Federal jury orders USTA to pay $9M to player in sexual assault case

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A federal jury on Monday ordered the United States Tennis Association to pay $9 million to a once rising tennis prospect who said the organization failed to protect her from being sexually assaulted by a coach at its Florida training center.

Kylie McKenzie, a 25-year-old player from Arizona who is trying to revive her career, sued the USTA in 2022 after the U.S. Center for SafeSport found it “more likely than not” that she had been assaulted by her coach when she was 19 and he was 34.

The coach, Anibal Aranda, has denied touching McKenzie inappropriately in 2018. He was suspended and then fired by the USTA, and as the organization investigated McKenzie’s claims a USTA employee reported for the first time that she had been groped by the coach years earlier.

After a weeklong trial in U.S. District Court in Orlando, the jury deliberated for just two and a half hours before awarding McKenzie $3 million in compensatory damages in the first phase of its verdict.

In its second phase, the jury awarded $6 million in punitive damages, determining that there was a conscious disregard for the rights and safety of others, given in part attempts by the USTA to keep McKenzie’s case quiet.

“I feel validated,” McKenzie said Monday evening from Florida. “It was very hard but I feel now that it was all worth it. I hope I can be an example for other girls to speak out even when it’s hard.”

In a statement, USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier said the organization would “pursue all avenues of appeal,” even though it was sympathetic to what McKenzie endured. It acted quickly to fire the coach, he said.

“The court ruled that the USTA was liable because one of its employees – a non-athlete – had an obligation to report her own experience with this coach to the USTA; an incident that was unknown until after the USTA removed the coach. This sets a new and unreasonable expectation for victims, one that will deter them from coming forward in the future,” Widmaier said.

Through two years of litigation, the USTA has insisted it handled McKenzie’s case appropriately after she quickly reported to friends, relatives, USTA officials and law enforcement that he had placed a hand between her thighs after an escalation of physical contact.

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. When McKenzie returned to the training center days later, a coach told her to tell others she had been ill.

During depositions, a lawyer for the USTA 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. During the trial, lawyers suggested that McKenzie exaggerated the anxiety and depression she experienced following the incident.

The types of questions and accusations, 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.

“Their entire defense seemed to be based on victim shaming,” said Amy Judkins, the lead trial attorney for McKenzie. “It backfired.”

Pam Shriver, the Grand Slam doubles champion and television commentator who was a victim of sexual abuse by a coach during her career, had also testified that the USTA’s top lawyer, Staciellen Mischel, 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 in 2022.

When a lawyer representing the USTA in the McKenzie case asked Shriver whether anyone at the USTA. 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.”

Shriver told the story again in testimony during the trial.

Widmaier said previously that the USTA had deep sympathy for Shriver. “We would never stifle anyone from telling her story,” he said.
The USTA has made its 50-year record of leadership on women’s equity and empowerment a hallmark of its identity.

Judkins, however, said the jury met McKenzie’s request for a clear message with its award.

“That message is that it’s not ok to just do lip service for the protection of athletes,” Judkins said.

Robert Allard, another attorney for McKenzie and an advocate for sexual abuse victims in sports, said the jury made clear that the USTA had failed to regulate itself.

“They don’t put athletes first,” said Allard, who previously received another lucrative settlement from the USTA in the case of Steven Gould, a junior tennis player, over its failure to protect him and other players from a prominent coach for working-class children. “There needs to be a complete change in the organization so victims are not silenced but encouraged to come forward.”

(Photo of Kylie McKenzie during a tournament in March in Sao Paulo: Buda Mendes / Getty Images for ITF)

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