Inside Oberlin College’s failed auto-da-fé

When it comes to women’s sports, former lacrosse coach Kim Russell is firmly in the camp of objective science

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The end of Kim Russell’s career coaching lacrosse at Oberlin College can be traced back to a few words posted to her private Instagram on March 20, 2022.

Russell reshared a post congratulating Emma Weyant as the real winner of that year’s NCAA women’s 500-yard freestyle event, though the NCAA record books say Lia Thomas, whose feminine quality seems to be shoulder-length hair, finished 1.75 seconds faster. “What do you believe? I can’t be quiet on this,” Kim wrote in her post. “I’ve spent my life playing sports, starting & coaching sports programs for girls and…

The end of Kim Russell’s career coaching lacrosse at Oberlin College can be traced back to a few words posted to her private Instagram on March 20, 2022.

Russell reshared a post congratulating Emma Weyant as the real winner of that year’s NCAA women’s 500-yard freestyle event, though the NCAA record books say Lia Thomas, whose feminine quality seems to be shoulder-length hair, finished 1.75 seconds faster. “What do you believe? I can’t be quiet on this,” Kim wrote in her post. “I’ve spent my life playing sports, starting & coaching sports programs for girls and women.”

Russell believes in many things. She believes in practicing mindfulness, intuitive coaching and the use of coconut oil as body lotion. But when it comes to women’s sports, she is firmly in the camp of objective science.

“A natural born male should not be competing with biological females,” Russell said. “There are too many biological and physical advantages for biological males.”

That simple observation is why Russell is being denounced by Capitol Hill Democrats on C-SPAN, rather than pacing the sidelines of Division III women’s lacrosse.

On paper, Kim Russell and a leafy liberal arts haven in the middle of the Rust Belt would be a perfect match. Over the past three decades, she has founded and coached lacrosse programs at both the collegiate and youth level, and just recently founded an international team for the US Virgin Islands. She was always sprinting barefoot among her players in flowy clothing before hitting the mats as a yoga instructor. There’s a reason students dubbed her the “Hippie Love Coach.”

Russell became Oberlin’s head lacrosse coach in 2018, and she believed her personality would fit in with the school culture — which finally allowed her to ditch the khaki shorts and polo golf shirts associated with a sport that goes hand-in-white-glove with affluent suburbs. The progressive rhetoric that engulfs Oberlin as ivy does Penn provided only a thin veneer, though, for what she found there: a campus consumed by hypercompetitive striving that bred really stressed-out, anxious and unhappy young women.

“My first year coaching at Oberlin, three players on the team started suicidal action,” Russell said. “I thought I’d leave after that because I was so emotionally drained, exhausted, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’” Instead of leaving, Russell returned with a renewed determination to help these young women mature. She came to think of them as her children, and the thought that any could be denied opportunities because of an ambitious biological male brought out her sense of protectiveness.

“It’s already been proven when you look at all the sports where it’s happening. The males are winning,” Russell said.

Competing in the men’s division, Thomas had been ranked sixty-fifth in the 500-yard freestyle event; after moving to the women’s Thomas ranked first, jumping from 554th in the 200-yard freestyle to fifth. A career that would have otherwise been destined for a footnote and photo caption in the University of Pennsylvania yearbook instead ended with Thomas as the school’s nominee for NCAA Woman of the Year.

Russell posted her opinion on Lia Thomas’s victory in the middle of the season, and she didn’t think much of it. She was no stranger to transgenderism — three of her own players identified as male, though not one of them volunteered to try out for the men’s team. She has interacted and fostered close relationships with transgender individuals for years, but she draws the line at changing the qualifications for athletic competition.

Russell says she had no idea her players were upset about her position until Oberlin’s athletic director demanded she write letters of apology to her team and to the broader department. When she refused, the AD scheduled a meeting between her and her team along with a mediator. During the meeting, several players called Russell transphobic and unsafe.

“I don’t blame or hold anything against any of the students who spoke out and who were angry, because I believe that’s the way society is right now,” Russell said. “That’s what they know. And nobody is taught anymore to have real conversations where it’s listening — to try and understand the other.”

A week later, Russell was hauled in for another meeting with her team in the presence of three administrators. This time she recorded the proceedings for her own protection. “Unfortunately you fall into a category of people that are kind of filled with hate in the world,” charged Natalie Winkelfoos, the associate vice president of athletics. The administrator took issue with more than just social media. She harangued the coach for bringing in a specialist to talk to her athletes about the menstrual cycle. “I don’t know who you brought in to talk about menstruation, so that to them they’re connecting that dot to being an attack on trans because you have people on your team who hate their period,” Winkelfoos can be heard saying in Russell’s recording.

Despite the hysterics from administrators, Oberlin players continued to trust their coach as a confidant. Russell may have been the victim of a smear campaign, but she wouldn’t let that affect her relationship with her team or the duty she felt toward her wards. It is why Russell happily agreed to serve as a job reference to the player who had reported her to the athletic director. When the same player went down with an injury and the devastating MRIs came back, she turned to her coach for consolation, according to Russell.

