(This story was published in 2003).
2005 update: Florida softball coach fired
2004 Update: Settlement reached in case
This should have been a happy time for Andrea Zimbardi. Her University of Florida softball team was in the NCAA playoffs and she had been hoping to play a key role as the team’s catcher. Instead, Zimbardi was forced to sit in the stands in Gainesville and watch, wondering what might have been, and what went wrong.
Zimbardi, an SEC honor roll student and a senior captain on the team, was kicked off the Gators’ squad in March. Her coach told her it was because Zimbardi had spread lies and misconceptions about an assistant coach and about the program. Zimbardi, though, suspects the real reason is that she’s a lesbian.
“I was kicked off because I wanted to take a stand against everything that happened to me,” says Zimbardi, 23. “I believe I was discriminated against because of my sexual orientation.”
Zimbardi (left) graduated this month with a degree in industrial engineering, and was, according to current and former teammates, a popular and talented player who came into the program as a walk-on and overcame two knee surgeries to earn a starting role. How she went from being hailed as a role model by her coach to being kicked off the team is unclear.
Zimbardi alleges that head coach Karen Johns created an atmosphere of alienation for anyone not sharing her Christian beliefs, outed other coaches and players as lesbians, and reneged on an agreement not to retaliate against Zimbardi when she took her concerns to the university’s athletic administration. She further alleges that assistant coach Heather Compton-Butler made inappropriate and leading comments to her about lesbianism and lesbian relationships. Zimbardi says she was not informed about team practices, and gradually saw her playing time shrink until she was finally released on March 6.
“[Johns’] discrimination is very subtle,” says Karen Doering, an attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), which is investigating Zimbardi’s allegations. “Based on her deep intrusion into [players’] personal lives, outing other coaches and players, and her [religious moralizing], she sends a clear message to the lesbian players that [homosexuality] is not acceptable. She’s not doing the ‘no-gay-people-can-play-for-me’ thing. But she’s creating an environment where lesbian athletes feel uncomfortable.” The University of Florida does not include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy (see update at bottom).
Zimbardi isn’t the only player kicked off the team since Johns took over the programin June 2000. Outsports interviewed two former players, each of whom, like Zimbardi had had relationships with women. These former players tell of Johns delving into what they say was inappropriate personal territory, trying to discern which players might be lesbians. Both players tell stories similar to Zimbardi’s, of seeing their playing time suddenly and dramatically shrink, ending in their release for unspecified reasons. Both former players were interviewed with the promise of anonymity. In addition, e-mails and team itineraries obtained by Outsports show that Johns was vocal about her religious beliefs, confirming what the players have alleged.
“Our ongoing investigation is a result of some corroborated statements from players and coaches that could suggest a pattern of anti-lesbian comments toward team members and even other outstanding NCAA fast-pitch softball coaches around the country,” says Helen Carroll, coordinator of the Homophobia in Sports program for NCLR, and herself a former coach and athletic director.
Outsports tried to speak with head coach Johns and Compton-Butler, the assistant coach. Johns, in a statement released by the school, would only say: "We acknowledge that Andrea Zimbardi is no longer on the team and we wish her the best of luck in the future." Compton-Butler was not made available for an interview.
Athletic Director Jeremy N. Foley also would not comment except to issue a statement through the school’s Sports Information office:
"I've reviewed this matter and I'm very comfortable with how it was handled,” Foley’s statement said. “I have the utmost confidence in our coaches. The [federal] Buckley Amendment prevents us from talking about the particulars of this matter. I do understand though, how disappointed a student-athlete can get when things do not work out how they planned.
"Our coaches are totally committed to the development of all of our student-athletes. Andrea finished her degree at UF in May. We supported Andrea's applications this spring for post-graduate scholarship awards. We are proud of Andrea as well as our other graduates. The education of our student-athletes is our most important mission."
Problems With a Coach
Zimbardi has been out to her mother and step-father since her senior year in high school, and says they have been very supportive. She says her teammates knew she had a girlfriend, but that it was simply accepted and never commented on. “I know my teammates won’t judge me. I love them to death. They looked at me not as gay Andrea but as a great catcher,” she says.
