Three former Galena (Reno, Nev.) High School football players have sued the coach, principal and Washoe County School District, alleging they were kicked off the team for standing up to the coach’s bullying.
In the federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, the three players allege they were kicked off the varsity football team after they stood up to Coach Steve Struzyk for taunting and demeaning them during a dispute about an over-the-counter supplement. They also allege Principal Tom Brown backed Struzyk, telling the players that bullying behavior not allowed in the classroom is OK on the football field, according to the lawsuit.
Terri Keyser-Cooper, who represents high school seniors Mateo Lemus, Bryan Madison and Jake Berger, said state law and the district’s own anti-bullying policy prohibits such a double standard.
“The public policy point we’re trying to make is that this conduct is as prohibited on the athletic field as it is in the classroom,” Keyser-Cooper said. “This coach was over the top and played a significant role in harming these students and their future.”
In a prepared statement, spokeswoman Victoria Campbell said the school district couldn’t comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.
“The district, however, takes all such allegations seriously and is looking into this matter,” Campbell said. “Based on its findings, the district will continue to adjust its policies, regulations, and training practices to ensure that all our children receive the highest quality education available in a safe and respectful learning environment.
“We will also, when appropriate, vigorously defend the district’s actions.”
The three players had been co-captains of the football team this season and were recognized as star players for the school.
Berger played running back and safety. He had 245 yards rushing and 41 yards receiving in three games. Lemus played receiver and linebacker. He caught 10 passes for 137 yards and four touchdowns in the Grizzlies’ first three games. He also ran 10 times for 29 yards. And Madison played receiver and free safety. He caught two passes for 40 yards and two touchdowns.
Galena finished 2-7 and did not win a game after the players were dismissed the week of Sept. 17. The season ended Oct. 27.
Struzyk completed his 15th season at Galena. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
According to the lawsuit, the school discovered in September the three players had used a testosterone-enhancing supplement, Boost Elite, which is available over the counter. Keyser-Cooper said it was ultimately determined that the supplement was not prohibited by Nevada Interscholastic Athletic Association.
But Struzyk was troubled by it. He called a meeting of the varsity players and angrily rescinded the trio’s status as team captains.
“Struzyk placed a trash can in the middle of the room and with dramatic flourish ripped up the captain’s papers for Lemus, Madison and Berger,” the lawsuit said. “Struzyk threw the ripped captains papers in a trash can he had positioned nearby. Struzyk condemned Lemus, Madison and Berger as a disgrace and unsuitable to be captains.”
A few days later, Struzyk called Lemus into his office and interrogated him about his use of the supplement and whether he sold it to other players, which Lemus denied. The lawsuit said the conversation took nearly 90 minutes as Struzyk berated Lemus, calling him a “cancer” on the team and belittling both his football and leadership skills.
When Lemus tried to defend himself, the coach became enraged, the lawsuit said.
“I’m not the kind of person to bend over and take this,” Lemus said, according to the suit.
“You better learn to bend over if I tell you to,” Struzyk responded, according to the suit.
As the conversation spiraled, Lemus felt that he was being forced to leave the team. He handed over his football gear and thanked Struzyk for the opportunity to play, the lawsuit said.
In the days that followed, Madison and Berger approached Struzyk, hoping to convince him to bring Lemus back. Struzyk angrily rejected their entreaty, kicked them out of his office and told them to “turn their (stuff) in,” according to the lawsuit.
When the boys and their parents asked principal Brown to intercede, Brown told them such language is just “football talk.” A district investigation into a bullying complaint filed by the players’ parents found “there is not enough corroborating evidence to substantiate” school personnel violated the district’s anti-bullying policies.
Outside of the confrontation over the supplements, the players reported that abusive language by coaches was common during practices.
Keyser-Cooper acknowledged that tough language is common in athletics, but said abusive language shouldn’t be accepted. She said the district’s own policies prohibit it, pointing to a coaches handbook that advises coaches to treat players as they would treat their own children and to always act as a role model.
“That way of treating football players is not supposed to happen, at least at the public high schools,” she said.
She added that she doesn’t believe these players are overly sensitive.
“These guys have been around football their whole life,” she said. “It’s not like they woke up one day and got offended because someone said something awful to them.”