Last Thursday, Brandeis University fired head basketball coach Brian Meehan, citing a series of discrimination complaints from players. The firing was announced just days after Deadspin contacted Brandeis for comment on a number of specific allegations made against Meehan by a group of former players.
As Deadspin reported last week, the complaints that eventually led to Meehan’s firing were made in May 2017, but new information shows that Brandeis was aware of at least one other complaint from a former player about Meehan’s abusive behavior as far back as 2013.
In the days since our initial report was published, Deadspin has heard from three parents of former Brandeis players, four former players, and one former student manager, all of whom had their own stories about Meehan’s abusive behavior. One parent provided Deadspin with emails she sent to Brandeis administrators—Sheryl Sousa, the former athletic director and current vice president of student affairs; Lynne Dempsey, the now-suspended athletic director; and Fred Lawrence, the former president of Brandeis—in October 2014, complaining about treatment that both she and her son considered racist. The former student manager, a Jewish man, told Deadspin that Meehan often referred to him as “Jew Boy.”
Sousa, Dempsey, Meehan, and Lawrence did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. Brandeis’s spokesperson responded with the following email:
As you know from the message from our president that we sent you on Friday, we have hired independent investigators who will be looking at these and any other concerns raised.
Ryne Williams played for Meehan 2012 to 2015; he graduated in 2016 with a double-major in sociology and Health: Science, Society and Policy (HSSP).
The first year was rough for the Houstonian, he and his mother say. In addition to moving across the country to go to college, he was dealing with a basketball coach who he felt routinely singled out certain players and berated them harder than what they felt the situation called for. As one of the team’s youngest African-American players, Ryne felt that Meehan discriminated based on race, citing several situations in which he was admonished for mistakes that went uncommented on when committed by a white player on the team.
In one instance, during the first week of January 2013 (Ryne’s first season with the Judges), he says Meehan stopped practice to yell at him—Ryne says Meehan called him a “motherfucker”—for not cutting all the way through the lane during practice.
“A guy is over-playing me, so I go backdoor. Then, the player, they’ll cheat it, so you’ll pop back out and have a wide-open shot,” Ryne recalled. “His thing was that if you cut, you go all the way through. So, I just got there and so I did that and he just lashed out, going off on me, screaming at me, stopping practice. I kid you not: Two minutes later, one of the white players—that sounds kind of weird to say it like that—but one of the white players did the exact same thing I did, and Meehan didn’t do or say anything. When I saw that I was super confused. At the end of the day, it’s basketball, and that’s how coaches are. But for me it’s just the simple fact that you’re calling me an m-fer and then somebody does the same exact thing.”
Ryne says he experienced similar treatment daily at practice, and it didn’t take long before it began to weigh on his performance in the classroom. During his first two years at school, Ryne says he faltered academically and sank into depression.
Ryne complained about Meehan’s behavior, citing the January 2013 incident specifically, while filling out the annual end-of-year survey that year. The answers were supposed to be anonymous, but Ryne suspected that given the small size of the team, it wouldn’t have been hard for whoever was tasked with reviewing the surveys to identify the respondents. The next season, Ryne appeared in just six games, with every appearance coming during garbage time, he says. He was next-to-last on the team in average minutes per game at 4.0; in those few appearances, he shot 33 percent from the field, 33 percent from behind-the-arc, and 100 percent from the free throw line.
Going into his junior season, Ryne was determined to give his all to basketball—he spent the entire summer working out and training, and the team had lost a number of seniors. But after third practice of the season, he says Meehan brought him into his office—the coach had been holding pre-season meeting with several players—and informed Ryne that he wouldn’t be playing much, if at all, that year.
The information caught Ryne off guard. Not only had the team not even scrimmaged yet, but he had spent the entire summer training for a shot in the main rotation for the upcoming season, now that he was an upperclassman and had taken his licks. Before he left, Ryne said at the end of the meeting that he confronted Meehan and asked whether the decision and the manner in which he chose to inform him was personal. Ryne remembers Meehan assuring him that it was nothing personal, and telling him that he was a “great kid.”
After that meeting, on Oct. 17, 2014, Ryne emailed then-assistant athletic director Lynne Dempsey, requesting a meeting for that afternoon. Dempsey responded within an hour and set the meeting for 3 p.m.
At the meeting, Ryne said he told Dempsey “exactly what Meehan had just told me.” He explained that Meehan told him he wouldn’t be playing without ever seeing him in a live game against his new teammates, and he detailed how he’d been treated over the previous two season.
“She just tried to comfort me,” he said. “She didn’t do anything further. She just kept saying, ‘It’s okay, just stick in there.’”
