Fresno State wrestling investigation shows sexual misconduct

Fresno State hired coach Troy Steiner in 2016 to rebuild a wrestling program that had been dropped by the athletics department as a cost-saving measure. Five years later, the program is shut down as a cost-savings move and subject of university Title IX and NCAA investigations.

Fresno State hired coach Troy Steiner in 2016 to rebuild a wrestling program that had been dropped by the athletics department as a cost-saving measure. Five years later, the program is shut down as a cost-savings move and subject of university Title IX and NCAA investigations.

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Fresno State coach Troy Steiner and former assistant coach Israel Silva are implicated in a cesspool of alleged inappropriate behavior in the Bulldogs’ now-defunct wrestling program, much of it sexual in nature, according to a university-sponsored investigation by an outside law firm.

A report on that probe by Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo summarizes findings regarding possible Title IX wrongdoing. It was presented in three parts and obtained by The Bee through a public records request.

In it, Silva was found to have engaged in inappropriate physical and verbal conduct of a sexual nature when he held a student-athlete face down on a bed in a hotel room during a 2018 road trip, making a comment that is usually used in the context of sexual intercourse.

Several student-athletes said Silva was thrusting his pelvis when on top of the student-athlete, but that could have just been inferred and was not corroborated by video of the incident that circulated among the team and made its way to the parents of at least one former Bulldogs wrestler. Both Silva and the student-athlete are said to be laughing in the video, according to notes from a parent interview with an athletics department staff member.

Another student-athlete said Silva “join[ed] in on the horseplay” on multiple occasions or “mount[ed] a guy as a joke,” but the student-athlete said he found that weird “because he’s a coach.”

The university issued the same statement it had on Tuesday regarding the NCAA notice of allegations on four rules infractions committed by Steiner, Silva and former volunteer coach Joe Colon.

“In early 2020, the university was made aware of potential concerns within our wrestling program,” the university said. “In full compliance with CSU, campus, and NCAA policies and procedures, the university and the Department of Athletics immediately launched an internal Title IX investigation and separately self-reported potential rules violations to the NCAA.”

According to the Title IX investigation report, Silva also had multiple instances of inappropriate verbal conduct of a sexual nature with or in front of members of the Bulldogs wrestling team including jokes about “banging” a student-athlete’s mother. Several witnesses also said he asked student-athletes to show him nude photos of their girlfriends, and asked student-athletes to show him a video on social media that was pornographic in nature and involved a girl engaging in sex acts with a dog.

One witness, identified as an assistant coach, said he heard Silva tell a student-athlete to share his girlfriend with other guys on the team. Specifically, since the student-athlete did not help another student-athlete with something, he had to “give (Witness 7) a night with Hannah.”

Hannah is not the girlfriend’s real name, it was changed in the report to protect the privacy of individuals.

Drug use described

Silva also is alleged to have assisted and/or facilitated efforts by student-athletes to violate drug testing obligations, warning student-athletes who had close relationships with him about upcoming tests.

That allegation was not sustained by a preponderance of evidence, but the majority of student-athletes acknowledged that there were members of the team using drugs. One said that he had observed on one occasion that a few teammates used cocaine, “molly” or ecstasy, LSD and mushrooms, and others said that they had heard about teammates using cocaine, acid and other “uppers.”

Silva was found to have encouraged or allowed student-athletes to hire strippers as part of a 2018 weekend official visit for recruits who may have been under 18 years of age, and failed to report that violation of athletics department regulations to the university’s Title IX coordinator or any athletics administrators.

The university initiated its investigation into the wrestling program in January 2020 after receiving internal reports about that party, which was held at the apartment of a wrestling student-athlete and included two or three strippers. Almost all of the wrestling student-athletes admitted to either attending the party, saw videos from the party or heard about it from teammates or coaches, according to the report.

The majority of those incidents occurred at an awkward time for Fresno State athletics, which was transitioning between athletics administrations. But similar incidents within the program likely go back further. One student-athlete said teammates had hired strippers at least twice before.