“She really cared about the player as a whole,” Oberlin player Katie McMorris said. “If you were behind in school, you could take off practices without any repercussions even midseason. I think that’s one thing that really sets her apart. Kim and the assistant coach would allow you to take the day off for a mental health day, also without any repercussions.” (Note: McMorris is the younger sister of Spectator editor Billy McMorris.)

Russell finished out the spring 2022 season with her team, but the athletic director waited until the end of the academic year to take action.

“So, apparently I was good enough to keep coaching for the rest of the season, but then they gave me the letter saying I had to change my behavior immediately,” Russell said. “The letter that I gave back to them in the fall said if I’m breaking university policy, please tell me what that policy is. And please do that in writing. And if you’re going to fire me for it, please do it now.” Oberlin balked at Russell’s invitation, but the coach found herself “walking on eggshells” throughout the 2022-2023 school year to avoid another visit from university apparatchiks.

As summer 2023 rolled around, Russell decided to break her silence. She credits a conversation with a friend’s daughter for convincing her to speak out publicly in defense of current and future generations of female athletes. “One of them was pursuing a running career, and I thought, ‘I can’t be quiet anymore,’” Russell said. She published an op-ed in the New York Post about her treatment as a defender of women’s sports and created two separate mini-documentaries with the nonprofit Independent Women’s Forum to illustrate the draconian steps Oberlin took to silence her.

Oberlin disputes Russell’s characterization of her treatment and further criticized the coach for recording closed door meetings with administrators and players. “She sensationalized a series of events that were more than a year in the past, violating her players’ trust in an irreparable way,” Oberlin spokeswoman Andrea Simakis told The Spectator. “This breach of trust is the reason she was removed from her coaching duties.”

None of her players are named in the IWF documentary, and the voices of only two are heard on-screen.

“The only meeting I recorded with student athletes was when I was told I was going to have to have the second meeting with my team where three college administrators were going to be there,” Russell said. “And every kid on the team had an opportunity to say anything they didn’t like about me. So I did it to protect myself. I allowed those tapes to go public for the greater good.”

In September 2023, Oberlin reassigned Russell to work as an “Employee Wellness Project Manager” to prevent her from interacting with students. She quit the position October 4.

“Oberlin strives to be a community where people can hold different opinions, and are free to share them in ways that are collegial and constructive… It is regrettable that Kim was unable to find a path to this kind of dialogue,” Simakis said.

Oberlin’s brand of “dialogue” differs from that of most institutions. Russell is just its latest victim. In 2016, university administrators condemned Gibson’s Bakery as racist for stopping a brazen shoplifter who happened to be black. The beloved staple that had served the local community for more than a century found itself subjected to harassment and boycott campaigns supported by college brass. Like Russell, Gibson’s refused to back down in the face of bullying. Oberlin agreed to pay nearly $40 million to the mom and pop shop to settle the defamation suit.

The hefty price tag of the settlement does not seem to have changed Oberlin’s culture — it remains a place where administrators collegially brand you “filled with hate” so that you may constructively kowtow to your betters. Not unlike Congress. In December, Russell appeared alongside former NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines to testify in support of Title IX, the civil rights measure designed to bolster women’s college sports. The witnesses came prepared with all sorts of data about how testosterone and the anatomical design of males make them stronger, faster and more powerful than females of similar age and training status — a finding grounded in common sense, and acknowledged by the American College of Sports Medicine — as well as arguments about the importance of women’s sports. Lacking any logical or scientific arguments, Representative Summer Lee, ranking member of the House Oversight Subcommittee on Health, turned ad hominem. Lee opened the proceedings by branding the witnesses transphobic. Gaines shot back by calling the congresswoman a misogynist, but that is not the Hippie Love Coach’s style.

“I honestly wanted to give her [Lee] a hug and say, ‘what happened to you that you are so filled with hate and you’re so angry and you don’t understand that this is not against anyone,’” Russell said. “This is simply about keeping girls and women’s sports female only.”

Oberlin, Lee and the NCAA may ignore the facts, but other sports organizations are increasingly siding with Russell in response to the growing fleet of biologically male athletes who are taking home trophies in women’s divisions. In July, the International Cycling Union banned transgender women from competing in women’s events, following in the footsteps of the Olympic governing bodies in swimming and track and field. Russell’s belief in the segregation of male and females in competitive sports isn’t just rooted in science but shared by the sizable majority of the public. Nearly 69 percent of Americans believe transgender athletes should compete with members of their biological sex, according to a Gallup poll. The “arc of the moral universe” progressives so often invoke does appear to be bending, and, as with the Gibson’s Bakery saga, Oberlin and its ideological enforcers are likely to be disappointed by its direction.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2024 World edition.