Hannah Kiser won 20 conference championships in her four years as a distance runner for the University of Idaho.
She graduated in 3 1/2 years with a 3.9 GPA.
She wanted to spend her last semester of competition at Washington State, training with the head coach who had left Idaho. Because of NCAA transfer rules, she needed Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear’s approval to go.
He didn’t just say no. His words were so painful that Kiser decided she would rather see her spectacular career end early than run for the Vandals again. And that’s exactly what happened.
“One of the more hurtful things probably that has ever been said to me was (Spear) said to me, if I left, the Vandal community would be upset and disgraced,” Kiser said. “I ran with a broken foot for more than a year. ... He told me they paid for my four years and that I owed them that last year.”
That wasn’t all. At a second meeting with Spear, he threatened her legacy, she said. Spear’s words are included in detailed records Kiser kept at the time, including meeting notes and emails.
According to her summary of a June 2014 meeting, Spear said: “You are a shoo-in (for the U of I) hall of fame. That option will not be available to you in the event that you transfer.”
Turns out, Spear reportedly had used that line before. Kiser is at least the third female athlete to have her place in the Vandal Athletics Hall of Fame threatened by Spear while challenging him, a source told the Idaho Statesman. All have earned All-America honors.
Allix Potratz-Lee, a distance runner who will be inducted into the Vandal Athletics Hall of Fame next month, was Kiser’s training partner as well as a U of I assistant coach. She followed head coach Wayne Phipps to Washington State and figured Kiser would, too.
“We didn’t think someone would really go out of their way to prevent her from doing that,” said Potratz-Lee, who left college coaching last year and still lives in her hometown of Moscow. “... (Spear) was so cruel. It made me cry when she would tell the story. He was awful to her.”
There were hints of an intimidating leadership style in the independent investigative report released by the university last week — an investigation that focused on Spear’s handling of incidents of sexual assault and harassment reported by three women against a single football player in 2012-13.
Spear’s attorneys were unable to comment immediately for this story because of the terms of his administrative leave.
“Some on campus feel Dr. Spear attempts to improperly intimidate those who take contrary positions or challenge him,” the report says.
Spear has worked at Idaho since 1989. He was named interim athletic director in October 2003 and promoted to the full-time job in January 2004. He has been on paid leave since April 3 to allow for the university investigation. The State Board of Education has told outgoing President Chuck Staben that it will make the final decision on Spear’s employment. The board has a regularly scheduled meeting next Wednesday and Thursday.
Kiser reached out to the university’s investigators with her story but was told it wasn’t in their purview, she said. She went public for the first time in an article published last week by the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.
She hopes that Spear will be removed from his job permanently.
“I feel very passionately about Idaho — I loved my time there — but I don’t feel like I can be an advocate for that because of what happened to me,” Kiser told the Statesman this week, her voice cracking with emotion. “I feel like I’m a Vandal at heart. Rob Spear is not a Vandal. Something needs to be done and things need to be changed for it to get back to making Vandals proud again.
“You should be proud of the choices your athletic department makes. Now, I feel like by coming out with my story and getting things changed, we can make the Vandal community strong and not be embarrassed. That’s what the Vandal community deserves.”
Maureen Taylor Regan played volleyball at Idaho and spent 34 years working in the athletic department before she retired Dec. 31, 2010. She was the senior female administrator under Spear for her final five years.
She has tried to stay out of athletic department business since retiring, she said, but emailed Staben on Kiser’s behalf in 2014 when the runner was trying to transfer. Kiser also met with the president.
None of it mattered.
“Nobody wanted to challenge (Spear) on that, so nobody did the right thing for her,” Taylor Regan said. “She did all the right things. She came to me as a resource. I always encouraged her to take the high road and go through the right procedures. She did all of that, and nobody stuck up for her.
“... I saw what a stacked deck she was up against all the time, and it was terrible.”
More women come forward
Kiser’s experience joins a list of other situations in which female athletes say they weren’t heard by Spear:
▪ A former All-American says she was raped by a fellow student-athlete as a senior in the late 2000s, an incident detailed in a police report obtained by the Statesman. She never competed again and felt abandoned by the department. She declined to pursue criminal charges — fearing the potential publicity.
She withdrew from practice and, after the first few days, heard little from her coaches, she said.
“Nobody did anything to make me feel like they cared,” she said.
