JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — First-year East Tennessee State University (ETSU) women’s basketball coach Simon Harris unilaterally kicked two players off the team last season without former athletic director Scott Carter’s okay, then later tried to solicit evidence they broke a vague team rule from another player who faced potential criminal charges for fighting.
Those are among many details in a Title IX investigative report ETSU released Friday about an investigation that came after the two players filed Title IX complaints in early February. They were officially dismissed from the team on Dec. 1, 2021 and had their scholarships revoked immediately, in the middle of the fall semester.
The report says Harris tried to get his own sister, Mercedes Harris “to have conversations with (the players) in an effort to obtain text messages or voice recordings as evidence of their relationship for his benefit.” That effort reportedly came as ETSU’s administration was beginning to question Harris for what proof he had for his decision to dismiss the players from the team and cancel their scholarships.
The report outlines Harris’s alleged efforts to build a case against the players, whose names are redacted, after a “Player 4” began complaining about the two potentially having a sexual relationship. That allegation was never proven prior to Harris’s dismissal of the players, during which he also accused them of violating curfew and committing an alcohol violation.
The report alleges that no written rules existed regarding alcohol or curfew, and it details how Harris’s description of the dismissed players alleged violations on those issues couldn’t be substantiated — and that other players had engaged in behaviors that would also have represented violations of the rules.
The report notes that the team rules Harris presented in July 2021 didn’t include a ban on alcohol at team events, but that Harris edited the rules PowerPoint to include an additional section stating “no alcohol at team functions” after the players’ dismissal.
Carter is stated to have been responsible for overseeing all major team decisions for women’s basketball, including roster removals. But the report says after Harris told him of the situation Nov. 30 and described it, Carter didn’t inquire into further details of Player 4’s allegations and “seemed uncomfortable with the subject matter and that he should not inquire further for more details as the allegations were sexual in nature.”
Harris then told ETSU athletics senior women’s administrator, Lauren Aksionoff, that he was removing the players from the team and that Carter had approved the dismissal.
‘Family doesn’t kiss family’
The players’ dismissal, which followed a team road trip to a Myrtle Beach, S.C. tournament in late November, rested primarily on a rule Harris introduced at the team’s initial meeting in July 2021.
The first-year head coach, who had previously had assistantships at Ohio State University, North Carolina State and the University of Dayton, included in his outline of team rules the statement and PowerPoint slide “family doesn’t kiss family.”
According to the report, the rule wasn’t thoroughly explained, provided in writing or addressed after the July meeting. “(B)oth staff and players were almost universally confused as to whom the rule applied as well as what types of behaviors were prohibited,” the report states.
The report details a friendship between the two dismissed players and players “1, 2 and 3” that included lots of group chats. The group discussed their sexual histories, and one of the dismissed players was an open lesbian who came to Johnson City with her girlfriend, the report says.
The other dismissed player, who self-identified as heterosexual, eventually became closer with the player who had arrived with her girlfriend and the two would “hang out separately from the group.”
After the season began in November, “Player 4” allegedly told teammates about witnessing the two dismissed players enter the bathroom together at a hotel, but neither she nor anyone else reported to coaches what Player 4 thought may have happened.
A few weeks later, Player 4 reported seeing what she thought might be the two players kissing on the bus as the team returned from another tournament. Players began texting back and forth about it and eventually (while still en route home) Player 2 texted assistant coach Jackie Alexander, mainly upset because the team had lost both games and she felt that if her teammates were “making out” as she wrote, “we just lost and clearly worried about the wrong thing.”
The report said no one ever attempted to confirm if the pair were kissing, and both the dismissed players denied during the investigation that they were.
Different incident — different response
“Investigators conclude that Harris inequitably applied team rules to his players, ultimately punishing (the dismissed players) for allegedly engaging in a same-sex relationship much more harshly than any member of the team for breaking any other team rules.” FINDING 4, ETSU FINAL INVESTIGATION REPORT
The report includes an extensive description of an off-campus physical fight that resulted in four players’ suspensions in mid-December. As the report notes in its findings, those players received suspensions only for involvement in an assault, a potential felony “that led to a minor being sent to the hospital.”
Just days after the two players’ dismissal, the report says, Player 1 was engaging in social media conversations with another ETSU student because Player 1 had “started a romantic relationship” with the student’s partner, who was also a student-athlete.
The report says Player 1 and the girlfriend got into a physical fight in a parking lot Dec. 11, that Player 1 told coaches about the fight and that she “was not reprimanded or told the behavior was wrong.”
Indeed, Player 1 joined the team for an away game at Wake Forest University Dec. 13, the same day that she “began engaging in increasingly aggressive online communication with the girlfriend and the girlfriend’s 17-year-old sister.”
Player 1 and players 2, 3 and 5 went to Monarch apartments the night of Dec. 13/morning of Dec. 14 as the women planned to fight again.
While players 3 and 5 witnessed, “Player 1 fought the girlfriend and Player 2 fought the underage sister,” the report says. “The sister had to go to the hospital with an injury and Johnson City Police were called. Multiple individuals witnessed the fight and videotaped the encounter. A video of the fight was sent to Harris.”
Harris suspended the players without telling them how long the suspension would last. They missed three games each and then he told them they could return to the weight room, the report says.
He then met individually with each player and in his meeting with Player 2, who had allegedly assaulted the 17-year-old who went to the hospital, Harris is reported to have told the player “he had a contact at the police department who was trying to convince the victim” not to press charges.
He told the player he was “very close to the President of ETSU (Brian Noland)” and that he was “doing everything he can to make the situation go away…”
In his own account of the conversation, Harris told investigators he told the player “what she wanted to hear” because she was worried about possible criminal charges.