Once the allegations were made, athletics department and university officials acted quickly to investigate, report potential rules violations to the NCAA and impose meaningful corrective measures or penalties.

Athletics staff members started interviewing student-athletes on Jan. 22, 2020, and the Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo law firm was contacted on Jan. 30, 2020.

Stripper party just the start of the problems

Jacqueline D. Hang, a senior associate at AALRR, conducted the investigation and interviewed more than 40 witnesses including 31 wrestling student-athletes and two former wrestling student-athletes, an athletics trainer, an equipment room attendant and several athletics administrators.

Hang also used notes from interviews conducted by athletics department staff in the early stages of the investigation.

Not all of the allegations were corroborated by multiple witnesses or confirmed by a preponderance of evidence, but the AALRR report provides a deeper and more disturbing dive into a program and coaching staff that also is facing allegations of NCAA violations even after the university eliminated the sport following the 2021 season.

The wrestling, men’s tennis and women’s lacrosse programs were dropped due to a sharp decline in athletics revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Silva and Colon are alleged by the NCAA enforcement staff to have arranged for Colon’s girlfriend to provide a loan of about $350 to a student-athlete so that he could pay outstanding parking ticket fines that were preventing him from registering for fall semester classes, a Level II violation.

Steiner also is alleged to have a potential Level II violation by failing to promote an atmosphere for compliance within the program or monitor his staff during the 2018-’19 academic year.

Coach’s failure to report

A failure to report is the basis for the three allegations against the Bulldogs’ coach in the investigative reports from Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo.

Steiner failed to report the stripper party to the university Title IX coordinator or to athletics administrators. He failed to report student-athlete accounts in which they allegedly informed him about a student-athlete’s alleged violation of the university’s policy against domestic violence. And, he failed to report an incident when Witness 35, who is identified in the reports as an assistant coach, brought a female athlete into the men’s locker room without their knowledge while male athletes were undressing.

Steiner and Silva are not named in the reports, but are described as respondents. One respondent, according to the reports, has been the head coach of the Fresno State wrestling program since the 2017-18 season and previously coached at Oregon State. The other respondent has been an assistant coach of the wrestling program since 2017 and prior to that was an assistant coach at George Mason and at South Dakota State.

Steiner came to Fresno State from Oregon State, where he spent 10 years including four as associate head coach. Silva coached at George Mason from 2014 to 2016, and at South Dakota State from 2012 to 2014.

In the report, student-athletes requested that Silva be removed from his position as an assistant coach, and asked for more accountability from Witness 33, identified as Head Coach CSU Fresno Wrestling, who they described as being complicit in their handling of their concerns.

Silva was not retained following the 2020 season, and Steiner is under contract through June 2023 but is facing suspension or termination by the university if found in violation of NCAA or university rules and regulations.

The allegations, findings from investigation

The first of the three AALRR reports covers allegations from student-athletes that the respondent, an assistant coach of the Fresno State wrestling team, violated university policies against harassment and discrimination on the basis of gender/sex and race/national origin.

Silva in interviews with investigators denied engaging in harassing or discriminatory conduct and said that the athletes making the allegations were trying to build a case to get rid of him because they were “selfish and jealous of the close relationships he had with other athletes on the team.”

There clearly was a rift between student-athletes in the program.

But, in the report, the failure to report the stripper party and the sexually-charged verbal conduct constituted violations of California State University Executive Order 1097, the system-wide policy prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation, sexual misconduct, dating and domestic violence and stalking against students.

The second report covers allegations from student-athletes that Silva engaged in unprofessional behavior in the workplace and failed to perform job duties.

A preponderance of the evidence did not prove that Silva had provided student-athletes advance notice of drug tests. It was determined that he had acted unprofessionally when referring to white people or people from Clovis, including the student-athletes, as “entitled” and “privileged,” and he regularly used the “N word” in front of student-athletes, though there was insufficient evidence that he directed it at any athletes.