The Statesman generally doesn’t identify victims of sexual assault. The woman in this case has a hall of fame-level resume. After hearing Kiser’s story, she thinks her absence from the hall might be related to the way her career ended. She remembers meeting with Spear after the alleged rape — a meeting that included questions about her own actions that night, she said.
“You feel like you did something wrong, and you’re the one that’s the victim, and it sucks,” she said. “And now that I’m a coach, I see how I interact with these kids — never in a million years would I treat them how I was treated at Idaho. ... Regardless of policies and procedures ... you’ve got to be a good person. You’ve got to protect these women.”
Despite her withdrawal from team activities, she was approached late in the season by a coach and asked to compete, she said. She’s one of three female athletes who have told the Statesman they were pressured to compete in championship-level events when they were either mentally or physically unfit.
“You bad is still really good,” the woman says a coach told her. “... You’re letting the team down.”
“I remember going into the locker room — I told the whole team about everything,” she said. “... I remember just telling the team, ‘I’m too sad, I’m too depressed, and I can’t be there for you guys.’ ”
She, like several other female athletes interviewed by the Statesman, says there are other sexual-assault victims who never have spoken out. The woman has shared her story with the State Board of Education, too.
“I can’t tell you how happy I would be if Rob Spear was no longer there,” she said. “I would feel like: ‘We did it. We changed this culture.’ ... It’s like Rob Spear has all our secrets.”
▪ In 2006, a group of women’s basketball players went to Spear with complaints of verbal abuse by then-coach Mike Divilbiss. Spear stood by Divilbiss, Taylor Regan said.
Divilbiss resigned two years later after a four-win season and drew similar criticism for his coaching style as an assistant at Illinois. He’s now the athletic director at Lakeland High in North Idaho.
Divilbiss coached at Idaho for seven years.
“My concern was we needed to listen to the women and not just perceive them as troublemakers,” Taylor Regan said.
▪ Former swimmer Taylor Falk contacted then-compliance director and senior female administrator Jessica Atkins in February 2017 to express concerns about the mental health of the swimming and diving team. Falk provided an email exchange showing the scheduled meeting.
Atkins, who coaches volleyball at Fort Hays State in Kansas, didn’t respond to an interview request.
“There are a number of women who have almost committed suicide,” said Falk, who swam from 2014 to 2016 and remained at the school after she left the team. “I felt like that was a problem.”
Atkins “assured me Dr. Spear was going to meet with me,” Falk said. But, “there was no follow-up,” she said.
In the fall of 2017, she went to the dean of students office with her concerns. She met with Associate Dean of Students Hassel Morrison several times, she said, and at least one other school official. She’s unsure what happened after that.
“In a short period of time, two months, Dr. Morrison made sure this issue was at least followed up on,” she said. “... I was very disappointed with the athletic department. I thought they failed me and failed the swim program.”
U of I spokeswoman Jodi Walker said the university can’t comment on a complaint brought by a student.
▪ Spear’s leave is related to his handling of the sexual assault and harassment complaints by former diver Mairin Jameson in April 2013, a sexual harassment complaint by distance runner Maggie Miller in April 2013 and a misconduct complaint by a student in November 2012, all involving the same football player. The investigative report called Spear’s actions in Jameson’s case “inadequate” and raised concerns about his interactions with Jameson and her parents.
“The initial communications ... did not show the sensitivity and compassion that a person who is trained in communicating with individuals who have suffered trauma and have fear of further interaction with the perpetrator would exhibit,” the report says.
A career derailed
Kiser joined the Vandals from Wenatchee, Wash. — a developmental recruit who surprised her coaches with her quick transition to college. She was a first-team All-WAC cross country runner, a two-event champion at the WAC indoor championships, and the 5,000-meter WAC champion outdoors as a freshman in 2010-11.
She added three indoor titles in 2011-12 and was the WAC cross country and track athlete of the year in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
“She just put everything into it,” Potratz-Lee said. “I was so impressed by how hard she worked and her gratitude. Coming in, she was really open about, ‘I’m going to give this everything because I’m so grateful to have my college paid for.’ ... She tutored freshman athletes, made them meals when they were getting a little homesick. She’s a really talented athlete and a really big-hearted person.”
In the spring of 2014, Kiser met with Phipps to set a course for her future. They agreed to work together through the 2016 Olympic trials, which would come during her first full year as a pro. But their plans came unraveled when Phipps was hired as the Washington State coach on May 26, 2014.
Phipps didn’t respond to an interview request from the Statesman.