After reassuring her, the report says, Harris “asked if Player 2 had any proof of (the players) dating (screenshots, videos, texts, etc.); if so, to send them to him.” He gave the player his personal email, and the report says the player did text Harris about the requested information.
In its “findings” section, the report claims Harris “coerced at least one of his active players into a quid pro quo in which he offered to support her while she faced legal and academic uncertainty in exchange for information about (the players) alleged relationship.”
Player 2 told investigators the quid pro quo continued for several months and that Harris brought up at his end of the year meeting with her “what happened in December (the fight), as well as his repeated attempts to “help” Player 2.”
Friday afternoon, the City of Johnson City responded to a News Channel 11 request for police reports or narratives from the Monarch fight incident. Spokesperson Ann Marie French sent a very limited incident report from a reported aggravated assault reported to have occurred between 11-11:30 p.m. Dec. 13.
French said the case remains open and “limited information is provided.”
That information shows an M. Peters as the reporting officer. It lists the weapon as “blunt object, personal weapons, other not listed,” and notes there were two victims. It only lists information on one, who was also the complainant, saying she was 21 years old.
The report indicates there were “continuation” narratives filed Dec. 14, hours after the first narrative, and on Jan. 24, 2022 and March 13, 2022.
Harris family affair
The report says the dismissed players “remained unaware of what rules they had violated” after their dismissal, which included being told they’d have to find another place to live. Their parents emailed Carter, Aksionoff and Noland demanding a rationale for the players’ dismissals.
According to the report, Harris provided a university lawyer his team rules and “the information and documentation he relied upon when making his decision to cut (the problems) from the team.”
What he sent, however, included a “No alcohol at team functions — WHATSOEVER!” that it turned out Harris had added to the document after the team meeting. The rules also didn’t mention a curfew, though Harris said the dismissals were due equally to three things — the players having alcohol at a tailgate party (which they didn’t consume or try to hide), the players missing curfew and the alleged sexual activity.
After receiving the information, the university on Jan. 5 and 6 chose to reinstate the dismissed players’ financial aid, retroactive to its being cut off.
As administrators began asking Harris more questions about his decision and what proof he had for it, the coach “needed more concrete proof than the insinuation and gossip that the players had given him.”
His sister, Mercedes Harris, ran a catering business and had been quite involved with the team, the players and even parent, as had one of her staffers, Latisha Baker. According to the report, Mercedes Harris initially contacted one of the dismissed players and said she didn’t agree with her brother’s decision.
But when Simon Harris later told Mercedes he needed more proof to back up his actions, Mercedes Harris allegedly asked Baker to reach out to (one of the dismissed players) and act like she was romantically interested. This was in hopes of getting written or recorded proof that the (two players) had been in a relationship.
The report says the former player had told Mercedes Harris and Baker that she and the other dismissed player weren’t in a relationship, but that “Baker continued to ask.”
On Dec. 17, 2021, Baker called the former player again, this time while Facetiming with Mercedes Harris.
“Mercedes recorded the conversation and texted Baker throughout the call to coach her on what to say,” the report says. “(The player) did not say she was in a relationship with (the other former player).”
Harris received the recording from his sister, reviewed it, and said it wasn’t clear that the player had admitted to anything.
ETSU finds credibility gap between the players and the coach
The report found the two players who lost their positions on the team and their scholarships were credible witnesses, while it noted Harris lacked credibility, including that he admitted to lying to one of the players’ fathers that “it was not his decision to cut (the players).”
The players’ accounts had few discrepancies with those of other witnesses, “including those who were adverse parties or no longer friends,” it said. They were able to adequately explain discrepancies and acknowledged others’ versions were likely accurate even when they didn’t exactly match their own.
The investigation concluded the former players weren’t found “to have lied, or to lack credibility related to being truthful, only that they were initially less than forthcoming about their personal sexual behavior and relationship.”
All witnesses echoed the pair’s claim that they never had any intimate sexual contact during team activities.
Harris, on the other hand, presented inconsistent stories throughout the process. The report notes numerous inconsistencies including:
- Telling administrators about vague claims of sexual misconduct with no substantiation in any of the reports people made to him;
- Telling the team he dismissed the players for multiple violations and that he needed to protect his “team culture,” then later telling them that if the pair had “admitted to their relationship they would still be on the team.”
- Telling investigators the pair had broken curfew, then later saying he’d not seen or heard of one of the players breaking curfew.
- Admitting he saw other players break curfew, even though he did not notify them they’d committed a violation or punish them.
- Referencing the team alcohol rule as part of his decision to dismiss the players, the later admitting it wasn’t a rule and acknowledging he knew of other players having alcohol during a recruiting visit.
Those instances comprise about half of a bullet-pointed list of descriptions that buttressed the claim of Harris’s unreliability, summed up by this statement:
“In aggregate, Harris was far less credible than the Complainants with respect to truthfulness, candor and corraboration.”
The report contains multiple other findings, including that
- Harris misled ETSU legal counsel and other university leadership;
- He “failed to provide even the most basic due process to the players when investigating claims against them;
- He inequitably applied team rules, punishing the two players for allegedly engaging in a same-sex relationship “much more harshly than any member of the team for breaking any other team rules.”
The report’s recommendations note that the removal of the players’ scholarships mid-season was likely an NCAA rule violation and that “there may be other violations, as well.” It recommends that those be reviewed by ETSU athletics and “investigated accordingly.”
It makes a handful of other recommendations surrounding practices within ETSU athletics, saying implementation “may serve as preventative measures and best practices to relieve the institution from further inquiries involving similar subject matters.”