Haskell athletes were made to sign no-contact agreements stemming from investigation of former coach; they say administrators intimidated them

photo by: Journal-World File

A sign at the entrance to Haskell Indian Nations University is shown Friday, Aug. 5, 2016.

Student-athletes in Haskell Indian Nations University’s cross country program were made to sign a no-contact agreement and say they have endured a hostile environment on campus since last fall, stemming from a federal investigation of the team’s former coach.

That coach, Clay Mayes, was hired to lead Haskell’s cross country team in July of 2021 and moved to Lawrence from California with his wife and two children to do so. But within months, Mayes was barred from leading practices and under investigation for allegedly cultivating a hostile practice environment.

photo by: Contributed

Former Haskell cross country coach Clay Mayes, right, is pictured with Billy Mills, who ran track at Haskell and went on to become an Olympic gold medalist.

A group of current and former Haskell cross country athletes spoke with the Journal-World earlier this week, and they said that allegation was erroneous. Instead, the group pointed toward current Haskell administrators — acting Athletic Director Judith Gipp, Assistant Athletic Director Aja McCormick and longtime track coach Al Gipp — as a source of constant and continuing ire and discomfort throughout the federal investigation.

“What we really just want to bring attention to is the people that are here, not just to us and these students; they’ve been doing this for years, apparently,” one former athlete told the Journal-World. “If there’s someone they don’t agree with or someone that brings attention to their own shortcomings and would demand more of them in their own occupation if they chose, they harass them and do what they’ve been doing to Clay until they quit or leave or just lay down and let everything else happen.”

The students who spoke to the Journal-World requested that their names not be used for fear of retaliation.

McCormick declined to comment on this story Thursday, citing the ongoing investigation. Judith and Al Gipp were also approached for comment this week and had not responded by late Friday afternoon. A spokesperson with the Bureau of Indian Education, which oversees Haskell’s operations, also had not responded to a request for comment by late Friday afternoon.

Mayes’ contract was first frozen in February and eventually terminated in April “for the government’s convenience,” a mechanism allowing the federal government to cancel a contract if it becomes obsolete or unneeded. Mayes told the Journal-World Friday that he’s unsure whether the investigation is ongoing since his questions about the process have gone unanswered by the BIE, and he also said he hasn’t been informed of what any specific allegations against him might be.

But Haskell athletes told the Journal-World that the alleged intimidation directed toward Mayes by Haskell administrators began quickly, even before an investigation was opened. They allege that McCormick met with a small group of runners and compiled a list of complaints to lodge against Mayes. Among the items on that list are complaints such as a broad “lack of communication” and that Mayes made negative comments about the Gipps to athletes. Another item claims that Mayes seemed to have runners fighting to be his favorite.

Lists of complaints

This list of complaints was allegedly compiled by Haskell Assistant Athletic Director Aja McCormick and a small group of Haskell athletes who did not want to be coached by former Haskell coach Clay Mayes. Runners who denied the allegations against Mayes indicated that they were familiar with the contents of the list and that they believed these were McCormick’s handwritten notes. Mayes said he obtained these photos of the list from student-athletes.

“It didn’t pass; it just progressively got worse,” the former athlete said. “They began making numerous and continuous bull(expletive deleted) complaints against Clay … it was just constant harassment to him, and after the no-contact order was given the intimidation began with all the athletes.”

Every athlete on the team was made to sign a memorandum — dated Nov. 4, 2021 — from the university’s vice president of university services, Tonia Salvini, informing them of the no-contact order that barred them from communicating with Mayes or anyone in his family. They say they also weren’t allowed a grievance process and were even warned not to speak with family members about the conditions on campus.

A memorandum detailing the no-contact agreement Haskell cross country athletes were made to follow is pictured, with identifying information redacted. A group of athletes told the Journal-World they had to sign the forms and describe being subject to harassment by current administrators both on and off campus.

“We couldn’t talk to our families; we were told we couldn’t even tell our moms about it,” one athlete said. “So having that type of support and then not letting them know what’s going on and what’s actually stressing you out, we just had each other to talk about it to. No one knew about it.”

In that memo, Salvini also lists herself as acting president, a role that doesn’t seem to have been publicized elsewhere at any point. Up until recently, Haskell’s interim president had apparently been Tamarah Pfeiffer — or at least Pfeiffer is who has been and continues to be listed on Haskell’s website in that role. About a month ago, a press release quietly identified yet another Haskell employee, Julia Good Fox, as interim president.

Salvini has not responded to a request from the Journal-World for clarification about whether she served as the university’s acting president at the time or has since then.

Haskell athletes told the Journal-World that the alleged intimidation from Haskell administrators was targeted largely at runners recruited by Mayes and also at those who had decided they’d rather be coached by him.

One runner described how she was a target of harassment by the Gipps and McCormick because she wanted to train with Mayes. That runner claims she was prevented from competing at meets and said she was ostracized both during and outside practice, such as while taking a course taught by Judith Gipp, and also by Judith Gipp and McCormick while she was seeking to treat an injury with Haskell’s athletic training staff.

Athletes were also monitored off campus, another runner claimed. Their activity was policed during events such as local, noncompetitive running events hosted by the City of Lawrence or other organizations, that person said. The runners say they were often threatened with having their competitive eligibility taken away for contacting Mayes.

“Just constantly being held accountable for your actions, being told what you can and cannot do, I just think it was excessive, I guess,” one athlete said. “Forms of intimidation to where I really didn’t want to get involved, in a way.”

A group of 17 Haskell athletes are poised to release their own open letter to Haskell and the BIE, detailing their struggles since last fall.

The athletes who spoke with the Journal-World agreed that their participation in cross country has more meaning to it than just running — both as structure and, especially for Native runners, as a place to find cultural meaning — and having their ability to run be hampered is like “taking a piece of us away.”

“I think with the whole situation, it’s just that we want it to be a better opportunity for all student-athletes,” one runner said. “I feel like this isn’t something we should have to worry about. We came here as student-athletes, we came here to worry about school and running, and that’s about it. We shouldn’t have to be advocating for an equal opportunity, just like the other students who were here before us.”


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