In March 2022, Kim Russell, the coach of women’s lacrosse at the ultra-progressive Oberlin college in Ohio, shared a video to her own social media account after University of Virginia swimmer Emma Weyant lost an NCAA race to trans athlete Lia Thomas. The video, first posted by another user, said: “Congratulations to Emma Weyant, the real woman who won the NCAA 500-yard freestyle event.” This kicked off a firestorm at the school and well beyond. Here, Russell tells her side of the story.
A male — no matter how they self-identify — should not be allowed to compete in a women’s sporting event.
This is my opinion, based on biological truth that I’m well aware of as a former D1 two-sport athlete turned college lacrosse coach with over 27 years of coaching experience. I have been inducted into three halls of fame for coaching and contributing to the growth of lacrosse. But I was “burned at the stake” by Oberlin College for expressing that belief.
I have always considered myself pro-woman. Over the course of my coaching career, I have been a mentor to many women and girls, sharing advice both on and off the field. My office has always been a gathering place. My athletes, including several who have identified as transgender, have always known that they can come to me—to laugh, to cry, or anything in between.
I’ve actually been nicknamed the “hippie love coach,” not only because I’m a yoga instructor, am often barefoot, read energy and coach intuitively, but because I’ve given countless individuals a safe space to thrive and feel a sense of belonging.
That’s why I didn’t think it would be controversial when, in March 2022, I reposted an Instagram post that said, “Congratulations to Emma Weyant, the real woman who won the NCAA 500-yard freestyle event.” To that, I added my own short commentary and shared this on my (personal) Instagram story:
What do you believe? I can’t be quiet on this… I’ve spent my life playing sports, starting & coaching sports programs for girls & women…
Turns out, it was more controversial than I could have ever anticipated. My Instagram story taking a pro-woman stance led to a nightmarish campaign against me by Oberlin College administrators, members of the athletic department staff and even some of my athletes. I was called transgressive, transphobic and unsafe.
Wait, what?! Me, unsafe? I was blown away by the accusations. I’m the hippie love coach. The one that everyone has always felt safe around.
Yet, my athletic director (AD) told me to write letters of apology to my team and the school’s athletic department because of the unrest and disruption I had caused. So I started writing — before realizing that I couldn’t apologize for something I’m not sorry for.
I would not and will not apologize for saying a biological male does not belong in women’s sports and spaces. To me, it is common sense.
As an athlete and coach for nearly my entire life, I am personally familiar with the distinct differences between male and female athletes. It also helps that I’ve given birth to four children of my own, sometimes nursing one with another strapped to my back while running down the field during practice and games. Like many sports, men’s and women’s lacrosse have differences— from rules to field size to level of contact — to account for the biological differences between the sexes.
My worst injury came from playing co-ed field hockey. A man fell on me and popped two of my ribs off my sternum. I love playing co-ed, and I made the choice to be on that field with men knowing what could happen. Biologically, males and females are different. To suggest otherwise is what’s truly “unsafe!”
The Oberlin administration did not agree. After I refused to apologize, the onslaught of demoralization, manipulation and gaslighting ensued. The Oberlin athletic director called for a meeting of my team with a mediator present. A handful of the student-athletes on my team attacked and vilified me as if I was the enemy and had just killed someone.
A first-year student tried to defend me by saying, “Kim is passionate about women’s rights and Title IX — I think this is what Kim means.” They attacked her as well.
The mediator tried to diffuse the situation, saying, “Kim is passionate about women’s rights like you are about trans rights.” In one ear and out the other — a group of those in the room continued to pepper me with undeserving insults and other personal attacks.
Next, my assistant coach spoke up and asked why the athletes had written to the AD instead of just reaching out to one or both of us to hear more about my perspective. The athletes claimed they were afraid of retribution.
Needless to say, the meeting didn’t end with a clear resolution. A week later, my AD asked me to have another meeting with my team and other college administrators. I complied.
Administrators — the Associate Vice President for Athletics Advancement/Delta Lodge Director of Athletics & Physical Education; the Director for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion/Title IX Coordinator; and Athletics Diversity and Inclusion Designee Liaison to the Office of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion — were present in addition to my assistant coach and our entire team.
The energy in the room was dark, and chairs were arranged in a circle. For one hour and 42 minutes, each student-athlete had the opportunity to speak freely about what they didn’t like about me or my coaching style. The same athletes whom I had treated like my own kids bashed me over and over again, simply for having a pro-woman perspective which was different from theirs.
“I know that this is probably a shock because now we’re at this stage where, for this generation, it’s not good enough just to work for women’s issues or white feminism. Your feminism has to be inclusive for everybody and work for everybody,” was a particularly biting comment from one student-athlete.
Another athlete told me that I was genuinely trying to make an attack on her, saying: “There are some things that we still need from you and some steps, but we acknowledge it’s not impossible. It’s not impossible to eventually be able to apologize.”
