U-M athletics department fires Rhonda Faehn less than a week after hiring her

Monday, January 14, 2019 - 12:50am

The Michigan athletics department fired Rhona Faehn just days after she joined the staff.

The Michigan athletics department fired Rhona Faehn just days after she joined the staff. Buy this photo
Max Kuang/Daily

This article was updated Monday, Jan. 14 at 12:10 AM.

The University of Michigan Athletics Department announced Sunday night it was ending its “consulting relationship” between Rhonda Faehn and the Michigan women’s gymnastics team.

Faehn, a former senior vice president of USA Gymnastics who left amid the fallout of the Larry Nassar scandal, joined the coaching staff on Thursday, Jan 10.

In the Department’s public statement disclosing the termination of Faehn’s contract, the University’s Director of Athletics Warde Manuel provided the following remarks:

“I have come to the conclusion that it is not in the best interest of the University of Michigan and our athletic program to continue the consulting contract with Rhonda Faehn. It was the wrong decision, and I apologize. Our student-athletes are our highest priority and I want to do everything in my power to support them fully and put the focus back on their athletic performance.”

The announcement came hours after Michigan’s Board of Regents expressed disappointment and concern regarding the new hire to the Detroit Free Press.

“I do not support the hiring of Rhonda Faehn, and believe the university should end its relationship with her,” Regent Mark Bernstein told the Free Press earlier in the day.

Regent Jordan Acker, who was elected to the board this November, provided the following statement on Twitter expressing his criticism of the selection of Faehn:

Morgan McCaul, an LSA sophomore and survivor of Nassar’s abuse, spoke to The Daily on Sunday evening about the importance of the message sent by the Athletic Department when it acted swiftly in reversing its decision on Faehn.

“Honestly, it’s been relieving and it’s been kind of whiplash,” McCaul said. “My experience with MSU has been that they dig their heels in and they refuse to admit when they’re wrong, and it’s taken a year and a half to see even a shred of change on that campus, so such a quick turnaround as to this situation has been unexpected and well-received by myself and many other women I know.”

Since the moment the hire was announced, the decision spurred controversy, drawing both wide criticism on Twitter — including from Nassar survivors — as well as defense of the hiring decision from others, including current and former members of the gymnastics team.

Faehn was first spotted at the women’s gymnastics team’s second meet of the season, hosted at the University of Alabama, by Terrin Waack, a sports reporter for The Tuscaloosa News and TideSports.com, who was present at the meet in Tuscaloosa, Ala. On Friday evening, a spokesperson for the team confirmed to The Daily that Faehn had been hired on Jan 10.  

“I can confirm that Rhonda Faehn did join us recently and was with us tonight in Tuscaloosa for the meet,” the spokesperson said in a statement Friday evening.

Saturday afternoon, the University of Michigan Athletics Department issued a press release formally announcing and defending the hiring decision. The statement described Faehn’s role on staff as a “consultant in a coaching capacity”, though the Department website officially listed her title as an “assistant coach.” Faehn’s name has since been removed from the website.

In Saturday’s release, the University’s Director of Athletics Warde Manuel noted that “a thorough review of Faehn's coaching career and her involvement with USA Gymnastics” was conducted before he decided to support the selection of Faehn.

“The well-being and safety of our student-athletes is always our highest priority,” Manuel stated Saturday. “Our current student-athletes had a prominent voice throughout this search process to provide their perspective. This included a meeting between me and the captains before a final decision was made.

“After our exhaustive due diligence, we felt comfortable that coach Faehn reported all information available to her regarding Larry Nassar and that she cooperated fully, including voluntarily participating in all investigations and offering testimony before Congress. Neither an internal investigation by USA Gymnastics or a criminal investigation by the FBI have assigned culpability or resulted in any charges against her.”

A day later, Manuel determined it was the “wrong decision.”

The addition of Faehn to the coaching staff was received as a controversial decision due to the nature of her departure from USA Gymnastics, which occurred in May 2018.

“I was extremely disturbed to find out that she had been hired, because I think it sends a message not just to survivors of Nassar’s abuse on campus, but it sends a message to all survivors on the campus that proven enablers would have been tolerated and would have been allowed to be hired and honestly be defended by the university,” McCaul said.

Early on in her position with USA Gymnastics, Faehn was notified about potential abuse concerns relating to then-team physician Larry Nassar. Faehn informed then-USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny of these concerns, and the organization went on to conduct an internal investigation before removing Nassar from his position or going to federal authorities, as was reported by the Associated Press in May.

USA Gymnastics failed to notify Michigan State University — where Nassar was a faculty member — of these concerns during this time frame. In the aftermath of Nassar pleading guilty to child pornography charges in the summer of 2017 and to multiple counts of sexual assault of minors in the winter of 2018, the organization faced multiple lawsuits from victims.

Faehn was not specifically named in the lawsuits, but faced criticism from numerous Nassar survivors who called for her removal. This included U.S. Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, who told the Indianapolis Star that she had reported Nassar’s abuse to Faehn in “graphic detail,” but Faehn and other officials waited a week before going to the FBI. A week after that interview, USA Gymnastics decided to part with Faehn. Her departure was met with mixed opinions from the gymnastics community.

Prior to her time at USA Gymnastics, Faehn headed the University of Florida’s women’s gymnastics program from 2003 to 2015, taking the team to three consecutive national titles in her last three seasons as head coach. She has worked previously as a student assistant coach at the University of California, Los Angeles, and in assistant coaching roles at the University of Maryland and the University of Nebraska.  

Faehn was added to the coaching staff following the removal of assistant coach Scott Vetere, who resigned from his position on Oct. 15, 2018. Vetere resigned following a misdemeanor charge for obscene conduct in public in which officers found him engaged in sexual activity in a car with an 18-year-old gymnast.

“I felt that (the Faehn hire) was sending a message that reputation or athletic success would take precedent over student safety,” McCaul said. “And that’s unacceptable.”

Maya Goldman contributed to this article.