Penn State

Why this former Penn State coach is suing and what he hopes to get

Penn State women’s gymnastics coach Jeff Thompson high fives one of his athletes after her performance on the vault during the 2014 NCAA Women’s Regional Championships in 2014 in Rec Hall.
Penn State women’s gymnastics coach Jeff Thompson high fives one of his athletes after her performance on the vault during the 2014 NCAA Women’s Regional Championships in 2014 in Rec Hall. Centre Daily Times, file

Former Penn State women’s gymnastics coach Jeff Thompson filed a lawsuit accusing the university of failing to protect his reputation after the university mandated he not speak with the media.

Thompson and his wife, Rachelle, began coaching the Nittany Lions in 2010 — six years before former Penn State gymnast Alyssa DiFrancesco said she was so scared of her coaches that she quit the team.

Thompson discussed the article with Deputy Director of Athletics Phil Esten and said he had files to disprove the allegations, but Penn State allegedly refused to address his concerns and said the issue would “go away.”

The lawsuit also references a Daily Collegian article, which quoted Athletic Director Sandy Barbour saying that she and the athletic department were aware of all allegations against the Thompsons and spent a long time investigating them.

The article was posted in April 2016, but Thompson said the investigation was completed in December 2015 and Barbour made no mention that the allegations were unsubstantiated.

“Instead, her comments invited rampant speculation as to ongoing abuses and concerns within the programs,” the lawsuit said.

One month after the Daily Collegian article was posted, People Magazine published an article that Thompson said finally attempted to address the abuse allegations.

“The Athletics Department reviewed the report and noted that while ... some student-athletes reported behaviors they found personally objectionable, no instances of abuse were identified,” the article quoted Penn State’s athletic department as saying.

According to the lawsuit, increasing pressure from alumni and the media prompted Rachelle Thompson to resign June 30, 2016. Jeff Thompson continued as coach and began filming all practices with an iPad to protect against potential allegations.

The Office of Ethics and Compliance also completed a full review of the program during his year-end performance review and found, “Nothing that led to concern regarding ethics or integrity.”

Thompson was also told swearing would not be accepted, he should “not yell at anyone on the team,” and should “never again use sarcasm.”

The lawsuit also said Barbour told Thompson to keep the team happy, not worry about winning and not talk about scores.

Thompson met with Esten on Feb. 19, 2017 and Esten allegedly told him he was doing a great job. Four days later, Thompson met with Barbour — among others— and was told he was being terminated for cause.

“Coach Thompson was terminated for comments made between him and assistant coaches Josh Nilson and Kera Molinaro, which occurred in his private office or public areas with no one else around” the lawsuit said.

Thompson’s firing was reported by the Centre Daily Times, among others, and various other reports connected his firing to the abuse allegations.

“This is a personnel matter and the Intercollegiate Athletics will not have any further comment,” was the only statement Penn State would provide about his termination, according to the lawsuit.

Since leaving Penn State, Thompson has applied for head coach, assistant coach and NCAA compliance positions without any success.

“As a direct result of Penn State’s inaction to address the false abuse allegations made against coach Thompson, he has not even been able to obtain an interview or response from any of his inquires for open positions,” noted the lawsuit, which was filed July 27.

Thompson is suing the university for defamation, false light and breach of contract.

He is requesting more than $100,000 in damages for lost future earnings plus general damages for distress, anguish, humiliation and embarrassment, plus punitive damages.

Thompson also believes he is entitled to compensation for the remainder of his contract from Feb. 24, 2017 through June 30, 2018. Thompson’s base salary was $128,496 per year, according to an exhibit of the lawsuit.

“It is Penn State’s general practice to not comment on pending litigation,” said Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers.

Thompson filed a writ of summons in April 2017 listing both Penn State and the Daily Collegian in the lawsuit, but after two continuations, the Daily Collegian is no longer included.