Oberlin College Lacrosse Coach “Burned at the Stake” for Supporting Women’s Sports

By Andrea Mew

Disclaimer: This profile includes explicit language that may be considered profane to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

In Kim Russell’s memory, the room had dark energy. Chairs were set up in a circle, and she was at the epicenter. For nearly two hours, Russell, who has been Oberlin College’s head women’s lacrosse coach for five years, recalled feeling critiqued, crushed, and degraded by the condescending and censorious voices of colleagues, players, and friends.

This was one of a series of disciplinary meetings Oberlin College staff subjected Russell to after a post she shared on her personal Instagram account upset students and staff. The post congratulated Emma Weyant, now an Olympian swimmer, who had her first-place podium spot at the 2022 NCAA swimming championships taken from her by transgender-identifying swimmer Lia Thomas.

To protect herself, Russell recorded each meeting, which she believes she was legally entitled to do. Under Ohio law, it is legal to record oral conversations with only one-party consent.

“I was not just chastised,” Russell began, recounting what took place in an interview with Independent Women’s Forum. “I was burned at the stake. I was stoned. I was basically told I was a horrible person, and it was heartbreaking, really.”

Russell told IWF that when she took over as head coach for Oberlin College’s women’s lacrosse team in 2018, she thought it would be the perfect place for her. The college proudly promotes its progressive values and flies a rainbow flag directly alongside—not below—the American flag.

With Oberlin’s reputation as a “bastion for progressive politics,” Russell thought she would fit right in on campus. She has a free-spirited personality, dresses in a bohemian, nonconformist style, and often foregoes shoes entirely—weather permitting. Her hair is free-flowing and full of natural curls. You might find her doing yoga flows in the morning or nibbling on granola throughout her day.

But every time she has voiced a dissenting opinion, Russell says she has been silenced—the opposite of how she expected this liberally-minded campus to operate. Now, Russell admits that Oberlin is the most hypocritical institution she has ever worked for.

“You Fall into a Category of People That Are Filled with Hate”

When Russell saw that transgender-identifying swimmer Lia Thomas from University of Pennsylvania won the 2022 NCAA swimming championships, beating top-ranked female swimmers, she felt empathy for the athletes whose hard work had been unfairly erased. After all, Russell had been a female athlete her whole life—from gymnastics to lacrosse and field hockey to yoga, boxing, and more—and has coached girls and women for decades.

So on March 20, 2022, Russell shared a post from another Instagram user that read “Congratulations to Emma Weyant, the real woman who won the NCAA 500-yard freestyle event,” to her own personal Instagram story.

All she added to the post was her own brief commentary, reading “What do you believe? I can’t be quiet on this… I’ve spent my life playing sports, starting & coaching sports programs for girls & women..”

Little did she know, a player she said she was quite close to screenshotted the post and sent it in an email to Natalie Winkelfoos, athletic director at Oberlin College and a member of the president’s senior staff. The following day, on March 21, Russell was called into a meeting with Winkelfoos and Creg Jantz, assistant athletic director, where she was chastised for sharing her beliefs on Instagram.

“Unfortunately, you fall into a category of people that are filled with hate in the world,” Winkelfoos said, according to Russell’s recording.

Jantz told her: “It’s acceptable to have your own opinions, but when they go against Oberlin College’s beliefs, it’s a problem for your employment.”

Winkelfoos then asked Russell to sit down for a meeting with her entire lacrosse team and apologize. Russell said many of her players hadn’t even seen the post but, once the meeting began, a “mob mentality” took over. For about 45 minutes, several impassioned players voiced how upset they were with Russell, saying things such as, “A trans woman is a woman,” and “How can you not think that?”

Only one athlete, a freshman, spoke up in support of Russell’s perspective about women’s rights and Title IX protections.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Russell’s team decided that she and her assistant coach would be excluded from practice that day, and she had no choice but to comply.

“Can You Just Be a Horse For Me?”

By the end of the week, buzz of what happened had apparently begun to spread throughout campus, and people were allegedly calling Russell “transgressive, transphobic, and unsafe.” Winkelfoos called Russell in for another lengthy meeting. There, the athletic director explained that the situation had been elevated to Oberlin’s senior administrators. Her message to Russell? Get in line.

“There’s the view of, d*mn, we love Kim, we all know Kim as our unicorn. But I say to you all the time, I just want you to be a horse,” Winkelfoos said. “Some days it’s like, just take the f*cking horn off and wings. Like can you just be a horse for me?”

Winkelfoos also demanded that Russell write a letter of apology to her team and the department.

“I hope you feel remorse for it,” she said.

Passionate about the need to protect women’s sports, Russell didn’t feel remorse. Instead, she put forth that it would be more productive if those who didn’t understand her perspective would simply have a conversation with her.

Having coached multiple transgender-identifying athletes, Russell understood the sensitive nature of the issue. She said that the names she was being called broke her heart because all of her athletes knew they could come to her for warmth and guidance.

“I just received a two-page handwritten letter [from one transgender-identifying athlete] thanking me for my support of her throughout her time at Oberlin and moving forward,” Russell told IWF.

Despite Russell’s proven track record of treating every athlete with dignity and respect, her personal brand of feminism apparently didn’t cut it.

“Your Feminism Has to be Inclusive for Everybody”

After Russell chose not to pen a letter of apology, Winkelfoos called another meeting. There, Russell faced what she described as a two-hour “struggle session” with her entire team, Winkelfoos, the athletic department’s Title IX director and its diversity, equity, and inclusion representative, as well as the Title IX director for the entire college. The Title IX director instructed Russell to listen, not respond, and repeat back what she had heard each individual say.