On Oct. 17, the same day Ryne met with Dempsey, he called his mother, Willie Mae Williams, to tell her about the meeting. He’d previously confided in her about his issues with Meehan, and this time she took matters into her own hands. She told Deadspin that she called Sheryl Sousa, then the athletic director, and explained in detail what her son had told her and how she had seen him change in his two years on the team.
“I called Sousa, told her about those situations,” Williams said. “[Sousa] said ‘Well, you know, it could be that some of those boys are better.’ I said, ‘It’s not even the playing, it’s the inappropriate behavior by Meehan.’ She said, ‘Well, he’s always saying nice things about Ryne.’ And then I said, ‘If he said all those nice things about my boy, why’d he call him a motherfucker?’ She got real quiet. She got real quiet. So I said, ‘Due to the situation about him being depressed and stressed out, I think it’s going to be best if Ryne is off the team.’”
Williams sent the following email formally withdrawing Ryne from the team that same evening to Sheryl Sousa, Lynne Dempsey, and Brian Meehan; she CC’d assistant coaches Joe Coppens and Terrell Hollins.
Williams then told Sousa to place her email in Ryne’s athletic file and to confirm when she had done so. Three days later, Sousa confirmed to Williams that the email was in Ryne’s file, adding, “Please let Ryne know that both Lynne and I wish him the very best.”
By that time, Williams had already drafted and sent an email to then-Brandeis president Fred Lawrence. In it, Williams informed Lawrence that she had already sent the email to Sousa and Dempsey; she also informed him that Meehan “called my son out of his name with profanity” in practice during the first week of January 2013, that Ryne had reported it on the athlete’s survey, and that she had directly discussed this treatment in an Oct. 17 conversation with Sousa.
Lawrence sent her the following response four days later, on Friday, Oct. 24:
Reflecting on her family’s time dealing with Meehan and the tight-knit circle of administrators in the athletic department, Williams said she was angry and disappointed, but also proud of her son and other players who spoke up in the face of what she saw as clear racial discrimination and unfair coaching practices.
“I’m very impressed with those students. I know it wouldn’t happen without them,” she said. “I thought this coach was going to keep doing this and nobody would do anything about this...It’s a shame these athletic directors didn’t do anything.”
Phil Keisman was a student manager on Brian Meehan’s teams from 2004 to 2007. After reading Thursday’s article about why Brandeis fired Meehan, he reached out to Deadspin to share his experience, which he had not discussed with anyone in the Brandeis athletic department or administration.
Keisman joined the program hoping to carve out a future in the game he loved; a self-described “short and chubby” guy at the time, he saw a role as a manager on an upstart Judges basketball team as the best route.
Between his sophomore and junior seasons, Keisman was considering studying abroad for a semester; when he informed Meehan of this, he says the coach advised against it, implying that he wouldn’t receive his help in landing a job come graduation if he spent a full semester away from the team.
By then, Keisman was realizing the opportunity to be around the game at Brandeis came with a cost. Keisman recalls Meehan remarking on his size and religion, and encouraging other staffers to join in on the fun. “As one of the team’s only Jews at a predominately Jewish school, he often referred to me as ‘Jew Boy,’ and made comments about my ethnicity/faith and what it must be like to be among Jews at Brandeis frequently,” Keisman wrote to Deadspin. “Interestingly enough, one of his assistants, who was generally a nice guy, picked up on this as a way to ‘get ahead’ on Meehan’s staff. He began making fun of me. The thing is—this guy was Jewish himself. I remember when he and I went to a Celtics game together once, and he made an obnoxious comment about the size of my nose. I stared at him and he apologized. It wasn’t clear then, but in retrospect I realized—this was a nice guy caught in a toxic culture where verbally abusing me was the way to get ahead.”
Keisman never got his letter of recommendation, and Meehan never helped him land a job, even after he stuck around the help out the team for the summer after graduating. Keisman eventually moved to New York City, got a job, and moved on with his life.
“In my time there, Meehan had a picture of Bobby Knight in his office,” Keisman wrote. “I have little doubt that Meehan believed that his bullying was an advanced motivation technique. And to be honest, it worked on me. Just as it worked on the players... But efficacy doesn’t make it okay. He built a culture of hierarchy, distrust, and nastiness that permeated his coaching staff. I always noticed that players would leave between years, but in my self-centered late adolescence, I never thought anything of it. In retrospect, I’m sorry I never stood up. I look at guys from my time who left the team, and to the players in your initial article and feel responsibility.”
Brandeis will now move forward with a pair of external investigators, lawyers who will comb through the athletic department in hopes of untangling the complaints players and families have been trying for years to get someone to act on. Dempsey was placed on administrative leave, the university announced in a Friday news dump; Sheryl Sousa appears to remain in good standing with the university. Meehan’s firing last week happened five years after Ryne’s first complaint was made in the end-of-year survey.