As someone whose name appears in the Gator record books for having among the best fielding percentage for catchers in school history, Zimbardi figured her place on the team was secure for her senior season. In 2002, she caught the third most runners stealing (15) in school history and was only two away from the school record, the school's Web site says. She had a good relationship with Johns, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Zimbardi for a scholarship. But things began to change, she says, with the hiring of a new pitching coach, Compton-Butler (she was Heather Compton at the time and married in January), in the fall. Compton-Butler had been pitching coach for Florida State.
When the two went for a run together last fall, Zimbardi says, Compton-Butler began asking leading personal questions about her relationships.
“She was trying to make a comment based on what my sexuality is,” Zimbardi says. She says Compton-Butler “volunteered” information on which Olympic and pro softball players were lesbians. The coach told Zimbardi she knew “how bad the lesbian relationships were with these players.” She specifically told Zimbardi about how badly one player had treated her female partner.
“I kind of spoke up for female relationships,” says Zimbardi, who adds that the whole conversation made her uneasy. She believes such a conversation was not appropriate between a coach and a player. "I don't want to be defined by that, especially by someone who doesn't know my personal life.
From then on, Zimbardi says, she tried to limit her contact with Compton-Butler as much as possible. But an incident in November further bothered her.
The player says she was speaking with a secretary in the softball athletic office about getting a haircut from the secretary’s stylist when Compton-Butler walked by. Overhearing the conversation, Compton-Butler, according to Zimbardi, said: “I hope you don’t get one of those ‘butch’ haircuts.”
“I just stood there shocked,” Zimbardi says, as she interpreted "butch" to mean lesbian. “I don’t believe [the secretary] knew about me. Basically, [Compton-Butler] outed me in front of another employee of the university. I was embarrassed about it. I don’t want to be defined by [being a lesbian], especially by someone who doesn’t know my personal life. I felt that was an intrusion.”
As the spring softball season began, Zimbardi says, she began to be frozen out of team activities. She was not receiving calls from Compton-Butler about the team’s twice-a-day practices, and says that the coach got defensive when challenged. She also was the only player not invited to a pitchers-catchers dinner at Compton-Butler’s house, something the coach attributed to an oversight as she made a belated invitation just hours prior to the get-together, according to Zimbardi. “I didn’t want to be the only person not there that night,” Zimbardi wrote in her diary of the season. “However, I still felt a much excluded feeling because everyone else knew about the dinner but me.”
Christian Beliefs Prominent
Zimbardi says she had no choice but to turn to coach Johns to discuss her concerns about her treatment by Compton-Butler. Based on past comments by the head coach, the player was unsure about how she would be received.
From the moment Johns arrived as coach in Gainesville, she touted her strong Christian beliefs, Zimbardi and the other players interviewed say. They recall Johns leading the team in the Lord’s Prayer on the field and occasionally inserting Biblical and religious passages in the team’s printed itinerary. She would also tell the team about recruits who were “good Christians.” An assistant coach under Johns—who has since left the program—held Bible study classes, and would ask the players if they were attending. “You felt guilty if you said no,” Zimbardi says.
The head coach also regularly contrasted her Christian lifestyle with others, including those of gays and lesbians, Zimbardi and the two former players say. “The decision she made [to be a Christian] was the one we needed to make to be good people,” one of the former players recalls Johns having said more than once.
Johns, a two-time All-American catcher at South Carolina who was hired by Florida after a successful stint as pitching coach at the University of Alabama, also committed her faith to print. In an October 2000 e-mail to Zimbardi, then recovering from knee surgery, Johns wrote: "To show His love, Jesus died for us; to show our love, we must live for Him." Hope your rehab is going good ... let me know if I can do anything for you. GOD BLESS! GO GATORS!”