“That meeting turned into anybody being able to say anything they didn’t like about my coaching style or my assistant’s coaching—anything,” she said. When Russell finally got the floor to explain her position, she said her perspective wasn’t welcome.

“I know that this is probably a shock because now we’re at this stage where, for this generation, it’s not good enough just to work for women’s issues or white feminism. Your feminism has to be inclusive for everybody and work for everybody,” said one athlete.

Another athlete told Russell that instead of justifying her actions, she would like “a little more accountability,” because Oberlin has a high population of LGBTQ+ identifying students.

“You are genuinely trying to make an attack on me,” said another athlete who told Russell that simply responding in lieu of apologizing would not be sufficient enough. “There are some things that we still need from you and some steps, but we acknowledge it’s not impossible. It’s not impossible to eventually be able to apologize.”

“I knew by the end of that meeting that it didn’t matter what I said,” Russell said. “There was cognitive dissonance; nobody would hear me.”

Russell told IWF that the rest of the season was the most difficult one she has ever coached. She felt like her family had broken apart because she loves her athletes as though they are children of her own. To hear them attack her character was “heartbreaking,” but nevertheless, she wouldn’t apologize for her beliefs. All she wanted was to have conversations.

At the end of the season, Russell was called in for another meeting with Winkelfoos. The athletic director handed her a physical letter, which would be put in her HR personnel file. It was copied to Jantz, as well as Oberlin’s director of human resources and the college’s legal counsel. The letter demanded that Russell change her behavior immediately.

“Your posting of these views in a public manner has caused damage to your credibility and has, unfortunately, devalued your role, notably as a frontline support advocate for student-athletes,” wrote Winkelfoos.

Driven by a need to protect herself, Russell shared that letter with her own legal counsel, who advised her not to respond until after the summer, when coaches return to campus.

Over the summer, a close friend suffered a medical situation that caused Russell to miss an on-campus meeting. Upon returning, Russell said she was slapped on the wrist for not being physically present. She then knew it was then time to formalize a response.

“The summary of my response was, ‘If I am breaking university policy, please tell me what that is. Please do that in writing. And if you’re going to fire me for breaking university policy, please do it now,’” she told IWF.

Upon receiving Russell’s response, Jantz called her into a meeting with himself and the director of human resources. Winkelfoos did not attend.

Ultimately, the HR director admitted that there could be a lot of other faculty who share similar beliefs about women’s sports. But, as Russell has now come to believe, many stay silent about their opinions out of fear of losing their jobs.

“It’s a hostile work environment,” Russell said. “When I’m 56 years old and I feel like I’m walking on eggshells and afraid to ‘be me’ where I work, that’s not good.”

Russell hasn’t yet been fired, but said at this point, she’s ready to leave. At Oberlin College she no longer feels free to be herself, or knows what behavior or comment will be misconstrued as a “hateful” next. As such, she’s taken it upon herself to be a voice for everyone who, for one reason or another, is staying silent in the fight to save women’s sports.

“Do I believe I’m at risk of being fired, of having a storm hit me? Yes. Am I ready for the storm? Yes,” Russell said.

A Culture Cloaked by a Veil of Hypocrisy

In coaching women, Russell says it’s important to honor female biology and nature since it can affect athletic performance. In 2018 and 2022, for example, Russell invited a professional who specializes in menstrual cycle wellness and training to speak to and work with her team.

“If you know this stuff, it is going to help you perform in every area of life, including on the field,” Russell said, explaining how, at certain times of the month, it’s beneficial for a female athlete to eat different kinds of food or get more rest.

She recalled her players giving great feedback to the sessions. But, after the string of disciplinary meetings, Russell said Winkelfoos told her, “No more period talk.” Russell said that demand left her speechless. What’s more, Winkelfoos won’t actually allow her to use gendered language in communication with athletes or their families, despite the team being called the “women’s lacrosse team.”

Russell said all of these instances reinforce the lamentable truth that Oberlin operates under a veil of hypocrisy, given the college’s emphasis on liberal values. Among her past and present athletes, Russell is warmly known as the “hippie love coach.” She teaches intuitively, reads energy and uses that to guide practice plans, coaches barefoot, and believes it’s her purpose to spread love and a sense of belonging.

“There’s so much mob mentality that is scaring people from doing what they love, from speaking with people they love about what they believe,” she said. “It could be about religion, it could be about politics, it could be about sexuality. We’re all walking in this crazy fear.”

For the 50th anniversary of Title IX, Oberlin College’s athletic department published a nearly hour-long documentary honoring the groundbreaking legislation that guaranteed women their own shot at success. The documentary was released after Russell’s proverbial “burning at the stake.”

Russell laughed at the irony. As a former D1 field hockey and lacrosse athlete, who then went on to start and coach several teams while nursing her babies from the sidelines, Russell is filled with gratitude for the female body, and for the women who came before her to fight for single-sex protections.

“Where’s the #MeToo movement now? What happened to that?” Russell asked.

At the expense of fairness, safety, equal opportunity, and even freedom of thought, institutions like Oberlin—which otherwise pride themselves on so-called liberal values—instead appear to aggressively push people into an adherence to dogmatic ideology.

“I cannot not be me. I believe we should all be authentic in who we are,” Russell told IWF. “If I don’t speak out, who is going to speak?”

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