North Texas Daily

Director of UNT track and field accused of homophobia, inappropriate comments by students and staff

Director of UNT track and field accused of homophobia, inappropriate comments by students and staff

Director of UNT track and field accused of homophobia, inappropriate comments by students and staff
September 28
22:51 2021

A former student-athlete has recently come forward with allegations of homophobia and harassment against Carl Sheffield, the director of the University of North Texas track and field program.

The subsequent investigation from the Equal Opportunity Office in 2020 found that the incident was “unsubstantiated” as harassment, although the report did not dispute that the incident occurred. 

Sheffield did not respond to the North Texas Daily’s requests for comment.

Tatum Catalani-Henderson, a university alumna, was a sprinter on the team during the 2019-2020 year, having previously played on the university women’s basketball team the year before. According to Catalani-Henderson, in the fall of 2019, on one of the first days of practice, Catalani-Henderson was eating lunch with a teammate, Sheffield and an assistant coach in Champs Dining Hall.  

During lunch, Sheffield asked Catalani-Henderson if it was true that “most women’s basketball players are lesbians.” Soon after, Sheffield then began asking her another question before pausing and noting that “I’m legally not allowed to ask you this.”

According to Catalani-Henderson, Sheffield turned to Catalani-Henderson’s teammate, who declined to speak to the Daily, and requested the teammate to ask Catalani-Henderson if she “likes boys or girls.” The teammate did so, making Catalani-Henderson “extremely uncomfortable.”

“I identify as bisexual, but given the context of the conversation, I did not feel comfortable disclosing this to my coach, seeing as he knew the question was illegal, yet he still found a way to ask me anyways,” Catalani-Henderson said.

After Catalani-Henderson said she liked boys, Sheffield replied by telling her that he thought very highly of her and “would have to think negatively of you” if she had answered differently. Sheffield then made a comment about how he treats LGBTQ+ people “differently” because he could not help it and cited a “difference in generations.” 

A closeted bisexual at the time, Catalani-Henderson said the incident had an effect on her personally, emotionally, mentally and academically.

“I didn’t have any more desire to be an athlete or to produce really anything academically or athletically for [Sheffield],” Catalani-Henderson said. “Your coach is a big part of everything you do as an athlete and you want to have a coach who inspires you to do things and I had lost all respect for him after that point.”

Catalani-Henderson did not immediately report the incident due to fear of losing her athletic scholarship. In late September of 2020, EO received a complaint and began its investigation. A final determination was released in late November 2020. 

“North Texas Athletics takes any allegations of harassment or discrimination seriously,” said Taylor Bryan, Senior Associate AD for Strategic Communications, on behalf of the Athletics. “[…] The department of athletics is fully supportive of EO and respectful of its role in [the investigative] process.”

According to EO investigation documents, Sheffield said he did not have any recollection of the incident and indicated that he would never have a conversation of that nature with a student-athlete. 

EO interviewed the aforementioned student witness and the athlete said she had some recollection of the incident and remembered Catalani-Henderson being upset. The witness stated she knew Sheffield to be a “gossiper who likes to know everyone’s business and tell everyone’s business.”

The investigation also included David Burnett, who served as Catalani-Henderson’s event coach at the time of the incident. In the report, Burnett said he did not recall the incident but “wouldn’t put it past Coach Sheffield to say something like that” because Sheffield had been told before that he made inappropriate comments, including statements regarding female athletes’ appearances. 

The investigation’s final report found that while the incident occurred, it did not constitute harassment under university policy 16.004, which prohibits discrimination, harassment and retaliation, because it was not “sufficiently severe, pervasive or persistent.” EO determined that Sheffield’s comments did not affect Catalani-Henderson’s “ability to be a member of the track and field team.” 

While Catalani-Henderson was pleased with the investigation process, she said “there were lots of things that were actually left out of the report.” She said she felt invalidated when EO determined that the incident was not severe enough to be considered harassment under university policy and was frustrated with aspects of the case that were missing from the final determination. 

“I told [EO] the many ways that the incident affected my mental and emotional health and that there wasn’t a day that went by after the incident that I didn’t think about what [Sheffield] said to me, ” Catalani-Henderson said. “Even though I told them these things, they didn’t include this in the report at all.”

Catalani-Henderson said she did not “have another word besides falsified for the report” because of direct quotes in the documents that she did not remember saying. This includes a sentence in the report that stated she felt “timid,” which Catalani-Henderson believes underplays her level of discomfort when around Sheffield.

