The University of South Alabama and a former women's head volleyball coach are facing new allegations in an abuse lawsuit, and more accusers have joined the lawsuit against her filed in September.
WALA-TV reported that an amended lawsuit was filed on Friday and a news release issued on Monday that assert claims against former USA coach Alexis Meeks-Rydell and South Alabama, alleging the university was aware of an abusive situation and failed to take action to protect the athletes.
A federal lawsuit filed in September claims Meeks-Rydell sexually harassed and physically and emotionally abused her players for several years. The plaintiffs in the suit are former South Alabama volleyball players.
On Friday, the lawsuit was amended to include the new claims. WALA-TV reported that new allegations made by additional plaintiffs in the amended complaint make clear that the university was aware of the issues within its women’s volleyball program and failed to take adequate steps to address the situation and protect its student-athletes, according to the news release.
A new allegation says Rydell forced players to “cuddle” with her in hotel rooms during away games. Allegations from the original lawsuit were that she had pinched players’ buttocks, at least one instance of slapping a player in the face, overtraining, coercion to play while injured and other forms of abuse.
Friday’s filing claims that associate athletic director Chris Moore perpetuated the abusive situation in the university’s women’s volleyball program.
The defendants in the September lawsuit are Meeks-Rydell, USA Athletic Director Joel Erdmann and former assistant coaches Rob Chilcoat and Patricia Gandolfo.
Citing a policy against commenting on pending litigation, the university on Monday declined to comment to WALA-TV on the allegations. An attorney representing Meeks-Rydell also declined to comment.
The case was first brought by former South Alabama volleyball players Rachael DeMarcus and Alexis Silver. Friday’s amended complaint adds six additional former players as plaintiffs: Caitlin Tipping, Meaghan Jones, Hannah Kazee, Hannah Johnson and two unnamed individuals, referred to as Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2.
The amended complaint adds Moore and current senior associate athletic director, Jinni Frisbey, as defendants.
The lawsuit alleges the athletes were routinely subjected to blatant sexual harassment and sexual, physical and emotional assault by Meeks-Rydell. It alleges Meeks-Rydell created a climate of fear and intimidation among the volleyball team players. She regularly overly trained players and coerced them to practice or play while injured, in violation of NCAA bylaws, the lawsuit alleges.
She often verbally abused injured players, ridiculing and accusing them of faking injuries and forcing them to play through serious medical conditions, including concussions and asthma attacks, as well as ankle and knee injuries, the complaint alleges.
The complaint also alleges that Meeks-Rydell physically and sexually abused her players, forcing one to “cuddle” with her in hotel room beds during team road trips, pinching players’ buttocks as they exited the team bus and forcing them to engage in “floor hugs” in which team members laid on the ground while Meeks-Rydell laid on top of them.
The lawsuit alleges that in one instance, Meeks-Rydell was apparently upset with DeMarcus and slapped her across the face, WALA-TV reported.
The alleged abusive behavior continued unchecked throughout 2019 and 2020, with the direct knowledge of defendants Erdmann, Chilcoat, Gandolfo, as well as other university officials, all of whom either could have reported or stopped the abuse but failed to do so, the lawsuit alleges.
“Alexis Meeks-Rydell, the University of South Alabama, and the other defendants had a duty to ensure the safety of its student-athletes. Not only did they fail to do that, but they also actively conspired to cover up a situation that they knew was detrimental to these young women,” said Diandra “Fu” Debrosse Zimmermann, plaintiffs’ counsel and a partner at DiCello Levitt Gutzler, in the news release. “It’s become all too common for collegiate athletes to endure this type of abuse, but what makes this case particularly shocking is how brazen and willful the University was in coercing one of its students to write a fraudulent letter to the NCAA to cover up its knowledge of the situation. These women — and all women, for that matter — deserve so much more, and we are committed to ensuring they get justice.”
The lawsuit states: “The University knew of Meeks-Rydell’s misconduct, through its officials and agents who were physically present during and directly aware of the physical and emotionally manipulative and abusive verbal harassment. These officials and agents were in positions to remedy the circumstances, and refused to act to protect Plaintiffs and other student-athletes. The University acted with deliberate indifference to Meeks-Rydell’s actions and the abuse to which Plaintiffs were subject."
In the news release, Kenneth P. Abbarno, a DiCello Levitt Gutzler partner and plaintiffs’ attorney, said the “abuse was so severe that my clients not only suffered prolonged physical and psychological issues, but they were left with no choice but to abandon their athletic and academic careers at the University of South Alabama. Meeks-Rydell’s inappropriate and abusive conduct frequently and consistently occurred in the physical presence of the other coaches and staff.”
Meeks-Rydell was hired to lead the university’s women’s volleyball team in December 2018 and served as head coach until she resigned in February 2021. She currently serves as an assistant coach at Purdue University Fort Wayne but was placed on administrative leave in September after the original complaint was filed, according to the news release.