After Sarah Murray ’20 stole second base in a game against Akron in March 2017, she knew that something had gone wrong. Murray had collided with the opposing shortstop and immediately didn’t feel right.
“You’re OK, right?” her coach asked. Murray felt she had no choice but to say yes. She stayed in the game despite having suffered a concussion.
After the game, the first of a doubleheader, Murray found out that the team’s trainer at the time, Becky Guzzo, wanted to sideline her. However, according to Murray, head coach Julie Farlow ’97 told Guzzo — a graduate assistant athletic trainer — that she couldn’t pull Murray from the game.
Murray said Farlow, then in her second year as head coach, told Murray, then a freshman, that if the infielder told anyone that she had been forced to stay in the game, she’d be benched for the rest of the season. Murray said she felt “scared” and “helpless.”
After the first tournament of her junior season, Murray quit the team. She is one of seven current and former Cornell softball players who said that Farlow has engaged in a pattern of mistreatment during her four years as head coach, including neglecting established concussion protocols, mishandling other injuries and mental health issues. Meanwhile, Cornell didn’t do anything, they said.
Jeremy Hartigan, a Cornell Athletics spokesperson, said that Farlow declined to comment.
“I have a strong sense of what is going on with softball, and am aware that some softball players are not happy with their team experience and are critical of the coaches and the department,” Andy Noel, director of athletics, wrote in a statement to The Sun.
The statement continues: “The coaches and student-athletes have a lot of work to do to meet their long-term goals, and I’m on board with those goals. However, I have no basis for believing that Coach Farlow has acted in a destructive or inappropriate manner or with any intention but to help her team improve.”
Mishandling of Injuries
Farlow — a member of the Cornell Athletics Hall of Fame — took over the program in 2015 after the retirement of Dick Blood, the second-winningest coach in Cornell Athletics history. In four seasons with Farlow at the helm, Cornell has an overall record of 47-121-1. Since Farlow became head coach, the players said, she has paid little regard to players’ wellbeing.
Olivia Lam ’19, a catcher and the only senior on the 2019 team, said she suffered a concussion in practice during her freshman season in 2016 after being hit in the facemask by a line drive. Sidelined for weeks, Lam was required to take the ImPACT test, an evaluation concussed athletes must pass before they can return to the field.
Lam said she cheated on the test by using her cell phone to take photos of screens that she was supposed to memorize. After passing the test, Lam called Farlow and told the coach that she cheated. Lam said the coach laughed.
“Athletics has not received reports of incidents of interference with concussion protocol by Coach Farlow,” Noel wrote. “Further, coaches don’t have an opportunity to override decisions made by our Sports Medicine staff.”
Lam, who suffered a torn rotator cuff this season, said Farlow repeatedly tells athletes that there’s “no such thing as an overuse injury.” According to both Murray and Lam, Farlow says injuries occur because players don’t use their muscles, are out of shape or aren’t throwing enough. According to Murray, an injury means “you did something wrong.”
Tori Togashi ’18 and another former player, who asked to remain anonymous because of medical confidentiality, told The Sun that Farlow had explicitly told them to participate in full workouts even when doctors and trainers had advised against it and when the activity caused them severe pain. Farlow had instructed Togashi to learn to “work through the pain,” she said.
Athletes have gotten in trouble when they’ve had a trainer help them stretch before games, according to Murray and Lam. Athletes’ usual practices do not include sufficient time for stretching, Lam said, then Farlow “wonders why people pull muscles.”
Hillary Dole ’21 quit the team in September because she “could not handle the emotional abuse that Julie Farlow put me through,” she said in an email to The Sun.
Near the beginning of the spring 2018 semester, Dole sustained a concussion, a broken nose and fractured teeth during an incident at a team weightlifting session. Dole said she received “significant pressure” to return to practice before she was ready and was encouraged to watch practices despite doctors’ concerns about the effects of light and loud noises.
“[Farlow] was overall unsympathetic and did not [care] about the physical trauma I had endured,” Dole wrote in the email. “She rarely asked how I was feeling, and did not ever check up on me herself. The only time she did was to ask if I had an idea about when I would be back to playing.”
Dole said that after about a month, she was cleared to play but had to play “catch up” the rest of the season. Dole said she felt like Farlow was holding the injury against her.
“It is hard to put into words but Coach Farlow was constantly mistreating us and making us feel miserable at all times,” Dole said. “As a player, I have never felt so meaningless.”
“She made me feel small and worthless, and imposed on me a lack of motivation and significant anxiety,” Dole wrote in a late email. “[Every day] I showed up to practice I knew I was going to be miserable.”
