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UF Soccer Coach Leaving Amid Eating Habits Controversy

Paul Steinbach
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The University of Florida fired women's soccer coach Tony Amato on Wednesday, less than a year into his tenure, amid mass player defections and complaints that he pressured them about their eating habits and body compositions.

As reported by Fresh Take Florida, a UF College of Journalism and Communications news service, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin notified players of the decision in a private meeting Wednesday, just before Stricklin and Amato were scheduled to discuss the complaints in separate one-on-one media interviews for an investigative news article that was to be published later this week.

"This decision was extremely difficult," Stricklin said in a statement. "My thorough evaluation of the soccer program is that there is a disconnect between Tony and his athletes. We have worked diligently with Tony since last fall when I first became aware of challenges with relationship building and communication. As the issues continued to be brought to my attention, it became apparent that sufficient progress was not being made and Tony was not a fit for the University of Florida. Therefore, it is my assessment that in order to have the program we all expect, this change is necessary. I appreciate Tony's hard work during his time here and wish he and his family the best.

"I fully recognize the disruption this causes our athletes and our program. We all wanted this to work, but ultimately it is my responsibility to do what is in the best long-term interest of this program, and thus this decision. We are totally committed to having an outstanding soccer program. I assure everyone this is extremely important to all of us as we begin the search for our new coach."

Players, including top ones, have been leaving in unprecedented numbers, according to Fresh Take Florida. In response to complaints by athletes and their parents, Stricklin promised them last month the university would conduct a formal investigation — including interviews with current and former players — and that Amato would take unspecified actions to help repair and build relationships.

Amato had also issued a general apology to players during a team meeting March 22 that Stricklin attended. There had been no public announcement about the investigation, which was to be conducted by the university’s Office for Accessibility and Gender Equity, which investigates gender-based discrimination or violence.

Concerns emerged as early as October, five months into Amato’s tenure. Players and some support staff signed a letter to the university athletic association’s compliance office describing the team’s frustration with Amato’s conduct and concerns it would become worse. A UF athletic department therapist then held a group session for players to air their concerns that Amato did not attend.

Florida finished a worst-ever 4-12-4 in November under Amato. Florida hired him last year from Arizona for $226,000 a year under a six-season contract, or nearly $37,000 per year more than his predecessor. Becky Burleigh retired in April 2021 after 26 seasons with a record of 431-137-40, including an NCAA championship and 14 SEC titles. At the University of Arizona, Amato compiled a record of 88-53-17 in eight seasons, including five NCAA tournament appearances in the challenging PAC-12 conference.

Since Amato’s hiring was announced in May 2021, four Florida players have quit with remaining eligibility and 13 more have entered the NCAA transfer portal, Fresh Take Florida reported. The 13 transfers represent 30 percent of the team’s roster during that period.

Across all Division I women’s soccer teams, 9 percent of players entered the transfer portal in 2021, according to an NCAA database on Division I transfer portal trends cited by the UF news service. Six Florida players, or 19 percent of the 2021 roster, entered the portal during the fall season and five more did so during the spring.

Current and former players and managers described Amato making comments about their eating habits and body shapes despite knowing that some players have struggled with eating disorders, according to Fresh Take Florida, whose interviews included eight current and former Florida players and some of their families, two former team managers and two of Amato’s former Arizona players.

Amato’s style of soccer is fitness oriented, where running is the focus, players from UF and Arizona said. That contrasted with Burleigh, the former coach, whose style was based more on strategy and finesse. Florida and Arizona players said Amato recruits women who are built like cross-country runners, tall and thin.

The same former Florida player said she developed an eating disorder over the fall season. “I know I’m in no way, shape or form fat,” she said, “but it was like, you could see who he played versus who he didn’t play. And every single person was just stick-thin. And the comments about eating got to me.”

Current and former Florida players and managers said Amato made comments they considered inappropriate about their eating habits and body shapes. During a September game at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, players complained there were only three trays of food provided for the whole team, which they said was not enough. One former manager said Amato told staff on the trip that maybe it was the team’s director of soccer operations “trying to tell the girls they need to lose weight.”

“I’ve seen teammates go through very severe eating disorders and disordered eating,” one player said. “And for me personally, that didn’t affect me directly, but somebody who has a more malleable mindset and perspective, hearing that from an authority figure can definitely trigger some things and make them think, ‘Oh, should I not be eating ketchup? What else shouldn’t I be eating?”

Players also said Amato told them he wouldn’t play them if they ate ice cream the night before a game. Moreover, Florida’s players were asked to reveal their weights for charter flights for away games, players said. An athlete who played under Burleigh for five seasons said she never remembered players being asked for their weight to tell the charter flight people. The athletes also thought it odd that Amato’s staff said it only needed their body weights and not their luggage weights.

According to Fresh Take Florida, when Burleigh coached at UF, she met with the team at least once a week to discuss topics that included mental health, current events and politics and how to fuel their bodies in healthy ways, one player said. Another player said Burleigh approached conversations about weight by discussing how an athlete was moving in games and workouts. For example, she would ask whether a player believed she was keeping up or slowing down and why that might be.

A former Arizona player told the UF news service that Amato imposed strict diets for players. She said players were allowed dessert only once during her two years there. She said she worried Amato would sit next to her at meals because she feared he would judge her selections, despite ordering what Amato’s nutritionist considered acceptable.

The player was among those who transferred after the 2019 season. She said adjusting to her new team’s relationship with food was a learning curve. She said she was surprised to see teammates order burgers and go out for ice cream on away trips.

Another former Florida player said she fell into a depressive spiral playing under Amato during the fall. She said she gained 10 pounds and drank excessively on weekends. After Thanksgiving, when Florida’s frustrating season had finished, she said she considered deliberately crashing her car.

“He made me want to kill myself,” she said. “I wanted to die because of the way this man ran this program.”

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