Kiser, who graduated in December 2013 and had one indoor season and one outdoor season remaining, met with Spear on June 5, 2014. She pointed out the need for consistent training as she prepared for a pro career, the specialized training she required because of the broken bone in her right foot, and her status as a biochemistry graduate and the lack of an appealing graduate program at U of I.
She also argued that while there was concern about a mass exodus, she was in better position to transfer as a graduate than her teammates were.
Without Spear’s permission, she could transfer to Washington State but wouldn’t be eligible for a scholarship and couldn’t compete for a year, when her eligibility would be exhausted. The NCAA removed the need for transfers to obtain permission from their schools this summer.
“The first thing he says to me is that it would be incredibly stupid of me to let you go,” Kiser said.
On June 19, Atkins sent Kiser a formal denial of her request to contact Washington State. The email says that Spear was denying all transfer requests by track and field and cross country athletes.
Spear was “angry” that Phipps took the Washington State job, Potratz-Lee said.
Kiser met with Spear a second time to ask him about the decision, and that’s when he mentioned the Hall of Fame, Kiser said.
“These meetings just keep getting worse and worse,” she said as she told the story.
Kiser took her case to the University Appeals Committee. The five-member panel is drawn from the President’s Athletics Advisory Council and chaired by the faculty athletic representative. Kiser submitted a letter in advance of the July 2 hearing. She was chosen to present her case first — even though the student-athlete handbook said she had the right to go second, according to a document provided by Kiser. Spear went second, emphasizing his worries about a rash of transfers.
Kiser was surprised that the panelists discussed whether she could compete in the Pac-12, despite her two top-15 finishes in NCAA meets. They didn’t seem to understand her academic situation.
The vote was 4-1 against Kiser.
Sharon Stoll, director of the Center for ETHICS at U of I, was the vote in favor of Kiser’s release.
“I thought everybody in that room would vote to release her,” Stoll said. “I was so surprised that it didn’t go that way. ... I just think the NCAA was wrong (to restrict transfers). ... Obviously I must have been right, because they got rid of the stupid rule.”
Kiser reached out to all five members for an explanation of the decision, which she received July 7. She met with two of them.
“She was emotionally spent when I talked to her — shaking, exhausted,” Stoll said.
Spear, Stoll told Kiser, has a heavy influence in those hearings.
“He has a deep, authoritarian voice,” Stoll said, “and he comes across as being very competent, very sure of himself. That’s what I meant about influence — he can carry a room by his argument, and he does it very, very well.”
Kiser met with new coach Tim Cawley on July 15 and asked for his support in her quest to transfer, which she didn’t get. She went to Provost Katherine Aiken and Staben next, meeting with them Aug. 11.
Nine days later, Staben informed her that the university’s decision was final. He thanked her for the “exemplary way in which you have represented our university.”
In her emailed response, Kiser told Staben, “My treatment by the athletic director has created a hostile work environment and I feel intimidated and uncomfortable being in the athletic department.”
As word spread about her situation, people tried to help with information and advice, Kiser said. But they would tell her not to contact them on their university phones and email addresses, or insist on meeting off-campus.
Teammate Abby Rodseth (formerly Larson) started a petition that she intended to deliver to Spear and Staben. Before long, word spread that athletes who signed it would be risking their scholarship, Rodseth said. A list that once had 15 to 20 names eventually was down to three or four as worried athletes asked her to take them off, she said.
“You could tell that rumors were used to spread fear and keep people from speaking and doing what’s right,” Rodseth said. “For me, I live by, you do what’s right. I don’t think what they did was OK.”
Kiser opted to walk on at Washington State that fall, where she paid her own way. She trained with the team and held out hope that Spear would change his mind at the end of the semester, allowing her to compete during the indoor and outdoor seasons.
“I would rather lose everything I have and have all this debt,” she said, “than run for a school that forces me to stay there and makes me unhappy and is not in line with my ideals for how you treat people.”
When she wasn’t able to compete that spring, she underwent the foot surgery she had hoped to delay until after the 2016 Olympic trials. She never competed again.
“It was devastating for her,” Potratz-Lee said, “and it was devastating for me to watch that happen to her.”
Kiser reconnected with nature as she healed. She hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and took a job as an adventure facilitator at Washington State. She’s also a wilderness ranger in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
She made peace with the way her career ended while hiking the PCT, she said.
“I just left a lot of the bad things that happened to me behind,” she said. “... It would still make me really emotional when I’d think about it, and I didn’t want it to have that power over me anymore.”