Mental Health Concerns
Murray, who said she struggled with mental health issues during her time on the team, was on medication during the 2018 softball season. Although the medication was necessary, Murray said Farlow expressed disappointment that the medication made her a “different person” at practices.
According to Murray, Farlow called her a “liability” and said she was “not dependable” because of her mental health issues. Farlow suggested Murray get additional counseling so she could return to previous form — not because the coach cared about her student athlete, according to Murray.
Togashi said that she felt as though Farlow often targeted her “as an individual” and that the coach’s style created something that “was definitely not a healthy environment.” Another former player told The Sun that she required six months of therapy after she stopped playing.
Murray, who said she considered quitting “ever since I got here,” said Farlow cared exclusively about her players’ performance, but not their health or lives outside softball.
During one practice, Lam suffered a panic attack and left practice for the team locker room. According to Lam, Farlow asked players “what’s wrong with her?” and did not accept that Lam’s panic attacks “happen sometimes.”
“You’re not a person to her, you’re a player,” wrote a current athlete — who asked not to be named — in a text message. “And if you’re a player who’s not in the [starting] nine she really couldn’t care less.”
“If a player had a panic attack at practice or a workout, an athletics trainer would be present to assist,” Noel said. “If that student-athlete received care by another staff member, I would expect the head coach would continue to hold practice for the other members of the team. I can also imagine a scenario where a coach speaks very bluntly to or about a student-athlete’s ability or efforts. All coaches have to have these tough conversations from time-to-time.”
Despite Complaints, Cornell Stays Silent
Some of the players said they voiced concerns with Farlow’s hostile team culture in the evaluations without any response from Cornell Athletics. Togashi said she indicated on a survey that she wanted a meeting with Noel, but never heard back from the officials.
“For years now we have reported her utter disregard for mental and physical health and the athletic department has turned a blind eye,” the current player wrote in a text message.
At the end of each season, all Cornell student athletes are asked to complete a Qualtrics survey regarding their experience with the team and the coaches. A summary report of every sport, which includes responses by all athletes who choose to respond, will be given to Noel.
“If I deem it necessary, I take appropriate action. Yearly evaluations are not intended to replace the necessary, ongoing dialogue between students and coaches that should be taking place through the year. Student-athletes are educated about various resources available to them to address any concerns about their Cornell experience,” Noel said.
Without any response to their complaints in the online evaluations, Lam and Togashi requested and were granted a meeting in 2016 with Sarah Wattenberg, then the associate director of Athletics for student services. Wattenberg no longer works for Cornell and her position is now occupied by Carmen Rogers.
According to Lam and Togashi, Wattenberg said in the meeting that she shared their concerns and that she would pass them along to athletics officials, but that any decision making in response would be out of her control. The players said they never heard anything further from Cornell.
The team met with Shelley approximately three times during the fall 2018 semester, but Dole said talking to administration is “useless.” Players have filed “countless negative reviews” of Farlow, who has been at Cornell since her graduation in 1998, and “nothing ever happens.”
Dole said she met with Anita Bremmer, a deputy director in the athletic department, “and [Bremmer] said that she did not realize things were so bad and would investigate further … but then nothing happened in return.”
Future of the Softball Team
When Lam came to Cornell, she was one of four players in her freshman class. Four years later, she’s the team’s lone senior.
In addition to Lam’s three classmates, at least eight non-senior players have not returned to the team in Farlow’s years as head coach. According to rosters on the Cornell Athletics website, two athletes didn’t return after the 2016 season, one didn’t return after 2017, and at least five — including Murray — didn’t return after 2018 (Murray quit after the first tournament of 2019).
In an initial email to The Sun describing the “mistreatment” by Farlow, Murray and Lam said that 11 players have quit the team in the last five years, “all beginning with the start of the contract of our current coach.”
Eight of the 17 players on the 2019 roster are freshmen; many of them are in starting roles. Lam said it has been difficult for the team to compete with a mostly “new team” every season.
Although Lam has stuck with the team for the “love of the game,” she said she had come to the realization that she would “never recommend” that a softball player come to Cornell. It was this realization that drove her to speak out.
Murray said she told a previous traveling softball coach not to send players to Cornell. If Murray could go back in time, she said she wouldn’t have chosen Cornell.
Murray and Lam initially reached out to The Sun to detail their experiences, citing a recent report in the Daily Pennsylvanian which uncovered similar mistreatment and low retention rate in the Penn softball program. Lam said she’s come to realize that her experience is not unique, it’s “not normal” either.
Cornell’s 2019 season came to an end on Monday afternoon. The Red amassed a 10-36 record and finished in a tie for last place in the Ivy League.
“It’s not worth it,” Lam said.