Sports

Amid U.S. Open Fanfare, U.S.T.A. Fights Questions of Its Handling of Sexual Abuse

For several months, the United States Tennis Association has positioned this year’s U.S. Open as a key moment to celebrate its 50-year record of leadership on women’s equity and empowerment, tied to its payment of equal prize money to its top players.

At the same time, it has been litigating its handling of accusations of sexual assault made by a female player who worked with a male coach at the U.S.T.A.’s marquee training center in Florida, with depositions that have included detailed questioning about the woman’s sexual history.

Kylie McKenzie, a 24-year-old from Arizona who was once one of the most promising junior players in the country, sued the U.S.T.A. last year, claiming the organization had failed to protect her from a coach who inappropriately touched her after a practice in 2018, when she was 19 and he was 34.

Attempts to mediate a settlement have not been successful, prompting lawyers to begin to depose witnesses as they prepare for a possible trial.

During those depositions, a lawyer for the U.S.T.A. asked McKenzie about how many sexual partners she had had before the incident, about medications she had taken to treat anxiety and depression, and about the nature of her discussions with her therapist.

The lawyer asked the player’s mother, Kathleen McKenzie, whether she knew that her daughter had taken birth control pills and a morning-after pill.

The types of questions, though common in lawsuits centered on sexual abuse, have been widely criticized by advocates for victims, who say they discourage women from coming forward when they are abused.

“This is what always happens,” said Pam Shriver, a former player and television commentator who was deposed in the case as a witness for McKenzie, and who has worked with the U.S.T.A. on and off for years.

In a statement, Chris Widmaier, chief spokesman for the U.S.T.A., said the organization had “no intention of revictimizing or shaming” McKenzie in any way. “We were given inconsistent testimony and were simply seeking to determine which version was true,” he said.

Shriver testified that U.S.T.A.’s top lawyer, Staciellen Mischel, last year warned her to “be careful” about her public statements on sexual abuse in tennis. Shriver has become an ally of McKenzie’s since going public with her own story of abuse last year in an interview with The New York Times.

When a lawyer representing the U.S.T.A. in the McKenzie case asked Shriver whether anyone at the U.S.T.A. had discouraged her from speaking out about sexual abuse, she responded: “Depends how you interpret the conversation from Staciellen. Part of my interpretation was that I needed to be careful. And in that interpretation, meaning don’t say too much.”

When asked about Mischel’s conversation with Shriver, Widmaier said the organization had deep sympathy for Shriver. “We would never stifle anyone from telling her story,” he said.

McKenzie’s case stems from her work with a coach, Anibal Aranda, who worked at the U.S.T.A.’s center. The organization had supported her development since she was 12, and she had spent time training at its centers in California and Florida. McKenzie described an escalation of physical contact and isolation that made her uncomfortable. She initially thought that Aranda had different norms for physical contact because he had grown up in Paraguay before moving to the United States. Then, on Nov. 9, 2018, Aranda sat close to her on a bench after practice so that their legs were touching and then put his hand between her thighs, she said.

McKenzie quickly reported the incident to friends, relatives, U.S.T.A. officials and law enforcement. The U.S.T.A. promptly suspended and then fired Aranda, who denied touching McKenzie inappropriately. A lengthy investigation by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the organization tasked with investigating sexual and physical abuse claims in sports, found it “more likely than not” that Aranda had assaulted McKenzie. The police took a statement from McKenzie, stated there was probable cause for a charge of battery and then turned the evidence over to local prosecutors, who opted not to pursue a criminal case.

Aranda did not return repeated messages seeking comment.

McKenzie said she soon began to experience panic attacks and depression, which have hampered her attempts to progress in her sport.

During the SafeSport investigation, a U.S.T.A. employee said that Aranda had groped her and touched her vagina over her clothes at a New York dance club around 2015. She did not disclose the incident to anyone at the time. The employee told SafeSport that after she learned about McKenzie’s accusations, she regretted not reporting her interaction with Aranda.

Widmaier has said previously that the U.S.T.A. only learned about the accusations made by one of its employees toward Aranda after McKenzie reported her complaint to the authorities, and that it moved to fire Aranda immediately.

McKenzie has spent the year playing in lower-tier tournaments while battling anxiety and depression. As of late last month, she was ranked 820th in the world.

In April, weeks after she made the final of a tournament in Tunisia, she testified for seven hours in her pretrial deposition. Kevin Shaughnessy, a lawyer at BakerHostetler representing the U.S.T.A, asked her about the weeks leading up to the 2018 incident, and questioned why McKenzie did not report earlier instances of inappropriate touching by Aranda during workouts as he coached her on how to serve.

McKenzie said she did not expect Aranda’s behavior to escalate and that she did not expect to be pursued sexually. “I was naïve,” she said.

Shaughnessy then asked her whether she had had a boyfriend previously, or if she had ever had a guy “come on” to her before. When McKenzie said she was not really involved with boys at the time, he asked about the number of sexual partners she had had and whether she had been intimate with a particular player at the training center.

In July, Shaughnessy deposed McKenzie’s mother and asked whether she had been told by another U.S.T.A. coach when McKenzie was 14 that her social life was getting in the way of her tennis, and that she should have her phone taken away because she had kissed a boy. Kathleen McKenzie was also asked if her daughter had ever believed she was pregnant.

Robert Allard, McKenzie’s attorney and a specialist in representing victims of sexual assault in sports, said the U.S.T.A.’s questioning showed a strategy of “belittling, embarrassing and intimidating survivors.”

Shriver, who has worked to support the U.S.T.A.’s efforts to increase participation and helped raise money for the organization and its foundation, said she was initially torn when Allard asked her to testify. However, she has made supporting tennis players who are assault victims a priority.

“In the end, I feel a real pull to support and give some perspective to what it’s like to be a player and have a coaching situation not be professional,” Shriver said on Friday at the U.S. Open, where she was commentating for ESPN. “I feel like supporting young women who have been traumatized.”

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