Investigative, Sports

Director of BU track and field, cross country steps down following abuse allegations

After five years as the director of Boston University’s track and field and cross country teams, Gabe Sanders stepped down Thursday afternoon, according to a press release from BU Athletics.  

Multiple spoken accounts from team alumni, former assistant coaches and one current athlete detailed alleged verbal and emotional abuse by Sanders that occurred since he became director in August 2019. 

He previously served as the assistant coach, where “he was the program’s recruiting coordinator and responsible for coaching student-athletes in sprints, hurdles and relay events” from September 2008 to October 2015, according to Sanders’ BU Athletics biography. He then spent four seasons as an assistant coach at Stanford University. 

BU Athletics placed Sanders on paid administrative leave on April 4. Athletes were notified of Sanders’ leave on the same day in an email from BU Athletics Director Drew Marrochello. 

BU Athletics declined to comment. 

Boston University Track and Tennis Center. The director of Boston University’s track and field and cross country teams Gabe Sanders stepped down on Thursday. ZACH SCHWARTZ/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

An anonymous post on LetsRun.com — an online discussion forum for runners — wrote that Sanders allegedly threatened to suffocate an athlete with his hands. A current athlete on the team corroborated the allegation and told The Daily Free Press that Sanders allegedly said this in the presence of two other teammates and an athletic trainer. 

Sanders did not respond to multiple requests to comment.

Sanders led the team to several recognitions, from weekly and yearly awards to podium finishes at the Patriot League Championships. 

A sprinter who ran under Sanders from 2009-13 said they were “extremely shocked” by the allegations.

“It does not sound like, by any means, the Sanders that I know,” they said.

When Sanders came back to BU, former athletes said he emphasized the idea of uniting the team as a “family.” 

Scotti Hamilton, a former 2020-21 cross country captain, said he felt “positive” after the first meeting with Sanders, but the feeling did not last. 

“Ever since [that meeting], me and the majority of my fellow athletes on the team have just felt he never followed through,” Hamilton said. 

During his time as captain, Hamilton saw the team become starkly divided over various issues under Sanders’ leadership. 

Laura Parkinson, a runner who was on the cross country team from 2017-21, said she never received any “maltreatment” from Sanders.

“I only saw the first two years of Sanders,” Parkinson said. “I thought he did a decent job of trying to move the program in the right direction, but, again, with what’s come out? I don’t know. I really don’t know anything.”

Several alumni also said Sanders’ “mood swings” at practices and meets contributed to the divide. They added that Sanders showed favoritism toward certain athletes, especially men over women. 

“He is someone that we dread being around because he is very negative … It’s very hard as a student-athlete to know how to interact with him because he’s very unpredictable and very emotional,” said a current member of the track and field team, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from Sanders. “This man has become an enemy of just about anyone he’s coached.”

Many former athletes wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from BU Athletics and from Sanders. 

According to a text message received by The Daily Free Press, current athletes on the men’s and women’s track and field teams have been told to decline all media requests and keep “news about the team within the team.”

Sanders’ time as a Terrier assistant coach

Rosa Moriello was a member of the cross country team from 2010-15 and served as an assistant coach from 2017-18. 

Moriello said there were no “big issues” with Sanders while she was there, but she’s “not surprised” to hear the allegations. 

“I can’t give you an answer as to why that is,” Moriello said. “It’s just one of those gut feelings.” 

Before Sanders was hired, the director of track and field and cross country was Robyne Johnson. She left during the summer of 2019 to take a similar position at the University of California, Berkeley, where she still is director. 

Johnson did not respond to multiple requests to comment. 

Ethan Knight, a thrower and two-year captain who graduated in 2016, was on the alumni committee that recommended hiring Sanders for director in 2019. Knight said Sanders was “incredibly eager” to lead the program after he was hired. 

Many former athletes spoke of the excitement for a new culture shift when Sanders was hired. 

“Coach Johnson was very structured in our approach. She had a whole packet of rules that we had to follow,” said Corinne Batsu, a member of the 2017-22 distance team. “The minute Sanders got there, he tore that packet up in front of us dramatically.”

Moriello said Sanders seemed less experienced than the other coaches, and she did not think Sanders was ready for the job of director. She said she reached out to Athletic Director Drew Marrochello to express her concerns, but received no response. 

