A former soccer player says N.C. State University failed to protect him and other students from an athletics trainer who sexually harassed and abused him under the guise of treating him.
A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses Robert M. Murphy Jr. of abusing his powers as a trainer of young athletes who depended on him to keep them healthy and to decide when they were well enough to play sports they loved.
Benjamin Locke, the plaintiff, moved from Charlotte onto N.C. State’s campus in January 2015 as a 17-year-old. He had graduated from Charlotte Country Day a semester early for the chance to play soccer for the Wolfpack men’s soccer team.
Soon after he arrived he started receiving treatment from Murphy, then the school’s director of sports medicine. Locke later concluded that some of the treatments were medically unsound and abusive, the lawsuit says.
N.C. State confirmed that Murphy had violated the school’s sexual harassment policy when he was treating Locke, according to a campus document. But the campus wasn’t obliged to take any action against him after Murphy stopped working at State sometime this year, the lawsuit states.
“This case illuminates a dark corner of a university athletic department where student-athletes were abused and taken advantage of by a sexual predator in their midst,” the lawsuit states. “It casts a spotlight on those who had a duty of reasonable care to protect student-athletes but who ignored the warning signs or looked away.”
Campus athletic officials were grossly negligent for not acting against Murphy when former State men’s soccer coach Kelly Findley reported his concerns on or before February 2016, the lawsuit states.
“Murphy was engaging in contact with student-athletes that he [the coach] believed was consistent with ‘grooming’ behavior,” Findley told Sherard Clinkscales, a former senior associate athletic director, the lawsuit states.
The statement was in a draft report outlining a Title IX investigation that Locke was given access to for 10 days in May, though he could not download or copy the content, according to him and his attorney.
In addition to Murphy, who worked at State from 2012 to 2022, the lawsuit names Clinkscales, former athletic director Deborah Yow, Chancellor Randy Woodson and the university itself as defendants.
Brad Bohlander, a N.C. State spokesman, said campus police and other officials launched investigations into Locke’s allegations as soon as they learned of them. That occurred for “the first time” after Locke brought the allegations to campus police on Jan. 19, he said.
“Neither this former student athlete nor other student athletes had previously reported these types of allegations to the university,” Bohlander said, noting that the university quickly placed the athletic trainer on administrative leave.
“Sexual misconduct of any kind is completely unacceptable and contrary to the culture and standards of the athletic department and the university,” he said.
The N&O reached out to Murphy, who did not respond immediately. Yow declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. Clinkscales wrote this in a text: “I have always and will continue to be a protector and advocate for all student athletes’ well-being.”
In addition to seeking financial damages, Locke is asking the court to require N.C. State to take steps to prevent future abuse and to identify and notify all of Murphy’s potential victims, which it describes as male student athletes at State between Jan. 4, 2012, and Jan. 31, 2022.
Therapy or abuse?
Locke, who transferred from State in 2017, describes in the lawsuit a series of sexual harassment and abusive encounters with Murphy from 2015 to 2017, when Murphy oversaw Locke’s treatment of shin and groin pain.
When Locke started on the team, he was recruited by multiple teams and worked for years to achieve a spot as midfielder on an Atlantic Coast Conference team, and then, he hoped, a professional career.
But after sustaining shin and groin injuries, he never played an official game at N.C. State. Instead he became reliant on a trainer who, the lawsuit claims, delayed his recovery for months by not referring Locke to the appropriate doctor.
“I was the perfect target,” Locke, now 25 and living in Tennessee, said in an interview this week before the lawsuit was filed. “I was young. I was injured. I needed help.”
Murphy oversaw athletic training and medical services for 23 NCAA Division I teams and about 550 athletes in 2012, according to the lawsuit. Murphy, along with another trainer, served the soccer team when Locke played soccer, he said.
Murphy was removed as trainer for the men’s soccer team in August 2017, the lawsuit says, but remained on the athletic department staff. In fact, he was promoted to associate athletic director in 2018, the lawsuit states.
As of February 2022, Murphy had an annual salary of $132,971, according to University of North Carolina System records.
Locke estimates that Murphy touched his genitals between 75 to 100 times from August 2015 to May 2017 during treatments, the lawsuit states.
