respect.”

Knowlton added that upon learning about the allegations, he and Wilcox “immediately” referred the incident to OPHD.

“I have no greater responsibility at this moment in time than ensuring we do the right things in the right way,” Knowlton said in the statement. “We will be as transparent as possible every step of the way. You have my word on it.”

The allegations have sparked a larger campus conversation regarding SVSH issues at UC Berkeley.

ASUC External Affairs Vice President Nuha Khalfay said in an email she was “deeply disturbed” by the allegations, adding that the response from the campus and Cal Athletics has not been “satisfying in any way” — a sentiment echoed by ASUC Sexual Violence Commission assistant chair Erika Casey.

“We are disgusted by this story but not surprised,” Casey said in an email. “UC Berkeley needs to step up and finally do something.”

ASUC Senator Zach Carter said that, as a survivor of sexual violence himself, he commends Cornelius for publicly coming forward with her story. He added that Cal Athletics and the campus should improve SVSH training and intervention for its staff to facilitate dialogues regarding accountability and SVSH issues.

“Yes, in Cal Athletics all the athletes are receiving a sexual harassment seminar, but what about the adults?” Carter said. “Just because they’re of age and are employees, that doesn’t absolve them from the responsibility they have to create good cultures for their employees and athletes.”

Amber Tang is the university news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ambertang_dc.