“It kind of felt like [Sanders] wasn’t taken as seriously,” Moriello said. “He had full control over the sprint program, but it just felt like he’s the little brother.”

A former hurdler who was on the team from 2017-21 said that when Sanders came in, he created an “element of dictatorship, almost like he wanted to be worshiped instead of respected.”

Injured athletes neglected by Sanders

Natalie Kwortnik, a jumper on the 2019-22 team, said Sanders treated injured athletes like they did not “exist.” Another athlete alleged that Sanders overworked them until they became injured. 

A hurdler who was on BU’s track and field team from 2017-21 alleged that Sanders tried to convert them from a short-distance hurdler to a long-distance hurdler. After the hurdler tried to protest the switch, Sanders accused them of “having no confidence” and told them “to see a psychiatrist,” the hurdler said. 

They added there was an element of “body shaming,” as Sanders would tell them that they “did not look like a short sprinter.”

Eventually, the switch from short distance to long distance became too much to handle. 

“I couldn’t say no,” the hurdler said. “That ended up putting a big toll on my body and I had a pretty bad hip injury that required surgery after I graduated, and it was really accelerated by the workouts I did because I just really wasn’t designed to be a longer runner.”

Another athlete said they were injured before their last year on the team.

“I was fortunate enough that I broke my leg and didn’t have to run anymore,” a sprinter on the 2017-22 team said. “Other kids had to keep running and I’m very happy I wasn’t one of them.” 

For many athletes, there was no choice other than to continue training with Sanders — transferring was not an option. 

Per NCAA regulations, when a student-athlete enters the transfer portal, their scholarship for the current season remains intact. However, the scholarship for the following term may be in jeopardy, regardless of whether they transfer or not. 

When the current school is notified that the student-athlete entered the portal, the school can rescind the scholarship and give it to someone else. 

If the student-athlete in the portal decides not to transfer, they could return to school with no scholarship or place on the team. 

Because of these rules, student-athletes are hesitant even to consider transferring. 

A member of the 2018-22 sprinting team said that they knew of many sprinters who wanted to transfer but could not because of the NCAA rule. 

“You cannot have a foot in the door and out the door,” they said. “It’s a risk all on your end. You can enter the transfer portal and hope to go somewhere just as good, if not better, than BU. But more often than not, just by nature of how competitive scholarships are, it doesn’t normally happen that way.” 

Favoritism and sexism on the team

Former athletes said Sanders often favored athletes he recruited over walk-ons. 

“Because I wasn’t an athlete he recruited, maybe he didn’t feel like he had to put in as much effort in my class as opposed to the people he ended up bringing on,” a hurdler on the team from 2017-21 said.

Kwortnik said she felt isolated by Sanders not only because Sanders did not recruit her, but because she was on the women’s team. 

The member of the 2018-22 sprinting team said Sanders consistently targeted one of the team’s highly-awarded female sprinters. 

“​​We saw [her] as one of the better, more serious athletes on the team,” they said. “But when [Sanders] came in, he labeled her as a distraction and decided that her race and the way she trained wasn’t good or serious enough.” 

Kwortnik said Sanders would sometimes schedule women’s sprinting practices and not attend them.  

“When he was coaching, he would disregard [the women sprinters] during practice and be hyper-focused on the male sprinters,” Kwortnik said. “How are you supposed to get better or feel like you’re able to talk with [coaches] if they’re not even there?”

Sanders even missed some of the women’s team’s biggest races because he failed to remember their start times, preventing them from running in events, said Lauren Sikoski, a pole vaulter on the 2018-23 team. 

At the start of the 2021-22 season, Stephen Fleagle, former assistant pole vault coach, left the team. Sikoski, a captain at the time, said she volunteered “to step up and be the coach” in Fleagle’s absence, while still fulfilling her responsibilities as an athlete.

“It was very difficult, as a lot of pressure was put on me instead of a head coach taking on that responsibility,” said Sikoski, who was not paid to coach. “[Sanders] wasn’t really there for the program.”

Sikoski said the women’s team met with Sanders multiple times about his negligence compared to the men’s team. 

“You shouldn’t have to beg your coach to coach you,” she said about Sanders. 

Interior of the Track and Tennis Center. ZACH SCHWARTZ/DFP PHOTOGRAPHER

Cross country coach Paul Spangler’s abrupt departure 

Some alumni felt the swift exit of cross country head coach Paul Spangler in March 2021 — shortly after winning the women’s Patriot League Cross Country Championship — was “unjust.”