The student-athletes were encouraged to speak their minds, but that wasn’t the case for me — I had to stay quiet and repeat back everything they said to confirm I had listened to their concerns. The only time I didn’t have to repeat what had been said was when the freshman who had spoken up in support of me at our first meeting read four pages of positive feedback about my assistant coach and me.
The adults in the room seemed to disregard what the athlete had said, and the moderator, Rebecca Mosely, responded, “That was a lot. Can I summarize by saying that [the assistant coach] and Kim do a lot of good things for the team?”
At the end of the meeting, I was given the chance to respond, at which point I knew that whatever I said would land on deaf ears.
After that meeting, I received no support from the administrators who were present. I did receive support from the Assistant AD who is the Senior Women’s Administrator for the Athletic department — the mediator present in the first meeting I was asked to have with the team.
My team and I walked on eggshells for the rest of the season, but I finished out the season. I was even there emotionally for the athlete who had originally reported me to the AD after she received awful news about an injury — I was her first call, before her mom or her dad.
I love these kids as my own, and nothing could ever change that, not even them villainizing me. I want them to see the value in standing up for what you believe, to have difficult conversations with those you may disagree with and come out the other side as better friends.
A week or so after the season ended, the AD called me into her office and handed me a letter. At the very bottom, it said: “This letter is intended to help you understand and appreciate the impact of your actions and the need for you to immediately modify your behavior. It is my (and the College’s) sincere hope that you are successful in doing so. This letter will be placed in your personnel file in the Department of Human Resources.”
Fascinating. I was “good enough” to carry on to coach the remainder of the season after the incident, but now I must change my behavior? I felt like a little kid who had taken a piece of candy without permission.
I asked Oberlin to provide me with a written letter on what I had done wrong and how I could improve my behavior but was never provided any clarity.
I thought that college was supposed to be a place of learning. A place of encountering new and diverse perspectives that you can build upon to strengthen your own. But that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, especially not at Oberlin.
When I accepted the job as Head Women’s Lacrosse Coach & Wellness Instructor at Oberlin in August of 2018, I had been so excited to be a part of an institution known to be one of the best in the country for academic rigor and achievement, as well as its world-renowned music conservatory. I had admired Oberlin as being a community that celebrates the free spirit, open-minded dialogue, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression.
What I didn’t know was that I was about to embark on a journey that would expose the complete opposite. Oberlin — like many higher-level institutions these days — only seems to support the First Amendment if your values align with theirs. Disagree, and you will be verbally and emotionally attacked, bullied, shunned, and vilified. Perhaps even ultimately forced out.
Trust me, there are others at Oberlin and beyond who agree with me that women’s sports should be for women only. And that without single-sex competition, there can be no equal athletic opportunity. But many have chosen to stay silent because the consequences seem too great — loss of family, loss of a job, loss of your reputation, you name it. I am speaking out in part for them.
In the last decade, the #MeToo movement gained steam because powerful women said “enough is enough” and shared their stories of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace. Where are these women now? Why won’t they stand up and say “enough is enough” when it comes to men taking women’s spots on podiums and men in women’s locker rooms?
Many of them, like administrators at Oberlin and other institutions of higher learning, are fine with taking away opportunities from women to validate the feelings of a man in the name of “inclusivity.” They have no problem silencing those who do not agree. They are setting the example for the students that attacked me, sending the message that it’s okay to vilify someone for an opposing view.
I hope my athletes learn that, just as they have been rightly taught that diversity is an asset, that includes diversity of thought. Let’s disagree respectfully and treat everyone with love and kindness.
I will never apologize for believing that women and girls should have the right to single-sex competition — a right for which women before me fought tirelessly. I’ll have a conversation with anyone on why I believe what I do, and I’ll do so respectfully.
After my story went public, administrators barred me from contacting my team and, even though we’re in the first several weeks of classes, I was asked not to attend athlete welcome events. Once again, Oberlin stymied conversation.
To my athletes both past and present, I want them all to know I understand why there may be hurt feelings. Why it might feel as though I betrayed them. I hope at some point, they will understand. No matter what one believes or feels, I support them in being the truest version of themselves, and wish them nothing but joy, love, and much happiness. I am eternally grateful to each of my athletes for being a part of my life.
I’m hoping that by speaking up, it will give other coaches, instructors, and faculty the courage to do the same. And guess what? Through the hundreds of emails, texts, phone calls, and responses I’ve received after going public, I’ve only been love-bombed with support. So to my fellow coaches, where are you? You can be a voice too, I promise you.
To any who are understandably afraid, if there is one thing that I’ve already learned from this experience, there are many more out there who will support you — more than you can imagine. I will stand next to you. You may feel that you are shrouded in darkness, but the light is brighter than you can ever imagine.
I don’t know what will come next, but I am ready for the storm.
Kim Russell is the head women’s lacrosse coach at Oberlin College. The author was featured in the Independent Women’s Forum’s Female Athlete Stories series. Watch here.