Rachelle Thompson: Power over Ethics?

It isn’t a question of “Who is Rachelle Thompson?” It is a matter of “What have collegiate sports created in encouraging Rachelle Thompson?”

As for the “who,” it is easy to find a biography in the PSU media guide. Prior to joining the Penn State coaching squad in 2011, she had quite an impressive career. A product of Auburn (she graduated summa cum laude in 2004), she was a two-time Auburn University Assistant Coach of the Year over an 11 year career at that school, produced four NCAA All-Americans and four All-SEC team members. Before joining the Auburn staff she was a choreographer and volunteer coach. She, herself was an All-American gymnast and received numerous honors.

As for the “What?” of it all, the waters are ethically muddy, especially as some of her former athletes are beginning to step forward.

In an excellent article appearing in People (May 31, 2016) by writer Rennie Dyball, an image appears of Rachelle Thompson that is quite different from her credentials:

“Two former gymnasts described to PEOPLE how they were demeaned, pressured to continue practicing through injuries and body-shamed by coaches (one of whom allegedly told the team, ‘you guys look like you ate your way’ through a school break).”

Apparently the abusive tactics were so severe, that the 2015-2016 Penn State team featured no seniors. In fact, every athlete the Thompsons (the coaching duo of Rachelle and her husband) recruited as freshmen in 2012 had long quit the team by 2016.  While PSU found no abuse in their investigation of the Thompsons, the gymnasts tell a very different story. Who to believe? Just from the information that appears on the surface of it all, the fact that the students have come forward and Rachelle and Jeff Thompson have “disappeared” from view and are no longer available for comment are troubling.

Body Shaming is One Thing, but…

While it may be true that in this era of participation trophies and helicopter parents that many kids are being overly-coddled and rendered ill-prepared for life, it is equally true that some coaches and programs are completely clueless as to priority. Far too many coaches lose sight of what is important, what student athletes need and the fact that many of these kids…are still kids.

I don’t know what drove Rachelle Thompson to shame kids for being heavier than she wanted them to be, or why she was motivated to mock a student athlete for not living up to the expectations of a parent who had died only four months earlier, or why she felt the need to dig into their personal dating habits, but when it came to injuries I draw the line.

In athletes, especially in gymnasts, being ordered to play through joint pain seems to run counter to any logical perception of how a coach should coach.

In the years ahead, how student athletes, especially those with injuries will be managed will come under increasing scrutiny. The scrutiny has already started in collegiate football and hockey, and it will expand to other sports whether “we” want it to or not.

The mission of sports ethics, is not to critique a failed floor routine, but it should be to ask why a coach would shame a kid with a torn meniscus to keep gritting her way through routines that will result in painful surgery two years after she graduates.

Far too many athletes have been ordered to play through pain, and far too many become “Saturday’s Heroes,” banged up and discarded before graduation because coaches somehow want to re-live their own careers through the athletes they’ve been entrusted to coach.

Please don’t tell me about “pressure.” Pressure is all around us. No matter what we do in life pressure is a given. I also know the difference (to a point) between coaching a D-1 lineman looking to enter the NFL draft and a D-III volleyball player on a partial scholarship.

A gymnastics coach is judged by performance – yes, but ethically any coach must place the safety and wellness of the athlete above any other consideration. It is why we are so concerned about bringing ethical issues into sharp focus for coaches. It is not about “you,” ultimately, it is about them.

Why Rachelle Thompson and not her husband you may ask? Are we being chauvinistic here? No at all, and in fact quite the opposite. Ethics is blind. Ethics does not know gender, race, religious preference, sexual orientation or any other point of differentiation.

When we are accustomed to thinking of a hard-nosed, mean or demeaning coach, the prototype is a cigar-chomping, sweaty-faced football coach and not a thin, muscular female who started her career in dance. However, poor ethics is still poor ethics.

I have known strength and conditioning coaches topping 280 pounds and as tall as trees, who yelled, screamed, cussed and pushed who still were human, compassionate and people of character. There is no typical coach, but there are good ethics and bad.


For more information/media inquiries on Sports Ethics, LLC:

Chuck Gallagher, President and Co-Founder

Telephone: (828) 244-1400


Website: www.Sportsethics.com




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