A Change.org petition launched after media report garners hundreds of signatures
Youngstown State University’s hire of an athlete it found responsible for sexual assault to coach the women’s tennis team coach has sparked outrage and an online petition urging the school to adopt a stronger personal conduct policy.
Condemnation from students, faculty and outside observers came in the wake of a USA TODAY Network investigation that first uncovered the university’s decision. The story, which was published on Nov. 7, detailed how YSU in 2016 suspended tennis player Bassem El Mekawi for sexually assaulting a female athlete, then readmitted him to the school and hired him as an assistant men’s tennis coach and finally an assistant women’s tennis coach.
El Mekawi was one of three student athletes involved in the same sexual assault. The other athletes did not return to campus after being disciplined.
“Just think about being a woman or victim in this culture,” tweeted sexual abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander, who was among the first to come forward against then-USA Gymnastics and Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar.
A day after the article, the school announced it was “reviewing the need to develop additional processes to ensure that the campus activities of students readmitted to the university are appropriate given the nature of their Code violation.”
That response, said YSU graduate student and teaching assistant Mykaela Wagner, is inadequate.
“The general response from the university makes me disappointed to be a student here,” Wagner said. “They didn’t really say anything in their statement except ‘we’re looking into it.’ I want to know what thoughts were behind hiring this person in the first place. I want to know why anybody thought it was a good idea.”
On Wednesday, the university released a second statement, saying it has “begun a comprehensive and strategic review of our current policies, procedures and practices regarding student conduct and Title IX,” the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education.
“We are concerned by the issues raised, and we recognize we must do better,” the new statement said.
YSU still has ignored multiple requests to make athletic director Ron Strollo, head tennis coach Mickael Sopel and president Jim Tressel available for interviews.
In the meantime, Wagner launched a Change.org petition urging university leaders to adopt the same personal conduct policy in place at the NCAA’s Big Sky Conference. Its “Serious Misconduct Rule” bans athletes from participating in sports if they’ve been found responsible by their schools or criminally convicted of serious misconduct, including sexual assault.
The petition has gained more than 300 signatures so far.
One signee was YSU adjunct English professor Adrianna Lamonge, who’s from the area and completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the university. Losing athletic privileges is a fair punishment for athletes who commit sexual assault, she said, though she was skeptical YSU would take action.
“YSU sort of has a history of ignoring these things in people that we put in positions of authority,” she said. “Universities are supposed to be at the forefront of equality and equity in education and athletics. I think we have a responsibility to set the precedent.”
Austin Dalrymple, vice president for student life of Youngstown State’s Student Government Association, said he supports adopting the Big Sky rule, as outlined in the petition. He said he plans to discuss it at the executive committee’s next meeting.
“I think the university just prioritizes winning in athletic events over safety, well-being and academics,” Dalrymple said. “The general consensus of the student body is that everyone’s just disgusted with what they did.”
Wagner’s petition references two other incidents contributing to what she called a “disturbing pattern” of “disregard for sexual assault victims” within YSU athletics.
In 2016, YSU recruited Ma’lik Richmond, a football player convicted of rape in high school who remains on the team today.
And in 2018, assistant football coach Richard McNutt’s wife accused him of domestic violence, though the police did not pursue charges. The university determined he did not violate any policies, and he returned to coaching at Youngstown State following a five-day suspension, according to media reports.
Wagner plans to gather more signatures on the petition before taking it to Tressel and the university Board of Trustees. She doesn’t think anyone should lose their jobs — but she wants answers and rules going forward, she said.
“We could be a leader, we could innovate and we could be amazing role models for other universities, and we’re just not,” Wagner said. “We’re just kind of sticking our heads in the sand and hoping it goes away.”