Verbal conduct based on race, color or ethnicity did not rise to the level of a violation of university policy, but those comments were found to contribute to a negative environment and culture within the program.

Silva also sometimes inappropriately elbowed a student-athlete and covered his mouth while wrestling in practice, not normal wrestling moves. However, the investigation did not find that such moves were employed to intentionally hurt or inflict excessive force or pain on the student-athlete.

The third report covers allegations from student-athletes that Steiner engaged in behavior in violation of university policies against harassment and discrimination on the basis of gender/sex. The Bulldogs’ coach admitted that he did not report the recruiting party, but denied engaging in harassing or discriminatory conduct.

The failure to report the stripper party violated CSU Executive Order 1097, but there was insufficient evidence that Steiner had violated his duty to report in other situations.

There also was insufficient evidence that any student-athlete reported concerns about domestic violence to Steiner or that he observed any athletes engaging in domestic violence, and insufficient evidence that any student-athletes or coaches informed him that a female athlete used the men’s locker room while male athletes were undressing.

He was aware of a verbal altercation between a student-athlete and a girlfriend that involved property damage and immediately reported the incident to his supervisor who took over reporting obligations to the university’s Title IX Coordinator and athletics department administrators.

More details about stripper party

There is no dispute over the 2018 stripper party, which became a flash point for the Bulldogs’ wrestling program.

Steiner had recruits and their families over for dinner that September night, and recruits and their hosts later left for a party at a student-athlete’s apartment.

There were six recruits visiting campus, though not all attended the party. That night videos circulated, including one that was sent to a former Fresno State wrestler by a recruit on the trip. The recruits were from the Class of 2019 and 2020, seniors and juniors in high school, so it is possible those who attended the party included underage boys. More than one witness interviewed said they saw a text message from Silva stating, “Looks like the recruits are having fun,” with a peach emoji, which the student-athletes understood was sexual in nature and referred to an “ass.” Another student-athlete said there was a text message from Silva that stated, “Hell yea, do it.”

Silva denied to investigators that he knew about the party before it occurred or that he encouraged the student-athletes to proceed with it, and maintained that he always put the wrestling program first.

Some of the student-athlete hosts contributed their own money to cover the cost of the strippers, and at least 10 student-athletes on the team and at least two of the recruits were there.

Steiner acknowledged that the party took place and that he addressed it with individual wrestlers and the team together at its next practice, but took no further action and did not report it because, he told investigators, he felt his message to the team sufficiently resolved the issue.

Silva also admitted that he did not report it, deferring any action including reporting duties to the head coach.

In notes from an interview with a student-athlete conducted by an athletics department staff member, at some point during that event stripping transitioned to prostitution. That was not corroborated in the Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo investigation, however, including by the student-athlete who had made the initial claim.

One student-athlete said Silva tried to “pin [the event]” on another student-athlete, and the investigator found the former Bulldogs’ assistant coach to be less than credible in addressing the allegations that he knew about the party before it took place or that he encouraged the athletes to proceed with it.

Two student-athletes said that while at the party they heard teammates say Silva already knew about it and they proceeded with it because Silva had encouraged it – one of those student-athletes had a good relationship with Silva but did not get along with some of the reporting witnesses and did not have a motive to lie, and the other was a neutral party who got along with Silva and was friendly with all teammates.

Denials about using inappropriate language lacked credibility, as well.

“I acknowledge that some athletes who strongly disliked (respondent) appeared to exaggerate their statements regarding respondent’s conduct such as when they said respondent made inappropriate sexual comments ‘all the time,’” Hang wrote, in the AALRR investigative report.

“However, those athletes provided specific examples upon request, which contributed to their credibility. In contrast, athletes who generally liked respondent, particularly those who had close relationships with him, said they ‘never’ observed or heard about respondent engaging in inappropriate verbal conduct of a sexual nature. Given the various examples of such conduct, I find it implausible that an athlete ‘never’ observed or heard about the conduct.”

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