Murphy’s treatments included massages to Locke’s upper legs while he wore shorts but not underwear. Murphy would massage Locke and other players under their shorts in the training room in front of others, sometimes exposing their private areas to others, the lawsuit states.
Sometimes the massages were so painful, Locke would have to bite a towel and upper legs would be bruised afterward, Locke said. One time Murphy had Locke sit on his fist, the lawsuit states.
Murphy would also ask Locke and other soccer players to remove their clothes from the waist down, and stand in Murphy’s office while Murphy knelt before them and wrapped their upper legs and waist with three layers, Locke said.
“I was so embarrassed, super, super embarrassing, shameful, dehumanizing,” Locke said. “I felt like garbage.”
“While performing deep tissue massages and applying groin wraps, Murphy regularly touched, held, cupped or moved Locke’s penis and testicles out of his way with his bare hands or fingers,” the lawsuit states.
The News & Observer spoke with another former NCSU athlete, who played around 2016 and asked to remain anonymous. The N&O does not name survivors of sexual abuse if they wish to not be named. The young man also described in detail Murphy touching his genitals while giving him what was supposed to be a therapeutic massage, along with Murphy directing him and other players not to wear undergarments when getting groin massages.
He said Murphy would wrap his groin with compression bandages while he was nude from the waist down, along with Murphy discussing masturbation and spending a lot of time in the men’s soccer locker and shower area.
Before coming to State, Murphy was director of sports medicine at Mercer University for 12 years. Murphy also worked with USA Roller Sports athletes and staff at world championships in the U.S. and other countries, according to the university.
Litany of charges
Locke’s lawsuit contends the school violated Title IX, federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination at federally funded schools, by creating a hostile education environment and failing to take action after a report was made about Murphy.
It also accuses the school and officials of gross negligence, invasion of privacy, battery and negligent supervision and training.
Locke filed the suit in part because of inaction by N.C. State, his lawyer, Kerry Sutton, says.
In January 2022, Locke reported to N.C. State police sexual assaults involving Murphy, according to the lawsuit and additional documents provided to The News & Observer.
In response, State’s Equal Opportunity and Equity unit investigated a possible violation of the school’s sexual harassment policy. The unit would have “substantiated,” the violation, if Murphy was still an employee, states a June 17 final determination letter of the Title IX investigation signed by David Elrod, N.C. State’s associate vice provost for Equal Opportunity and Equity.
During the Title IX investigation, nine witnesses, including three male athletes at N.C. State, were interviewed from other teams, the lawsuit states.
“At least one other male student-athlete corroborated Locke’s claims with his own claim of inappropriate touching by Murphy,” the lawsuit states.
At least two trainers were interviewed during the Title IX investigation, the lawsuit states, and they noted Murphy’s practices were not standard.
It would be more normal to wait one to two weeks before referring an athlete to a specialist for groin pain. They also stated that avoiding skin-to-skin contact with student genitals was part of their professional training.
Having students remove undergarments isn’t an acceptable practice, and applying wraps over students underwear was a common practice, they stated, according to the lawsuit.
A dream derailed
Locke started playing soccer when he was about 4, he said. He loved the fluidity and the creativity in the game that requires players to be athletic and smart.
“My entire life was centered around the game,” he said.
Initially, Locke played high school soccer in Cincinnati. When his family planned to move to Nashville, Locke moved to North Carolina so he could play soccer for Charlotte Country Day School and an elite soccer academy.
The N.C. State soccer program had reached out to him before he moved to North Carolina. But his talks with Findley progressed in his junior year and he committed to the Wolfpack.
Findley suggested Locke graduate from high school a semester early to start playing, Locke said. Playing for an ACC soccer team was an important step in the climb to a professional team, he said.
“That dream became an opportunity more than a goal,” he said.
Instead, his plan was derailed by injuries, the lawsuit recounts. Soon after moving into a dorm in January 2015, he started experiencing recurring shin pain, which he reported to Murphy.
In February, Locke was diagnosed with a syndrome that required surgery on his lower calves to relieve the pain. The day after the surgery, Murphy texted Locke he was concerned about Locke taking a bath and his wounds getting wet and infected, according to the lawsuit.
Murphy prescribed a plan for Locke to take a shower at Weisiger-Brown Athletic Facility, even though Locke’s post operative instructions directed him to keep his leg elevated and to keep the dressing on his wounds clean and dry, the lawsuit states.
