Former Utah gymnasts testify in legislative hearing about abuse in sports

Kara Eaker performs her beam routine during the University of Utah Red Rocks gymnastics preview at the Huntsman Center Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.
Kara Eaker performs her beam routine during the University of Utah Red Rocks gymnastics preview at the Huntsman Center Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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Two former University of Utah gymnasts testified in favor of a legislative resolution condemning abusive coaching practices.

Kara Eaker and Kim Tessen, both of whom leveled verbal and emotional abuse allegations against former U. coach Tom Farden, appeared before the House Education Committee to urge lawmakers to pass HJR7.

Rep. Sahara Hayes, D-Salt Lake City, told the panel she drafted the resolution after being “startled and shocked” at allegations of abuse surrounding the Red Rocks last summer. Since starting work on the bill, Hayes said she has had parents of college and high school athletes reach out to her, including one who sent her photos of bruises a coach inflicted on her daughter’s arm.

“I think it is important that we as a state make a stance that this is not something that we condone and this not something that we abide by,” she said.

The resolution calls for Utah schools, elementary through college, to provide safe and supportive environments for athletes. It recognizes the “power imbalance” between coaches and students in which athletes don’t have a significant voice. It encourages schools to create positive environments by penalizing abusive coaches and to incorporate practices to support healthy relationships and mindsets.

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Last August, the Deseret News first reported that the University of Utah hired an outside agency to review its nationally acclaimed gymnastics program after former gymnasts and parents alleged Farden verbally and emotionally abused and physically intimidated members of the team.

The review determined that while Farden’s coaching methods left some gymnasts feeling “increased fear of failure” and pressure to retain athletics scholarships, the coach did not engage in “any severe, pervasive or egregious” acts of emotional, verbal or physical abuse or harassment.

The U. placed Farden on paid administrative leave in mid-November and he and the school parted ways later that month.

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Neither Tessen nor Eaker directly addressed their experiences on the gymnastics team under Farden; rather, they spoke about the need to acknowledge abuse in sports. Both made their abuse allegations public on social media last fall.

“I can’t express how much this means to me and all my other teammates that there’s something being done about it,” Eaker, a two-time All-American and U.S. Olympic alternate at the Tokyo Olympics, told the committee.

Verbal or psychological abuse is just as bad as physical or sexual abuse, and often swept under the rug or ignored, she said.

“We can’t go to the police or ask for help because this isn’t … sexual abuse. Someone is just going to look at us and tell us, ‘Oh, you just need to toughen up. You just need to do better. You’re just too sensitive. You’re just too emotionally weak,’” Eaker said.

“It’s just as bad as someone bruising you or slapping you across the face,” she said. “It’s all the same. It’s still abuse.”

Tessen said it’s important to let Utah schools know that not only is abuse not acceptable on the individual level but allowing it to continue or dismissing students who are being abused is an institutional problem.

“Abuse, no matter what form, is never acceptable,” said Tessen, an All-American and Pac-12 Specialist of the Year in 2020.

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In discussion about the resolution, lawmakers talked about the line between motivation and abuse. Hayes said there’s a difference between encouragement and belittlement.

“I think that line is blurry in some instances,” she said.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, who has coached and officiated youth sports, said sometimes coaches yell at their kids or cuss a little, adding “huge men” have screamed in her face.

“There’s a line though, and everyone knows when that line is crossed but no one wants to be the soft one, the snowflake or whatever you’re going to be called when you’re like that and you say that’s enough,” she said.

“We don’t tolerate harassment. We shouldn’t tolerate abuse. And until we start saying that it’s not acceptable and say it in every place that it’s happening, we perpetuate it.”

The committee approved the resolution 11-0. It now goes to the House for consideration.

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