The Daily Free Press has been unable to verify whether Spangler was fired or forced to resign. According to a former assistant coach who worked under Spangler, he was forced to resign.

“People were essentially pro-Sanders and his decision, or pro-Spangler and very defensive of him getting fired,” Parkinson said. “It created a huge divide within the team.”  

An anonymous leak about Spangler’s departure from the team was posted on LetsRun.com in March 2021 — in the middle of the season.

Spangler also applied for director of the BU track and field program, Knight said. Multiple alumni said it was known that Spangler and Sanders applied for the same position. 

Spangler did not respond to comment. 

Knight said when Sanders was hired, the hiring committee told him he had to keep Spangler as distance coach. 

“There would have always been that tension between them,” Hamilton said. “Their personalities are so starkly different.”

Hamilton, a former captain of the 2020-21 distance team, said he never received “clear clarification” on why Spangler departed from the team. 

When Sanders set up a Zoom meeting to address the departure, Hamilton said he and his fellow captains came ready with many questions about the firing. But when they met with him on Zoom, they were all muted, and the chat box was disabled. 

“It felt like we were getting the same response over and over again, like we were talking to a closed door,” said a former captain of the 2020-21 distance team. “Then when we sent out emails, a lot of them were just unreciprocated and [we] heard nothing back.”

Hamilton said when Spangler told the team he was leaving in a separate Zoom meeting, Spangler was uncharacteristically “emotional.” 

“[He] started crying and left the Zoom call, which is something that I never thought, in my wildest days, that I would see,” Hamilton said. 

Multiple alumni said there was tension in how the two handled COVID-19 precautions. Alumni said Sanders was very strict on COVID-19 protocols, while Spangler was much more lenient. 

Many said they believe BU Athletics used Spangler’s relaxation surrounding COVID-19 policies against him.

“In my perspective, it was also quite frustrating because I worked with Coach Spangler for four years,” said a former assistant coach. “[Athletics] didn’t ask me anything. They just fired him based on their own claim, but they didn’t really investigate the other side.”

But Sanders and Spangler were still professional to each other in front of the athletes, a former assistant coach said. 

“I don’t remember it always being super tense,” a former assistant coach who worked under Spangler said. “Which again, I think made it even that much more surprising when coach Spangler was fired because, at least to me, it didn’t seem like this really bad relationship all the time.”

The coach also said they felt like “athletes suffered the most” when Spangler was fired.

Athletes who were on the team at the time said they were confused and upset that their coach was gone.

“This is entirely unfair, this makes no sense,” a former captain of the 2020-21 distance team said about Spangler’s exit. 

A former member of the BU distance team said they transferred schools because of Spangler’s departure. 

Jordan Carpenter replaced Spangler as associate head coach of the cross country team and assistant coach of the track and field team. Before coming to BU, Carpenter was the head men’s cross country and track and field coach at Pomona-Pitzer — a Division III program.   

“Carpenter’s pretty young, he’s pretty new to coaching,” Batsu said. “I guess Sanders and him just got along better because Sanders was clearly the authority figure.”

Lack of support from BU Athletics

A member of the cross country team from 2017-20 said they and many alumni reached out to BU Athletics when they were students to express their concerns about the team and received “radio silence” in return.

Sikoski said while she was on the team, many athletes tried to meet with the athletics department to discuss coaches, but these attempts “didn’t really go anywhere.”

Athletes can access an academic advisor and compliance officer to voice their complaints. These professionals help balance the academic and athletic demands of competing in collegiate athletics. 

Before graduating, BU varsity athletes have the opportunity to meet with a BU Athletics staff member to reflect on their time in the program. Many athletes use this time to air out concerns or grievances. 

But Kwortnik said these conversations typically lead nowhere. 

“Every instance, at least [that] I’ve had, with athletics, they’re just trying to quiet things down,” she said. “I feel like most of these things that happened were verbal, emotional abuse, things that are not visible to the eye, but they’re still occurring.”

 

Senior writer Addison Schmidt is a part of BU’s track and field and cross country teams. She was not involved in the writing, reporting or editing of this article. 

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One Comment

  1. Chris from New York

    I’d just like to commend the writers on a top-notch piece of journalism. Balanced, unbiased and thorough reporting, with multiple sources and corroboration — this is what reporting should be. Please keep up the great work.