Coach Absolved of Bullying, Players Leave Anyway

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Eight out of nine eligible girls’ tennis players at Iowa City West High School, which was one of the top teams in girls tennis in 2021, will not return to the team after alleging their coach, Amie Villarini, was intimidating, made them feel uncomfortable and crossed physical boundaries.

Despite an investigation that absolved Villarini of any wrongdoing, the players are still upset and say that won't play in the upcoming season. 

“Seeing a coach make my teammates cry in front of everyone was sickening,” Jay Mascardo told the local ABC affiliate. “I just felt like I couldn’t express how I was feeling because I was scared she wouldn’t be understanding that she would belittle me in front of my teammates.”

Jay’s older sister and doubles partner Caroline said they feared retribution if they brought up their concerns.

“Retaliation is a strong word,” Caroline said. “If I would try to stand up for my teammates, then in some way shape or form I’d be punished whether that was like sitting out during a meet or getting moved down in the lineup.”

“I was viewed more so as a like a piece to win a game, win a meet, than a person,” Caroline said.

One junior, Ella De Young described Coach Villarini helping to rub sunscreen on her without asking.

She (rubbed sunscreen) all the way down the leg and the entire time nothing would come out of my mouth,” De Young said. “I was just screaming in my head like ‘actually make it stop I just felt like so helpless.’”

De Young said the touching was not sexual but it exacerbated the anxiety, distrust, and fear she says the coach had created with her.

“She made me uncomfortable the entire season I was always afraid to be by her,” De Young said. “I hated how she made me feel and even more so how she made my teammates feel.”

Players and their families brought their concerns to athletic director Craig Huegel, which led to a four-month investigation by the director of equity and employee relations Eric Howard. The investigation found no wrongdoing on Villarini’s part and, with the final report saying that the coach’s actions did not meet the district’s definition of bullying or harassment. 

The former players said that definition needs to change.

“Our coming forward with our concerns and making those concerns known and not really having anything come of that is the most upsetting to me,” Caroline said.

“Just to be deemed unfounded and Amie gets to keep her job,” Jay said. “(to be) constantly reminded that it’ll be really difficult for you to find your love of tennis again, to even pick up a racket again.”

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