Murphy picked up Locke, helped him get undressed and stood about five feet away and watched as Locke showered.
Locke said he thought the situation was odd, but he trusted Murphy.
“Rob is the person that decides my fate really,” Locke said. “He decides what happens to me. He decides when I get back on the field, which is really all that matters to me … If I have pain, I go tell Rob. If I am struggling, I go tell Rob. And hopefully, once I am ready, Rob is the guy to kind of set me free.”
After the March 2015 surgery, Locke’s leg pain was better but he continued to hurt. Over the summer break, Locke began to experience pain in his upper legs and groin area and reported it to Murphy in August 2015.
For 14 months, Murphy told Locke he was attempting to treat the pain through various methods, including massages and wraps. It wasn’t until after he saw a doctor that he had a needed diagnosis: a “sports” hernia, the lawsuit states.
The 14-month delay in the diagnosis needlessly extended Locke’s pain and exacerbated muscle damage while allowing Murphy to continue to abuse Locke for months, the lawsuit states.
Locke said he asked Murphy why he wasn’t seeing a specialist for a hernia, and Murphy ended up setting up a prostate exam, which Murphy watched, the lawsuit states.
Murphy told the doctor performing the exam an orthopedic surgeon wanted to check for prostatitis, but there is no record of an orthopedic evaluation prior to the incident, the lawsuit states.
Murphy also commented on Locke’s sex life, placed condoms in Locke’s backpack and touched other athletes’ genitals, the lawsuit states.
Locke said sometimes he and others would joke about Murphy’s inappropriate actions, but they never had a serious conversation about any concerns. That’s how they dealt with it as young men, he said.
As recently as the fall semester of 2021, Murphy would make athletes strip from the waist down and observe their genitals during mandatory drug tests, the lawsuit states.
Locke left N.C. State after Findley’s contract wasn’t renewed in November 2016. State’s incoming coach told Locke he had no track record, he said, and the coach didn’t see Locke fitting into his plan.
In the spring of 2017, Locke transferred to Lipscomb University, a private university in Nashville, where he played men’s soccer for three seasons while earning degrees in business administration.
Locke immediately noticed differences among trainers there. They didn’t require him to take his underwear off and used tools instead of their hands when treating areas near Locke’s genitals. That’s when he realized what had happened to him in Raleigh, the lawsuit says.
At the end of 2021, Locke shared his concerns about Murphy with a therapist, who told Locke that he was required to report abuse of a minor if he did not.
Locke contacted the Raleigh Police Department on Jan. 19 to report Murphy had sexually assaulted him, the lawsuit states. He was directed to N.C. State’s police department. Eventually he was told that the statute of limitations for what were misdemeanor crimes he alleged had happened in Raleigh had expired.
Locke’s complaint to the campus police in January triggered a Title IX investigation at State through the Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity.
It was that investigation that concluded that Murphy had violated State’s then-sexual harassment policy with his treatment of Locke. In June, Locke was told Murphy had left State for reasons unrelated to his accusations, the suit says.
He also learned that the Title IX probe was over because of Murphy’s departure and its findings would not be mentioned in Murphy’s employment record, the lawsuit says. Locke was told Murphy’s leaving was an “involuntary separation,” the lawsuit states.
Bohlander, the State spokesman, said the university’s investigation continued “to ensure a complete and thorough process” after campus police concluded theirs with no criminal charges filed.
The findings cannot be released by the university due to disclosure limits imposed by the state personnel records act and federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, he said.
“N.C. State Athletics strives to follow best practices and is committed to continually reviewing and improving its processes to ensure student health, safety and privacy,” he said.
“N.C. State is reviewing the lawsuit and determining appropriate next steps,” Bohlander said. “As this is a pending legal matter, the university cannot provide additional comments at this time.”
Locke said he found the university’s response as “completely and utterly unjust,” and dangerous. He said he is suing to hold everyone more accountable.
“People like Rob don’t act one time and then decide to stop all of a sudden,” Locke said. “They have a track record and they are repeat offenders, and I really believe there could be many, many other student-athletes that had similar experiences, worse experiences.”
This is a breaking news story that will be updated as more information is available.
Reporters David Raynor, Andrew Carter and Kate Murphy contributed to this report.
This story was originally published August 30, 2022 4:28 PM.
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