A Mormon tennis player from Idaho Falls is suing Idaho State University, claiming he was discriminated against because of his faith.
Former Hillcrest High School tennis standout Orin Duffin filed suit against the school Friday, alleging he was subject to severe harassment while playing for the men’s tennis team because of his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Stuart Summers, ISU’s associate vice president for Marketing and Communications, said Monday that school officials would not comment on the pending litigation.
The suit comes almost a year after ISU’s Office of Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action and Diversity completed an investigation into allegations that Duffin was subjected to religious harassment.
That investigation found corroboration for allegations that assistant coach Nate Gross and some team members sent women, possibly prostitutes or strippers, to Duffin’s hotel room while the team was at a tournament in Las Vegas. The investigation also found that then-head coach Bobby Goeltz permitted a culture of hostility toward Duffin on the team and failed to investigate allegations of Gross’ misconduct.
“The interviews conducted collectively paint a clear picture that (Duffin) was subjected to severe, persistent and pervasive harassment and bullying,” investigators found. “In particular, they establish that (Duffin’s) religion was a contributing factor (to) that treatment.”
The report recommended that Goeltz, a popular longtime coach, be fired and that Gross, who had already resigned, not be rehired.
Goeltz announced his “retirement” in late July, a month after the internal investigation concluded. But a letter from the Office of Equal Opportunity notes that Goeltz “submitted his notice of retirement in lieu of termination.”
Goeltz spent 25 years as ISU’s head coach of the men’s and women’s programs. Prior to coming to ISU, he was the head coach of the Maryland tennis program for 10 years. He recorded more than 500 career wins.
Gross, who played for ISU before becoming an assistant coach, was announced as the new men’s and women’s tennis coach at the University of Hawaii-Hilo on July 30. In September, however, Tina McDermott was announced as Gross’ replacement.
Reached by phone Monday, UH-Hilo’s athletic secretary Audrey Hirayama said Gross’ hiring never went through. A September article in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald said Gross resigned, per a university spokesperson.
Duffin attended Hillcrest from 2011 to 2014 and made the state tennis tournament his final three seasons. As a senior, Duffin won the 5A boys singles championship, the first such title by a District 6 boys singles player since 2009. He was also named the Post Register’s All-Area Boys Tennis Player of the Year in 2013 and 2014.
After Duffin’s stellar high school career, he was offered several college scholarships, according to the complaint. He chose to play for ISU, fulfilling a childhood dream.
Duffin joined the ISU men’s team for the 2014-15 season. He played 10 singles matches and five doubles matches in 2015, per ISU’s archives. He went 5-5 in singles play and 4-1 in doubles.
But ISU’s investigation showed that shortly after joining the squad Duffin, the only Mormon on the team, began to experience harassment.
The investigation found corroboration that Gross badgered Duffin with questions about sex and his religious beliefs. It also found corroboration that Gross would attempt to hit Duffin with tennis balls during a practice drill, something other players were also encouraged to do.
One team member told investigators: “If I were being treated by (Gross) the way (Duffin) is being treated, I would have left in the second week of school. All of the kids on the team including (Gross) are bullying (Duffin).”
Another player, identified as an upperclassman, told investigators that what was happening to Duffin differed from hazing that freshmen typically undergo and that he was worried Duffin would “just lose it some day.”
The report did not find that Goeltz directly participated in religious harassment against Duffin, but it found that he had “demonstrated negligence in the management and oversight of his team.”
When investigators asked if Goeltz had investigated allegations that prostitutes or strippers were sent to Duffin’s room by Gross and a group of players in order to test his religious convictions, Goeltz responded: “I seriously doubt any of the kids would have enough money to hire a prostitute in Vegas,” according to the report.
“The failure to intervene on (Duffin’s) behalf signaled to the team that its treatment of (Duffin) was appropriate, allowed the treatment to continue and worsen over time,” the investigation found.
Ultimately Duffin, who is now serving a LDS mission, left the team.
“(Duffin) ultimately chose to sever his relationship with the tennis program rather than consider returning to the team after he serves his mission,” the report states. “Thus, (Duffin) has also been deprived of his ability to participate in inter-collegiate athletics.”
Duffin is suing ISU, President Arthur Vailas, Athletic Director Jeff Tingey, Goeltz, Gross and 10 as-yet unnamed individuals over the treatment he received while playing on the men’s tennis team.
Duffin is seeking an unspecified amount of punitive damages for religious discrimination, deprivation of due process, deprivation of free speech, conspiracy, negligent supervision and training, negligence, gross negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Reporter Victor Flores can be reached at 542-6772. Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.