The former student-athlete told the Daily she did not feel physically unsafe around Sheffield but was mentally and emotionally uneasy around the coach because she never knew if he would say something inappropriate. Catalani-Henderson “worried every day” that she would do something to make Sheffield think she was gay. The former athlete also corroborated Burnett’s statement that Sheffield made regular comments about female athletes’ clothes and hair. 

“I don’t think there was a single LBGTQ+ athlete on the team that did feel safe around [Sheffield],” Catalani-Henderson said. “A lot of people who were out of the closet and openly gay did feel very discriminated by him and they felt as a teacher he did them poorly because he knew they were gay. That was a problem that everybody on the team knew about before [my] incident happened.” 

While Catalani-Henderson was not able to file an appeal with EO, a new initiative created this month in part by the Student Government Association and Director of Equal Opportunity Eve Shatteen Bell will allow investigation complainants to appeal in the future. Within five days of the final determination, complainants can submit a correction of a mistake on EO’s part or new evidence that was not available before.

“The vast majority of EO cases don’t involve students so we really had not written the procedures with students in mind,” Bell said. “When SGA came to me and explained the way it was affecting students, we made that change immediately.” 

In regards to Catalani-Henderson’s concerns with the investigation process, Vice President for University Brand Strategy and Communications Jim Berscheidt gave a statement to the Daily on behalf of President Neal Smatresk.

“Recently, the former UNT student expressed concerns about the process and other potential allegations,” Berscheidt said. “The university will always investigate any reported violations of our policy as soon as they are received.”

More members of the track and field team have shared their own experiences with Sheffield to members of the Daily. They were granted anonymity due to fear of retaliation.

“Whatever [Tatum] said is true and I think [the university] needs to look into it,” said a student-athlete currently in the track and field program who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of losing their athletic scholarship. “Tatum has talked to all of us about it before. I just hope she can fight her case.”

The student told the Daily that Sheffield makes a lot of inappropriate comments that he then called a joke. Nowadays, the athlete advises their teammates to send Sheffield a text or email so there is written evidence of the conversation and to make sure to record any one-on-one conversation with the coach.

“For me, it’s the lies,” the student-athlete said. “[Sheffield] lies a lot. That’s my problem with Sheffield because whatever he says to the people at the top, they always believe him.”

Catalani-Henderson has replied to multiple university Twitter accounts with screenshots of her recount of the experience. This includes the pages of Smatresk, the Division of Athletics and the North Texas track and field team. 

Some of Catalani-Henderson’s Twitter comments have been hidden by the Mean Green Track Twitter page. Tweet authors like the MGT Twitter have the option to hide replies to posts, prompting a hidden reply icon to appear at the bottom of the original tweet. The Division of Athletics did not address the Daily’s question as to why these posts were hidden.  

“I think [UNT] has shown some effort in trying to promote diversity but they very much fall short of doing that,” said a current Athletics employee who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of repercussions. “It sort of seems like they’re just trying to check off the boxes instead of actually doing something and implementing a more inclusive environment.”

The employee said in June, members of the Athletics administration decided not to post a social media graphic celebrating Pride Month. 

The athletics department has posted on its Instagram and Twitter pages commemorating Juneteenth, Women’s History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month. However, there is no Pride content on Athletics’ social media accounts, unlike other departments including but not limited to Student Affairs, University Libraries and Admissions.   

The employee said they were told by a coworker that Athletics’ decision to not commemorate Pride Month on social media was made “to be sensitive to donors.” Athletics did not address the Daily’s question as to what differentiates Pride Month from the other events the department recognizes.  

“It was frustrating and disappointing on a lot of levels because I am part of the LGBTQ+ community,” the Athletics employee said. “It gave me pause.”

In regards to Catalani-Henderson’s experience, the employee, who has worked in the athletics industry for nine years, said they were not surprised.

“Instead of making just the decisions from the top and only having conversations from the top, [Athletics] needs to include employees and athletes in the conversations,” the employee said. “They need to figure out a way to come from the top to the bottom instead of waiting for vulnerable populations to come forward.”

The Division of Athletics said it has hosted “listening tours” with student-athletes, coaches and staff over the past two years. Several new inclusion initiatives have been established in the department as a result. This includes a unity pledge read before every athletic contest, training sessions with a social justice education firm and a fund to finance further projects.   

“The department of athletics is unwavering in our commitment to foster an inclusive and respectful environment for all,” Bryan said.

Featured Illustration by Miranda Thomas

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Ileana Garnand

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