The coach also forwarded an e-mail to the entire team from an organization called Competitive Edge International, that was seeking softball players for a tour. “CEI is looking for Christian athletes (and coaches) who desire to promote & develop softball worldwide AND share their personal faith,” the e-mail read. Another team-wide e-mail was simply titled “Joshua 1:9,” and read: "Remember that I have commanded you to be determined and confident! Do not be afraid or discouraged, for I, the Lord your God, am with you wherever you go." In addition, the team was once given a handout by Johns titled “The Lord’s Softball Team,” that discussed faith and devotion to God in the context of a softball game.
The University of Florida does not have a policy regarding the promotion of religion. However, any student who felt undue pressure could file a complaint with the student grievance committee, according to Paula Rausch of the university’s office of News and Public Affairs.
Athletic Director Foley, in a statement, said, “In my 12 years as athletic director, I’ve not heard one complaint from anyone about the expression of faith.” He added that it’s up to each team to decide how and if they want to express their faith.
'Made Me Uncomfortable'
Religion aside, what especially troubled Zimbardi, she says, was Johns’ frequent discussions of which players and coaches in the sport were gay. “She outed a lot of people,” Zimbardi says. She recalls one trip to California, where Florida was playing against a school coached by one of Johns’ former teammates. Zimbardi claims that at one point, Johns said that the only difference between herself and the other coach was “that she’s gay and I’m not.”
“These types of comments made me uncomfortable,” Zimbardi says. “I wasn’t sure I could then approach her about certain things.”
The two former players who had also been released—both in prior seasons—say their troubles began when Johns started getting more personal than they were comfortable with. One says Johns had asked her on a team flight about which players were dating other girls, and had volunteered that a pitching coach on another team was sleeping with one of her players.
“This was not a position a head coach should be taking,” the player says. “She overstepped her boundaries. I was very upset.” This was not the only time Johns had asked her about other players’ relationships. “She was trying to be my friend and get information about the other girls, but I was very guarded around her.” This player, who says she had started the season as one of Johns’ favorites, saw her playing time decrease and was soon released. “I was shocked,” the player says, adding that she was never given a reason for her dismissal.
The second player released says Johns constantly intruded into her personal life. When this player was dating a baseball player, she says, Johns regularly “called his apartment and asked if I stayed there with him. I confronted her and asked her to stop.” But Johns persisted in asking questions, even after the two broke up. The softball player then began dating a woman, and this also upset Johns. “If you’re dating her, that’s not right. It’s a wrong lifestyle to choose,” this player recalls Johns saying. She adds that the coach regularly made negative references to homosexual “lifestyles” and said she knew of lesbians who had committed suicide.
This second player says that by midseason her playing time was greatly reduced, even though her statistics were good. Johns put her on a leave of absence, the player says, “because she perceived a conflict between me and the other girl [she had been dating]. I was dumbfounded.”
The player says she then agreed to see a school counselor as a condition of keeping her place on the team, but that she was eventually released. Johns gave her no specific reason for the decision except to say “it was for the best.” The player then contacted an attorney, who said Johns could dismiss her only for insubordination, bad grades or for committing a felony. The player insists none of these criteria applied to her. “The only reason I can give [for my dismissal] was what she had gathered about my personal life.”
A Pivotal Meeting
It was against this backdrop that Zimbardi approached Johns to discuss her treatment by Compton-Butler. The head coach said that Zimbardi “was doing nothing wrong” and that Compton-Butler had no issues with her. But as Zimbardi saw her playing time greatly reduced, “I wondered if it had something to do with Heather.”
The issue came to a head when Zimbardi attended a Feb. 22 meeting that included her mother and step-father, coaches Johns and Compton-Butler, Athletic Director Foley and Assistant Athletic Director Ann Marie Rogers. “My parents felt it would be safe if the higher-ups were there,” Zimbardi says.
The meeting seemed to go well from Zimbardi’s standpoint. She says that after hearing her side, Foley told her “your perception is your reality.” [Foley confirmed that he did say this.] He promised to work to resolve any problems, according to Zimbardi.
But Johns denied that any of the incidents Zimbardi described had happened, the player claims, and said “this was just my way to complain about my lack of playing time.”
“I told [Johns] this was not about playing time and said, ‘I feel I’ve been discriminated against by you and Heather and this whole program.’ ”
The meeting then took a conciliatory turn, according to Zimbardi and her mother, Candace Carlson-Bolin. “Coach Johns stood up, hugged me and my husband and turned to Andrea, looked into her face with her arms on Andrea’s and said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ ” Carlson-Bolin wrote in a letter to Foley dated April 9. Though Foley had left the meeting early, Zimbardi and her parents say they were assured by Rogers, Johns and Compton-Butler that Zimbardi would not face retaliation for speaking up.
Zimbardi was stunned when two days later she met with Johns, Compton-Butler and assistant coach Dave Majeski, and was told she had been suspended for a week. The head coach accused her of having told lies and misconceptions at the meeting with Foley, and said, “whenever you attack one of my assistants you attack me,” the player recalls. “She then suggested I see a psychologist and gave me the number of one,” Zimbardi says. The player refused to recant and left the meeting, telling her coach she would be ready to return behind the plate when needed.
A major source of contention occurred while Zimbardi was serving her suspension. She alleges that Compton-Butler told members of the team that Zimbardi had filed a complaint against her with a gay rights group on campus. Zimbardi says she had not done this and was upset that Compton-Butler had violated her agreement to keep details of the meeting with Foley confidential. When Zimbardi reported this to Rogers, the assistant AD said that Compton-Butler denied ever making such an allegation. However, a current player interviewed by Outsports quotes a teammate (who was also her roommate) as claiming that Compton-Butler had in fact made such a statement. Doering, the NCLR attorney, spoke with another player who said a rumor was rife among the team that Zimbardi had “filed a lawsuit” with a gay rights group.
Off the Team
Zimbardi would never make it back on the field. In a follow-up meeting with Johns on March 6, the player was told she was being released from the team “because you did nothing to clear up the misconceptions.” She was allowed to keep her scholarship, but her collegiate sports career was over.
The decision infuriated Zimbardi’s mother. In her three-page April 9 letter to Foley, she charged that “lies have been told by your coaching staff. … I only hope and pray that this injustice will be met and the truth prevail.” She added that, “My daughter has been ‘outed’ by Coach Heather Compton-Butler subsequent to our meeting. My daughter … has not discussed our meeting with one other person in Gainesville that was not present at the meeting. She, on the other hand, has been slandered, lied to and [lied] about.”
Doering and NCLR Homophobia in Sports coordinator Carroll were unsuccessful in getting Zimbardi reinstated for the remainder of the season. Doering is especially dismayed by the university’s insistence that nothing wrong had occurred, and by the fact that Zimbardi had been retaliated against for raising her concerns.
“This is the poster child for how not to respond to allegations,” Doering says. “They eliminated the problem by eliminating the victim.”
The currently active player interviewed by Outsports, who spoke on the promise of anonymity, claims the team was never told why Zimbardi was released. She says the team speculated that it might have had something to do with Zimbardi’s sexuality. But this player also says she didn’t think Johns “was discriminatory based on someone’s sexual preference.” This player adds that she was not taking sides and had a good relationship with both Johns and Zimbardi. She adds that the coach praised Zimbardi even after her release, saying at one point, “Andrea reminds me so much of me.”
“I believe Andrea feels the way she does for a reason,” this player says. “I don’t think she would make things up. It’s unfortunate this could not be resolved and our team has suffered. We lost a great player and a huge asset. … I hope [this story] gets to the bottom of what really happened.”
Zimbardi continued to attend games and root for her teammates, who made it as far as the NCAA regional finals before bowing out. Now that her playing career is over, she hopes her going public will “prevent other athletes from going through this.” She still bleeds Gator Blue.
“The University of Florida always wants the best,” she says. “I hope that by me doing this will make them better than they already are. If they want the best [for the softball program] they better keep looking. All I care about is the program.”
Update: From the Gainesville Sun, June 13:
"Following behind a national trend among public research universities, UF on June 13 became one of the last of 62 members in the Association of American Universities to include "sexual orientation" among the list of reasons for which the university may not discriminate."
The president of the Board of Trustees told the Sun that the Zimbardi case had nothing to do with the passage.