For most of the fall, whenever Kayla Miller-People heard the familiar sounds of a La Salle women’s soccer game beginning on the field not far from her dorm, she turned up her music and closed her eyes.
“I just try to go to sleep,” she said through tears in an interview this fall. “Put my headphones in, act like everything’s OK.”
She didn’t want to hear parents cheering and whistles blowing and her former teammates scoring goals and running around the field. All she wanted to do was forget.
She wanted to forget about her excitement when she arrived on campus in August as a top New Jersey recruit, ready to live on her own, make new friends, and play the sport she loved at the Division I level.
She wanted to forget about the “initiation games", during which, she said, the La Salle freshmen had soccer balls kicked at them from all directions.
Most of all, she said, she wanted to forget that speaking up only exacerbated her problems. For the first time, she said, she no longer had soccer — her outlet, her happy place, her “life.”
The story of Miller-People’s fall semester at La Salle is complex and deeply nuanced.
The university investigated allegations of hazing by fellow players and retaliation by Paul Royal, who has been head coach of the women’s soccer team for 17 years, according to emails between school officials and Miller-People’s family obtained from her father, Alfred Miller.
“The investigation revealed examples of non-violent, power differential hazing,” the statement read in part. “While the investigation found no behavior necessitating university disciplinary action against specific individuals, we take very seriously all claims of hazing and other forms of inappropriate behavior.”
In a telephone interview Saturday, Dawn Soufleris, La Salle’s vice president of student affairs and enrollment management, said there had been “a very comprehensive investigation” after a complaint had been received. There were actually two investigations -- by the human resources department, and by the public safety department.
“We have actually always had a zero tolerance when it comes to hazing,” Soufleris said, adding, about the evidence of “power differentials within the team, that’s something that was not acceptable.”
As a result, La Salle has placed the women’s soccer program on disciplinary probation through 2020, the university said. Players will also be required to attend a workshop on respecting their teammates, undergo bystander intervention training, do community service, and have “restrictions on competition” this spring semester, La Salle said.
Al Miller said he isn’t satisfied. He has retained a lawyer, he said, and is planning to take legal action.
On Friday, in addition to receiving a La Salle statement that substantiated hazing allegations, Miller-People received an emailed letter from athletic director Brian Baptiste, who informed her that school investigators had found her claims of retaliation by coach Royal “unsubstantiated." Royal’s actions weren’t a result of the hazing allegations, Baptiste wrote, but “a consequence of [Miller-People’s] tone and demeanor" in a meeting with the coach, as well as a “reluctance ... to take accountability for your actions.”
These were similar words, Miller-People’s family said, to those Royal used in a meeting months earlier, during which he advised she no longer practice and play with the team. They’re words Miller-People said she often replays in her head: “You’re not a fit for the team."
The situation has left the young woman, her family, and university administrators grappling with how universities should handle non-violent hazing and whether college athletic programs can better monitor the mental health of their players, particularly freshmen.
Miller-People said La Salle didn’t offer her any mental health services while she was an active member of the team. After the fact, she said they told her the coaches didn’t know she needed them. She went to student counseling services once or twice once she was no longer playing, she said, but it did little to ease her anxiety.
Her father said he’s grateful she’s still here. One day this fall, Miller-People called her mother and said, “I don’t want to be here any more," which the worried parents took to mean their daughter had suicidal thoughts. In reality, Miller-People said, she just didn’t want to be at La Salle any longer.
Soufleris said La Salle has a variety of mental health services, from a student counseling center with licensed psychologists, to a full service wellness center that includes a mental health component. A recent grant allowed the university to bring more resources to the campus, she said, including training more faculty and staff on how to talk to students if they had concerns about their welfare, plus after-hours services, with the ability to call “any hour of the night” to connect to counseling services. Students were made aware of such services, Soufleris said, during freshman orientation and through residence hall staff.
Miller-People’s father said his daughter’s downward spiral turned her into a depressed person he no longer recognized.
Meanwhile, on the soccer field near Miller-People’s dorm, Royal and his team were doing well. They finished the season 11-8-1, and 6-4 in the Atlantic 10, reaching the semifinals of the conference tournament before losing to eventual A-10 champion St. Louis, 1-0. Two La Salle players were named to the United Soccer Coaches All-East Region second team.
The success was not unusual for Royal. Over Royal’s tenure, he “has taken the program to new heights," according to his biography on the university website. He has led his team to five NCAA tournament appearances and been named the Atlantic 10 Conference’s coach of the year four times.
Royal did not respond to an email and a request to comment through a university spokesperson on Saturday.
‘This is a sisterhood’
Miller acknowledges the activities his daughter described may have been considered innocent freshman initiation a couple decades ago, but both NCAA and La Salle guidelines now classify the behaviors as hazing.
University policy says hazing can include “brutality of a mental nature, including activity adversely affecting the mental health or dignity of the individual, sleep deprivation, exclusion from social contact or conduct that could result in extreme embarrassment.”
And Miller has seen firsthand, he said, how these types of behaviors don’t have to leave physical scars to be damaging.
When his daughter visited La Salle as a high school recruit, she said she was sold when she heard players describe a close-knit team that sounded a lot like her beloved high school squads back in Union Township, N.J.
“They told me, ‘This is a sisterhood. You’re going to leave your family and come to a new one,’ ” Miller-People said.
Having played on competitive teams for more than a decade, Miller-People understood how seniority worked, she said, and knew freshmen were the lowest on the totem pole. But this behavior was worse than she’d ever experienced, she said.
Before several practices, she said, the upperclassmen played a game called “Big Circle,” during which they stood around the freshmen and kicked soccer balls toward the new players. As practice time approached, Miller-People said, Royal would yell to the group “last ball,” signifying the older players could kick the balls one more time.
Asked about this allegation, Soufleris said, “It was all part of the investigation. I will tell you, what was listed in the [university finding], that’s what they were found responsible for. It’s pretty self-explanatory.”
At meals between preseason two-a-days, Miller-People said, the upperclassmen would not only eat first but often leave only scraps, and no protein, for the freshmen.
After one late-night bus ride back to campus, the coaches and upperclassmen made the freshmen stay alone to clean the bus, pick up everyone’s trash, and carry equipment bags through the campus by themselves in the dark, she said.
To make matters worse, Miller-People said, she was living by herself — not only without a roommate but without anyone else on her floor — for a number of days before the other non-athlete students arrived on campus. She spent her nights alone, depressed, scrolling mindlessly through her phone and crying herself to sleep, she said.
“I just remember I wanted to go home a lot,” she said. “This wasn’t what I expected it to be."
Crying all the time
On the field, she had some early success. In September, she was named the Atlantic 10 Conference rookie of the week for having an assist in back-to-back games.
But off the field, she was becoming increasingly unhappy.
Once a happy, social high school athlete, Miller-People said she seldom left her dorm room. She cried all the time, she said, and had little appetite. Few things brought her joy, and none of them could be found on the campus that she thought would be the backdrop for some of the most exciting years of her life.
“I’m not the same person I was coming here,” she said. “I’m just trying to get that back.”
Early in the season, her father said he communicated with coach Royal, concerned about what his daughter was telling him and her mother.
Late in September, Miller met with Baptiste, the school’s new athletic director, who agreed that no freshman should be treated in the way his daughter described.
In an email the following day, Baptiste wrote Miller, saying: "A formal investigation will be conducted immediately by our Public Safety unit in this matter and they [will] guide us through this process. Additionally, as we discussed yesterday, Kayla is still a member of our women’s soccer program and we look forward to making sure she has the best experience possible.”
At the advice of Royal, Miller-People tried to make amends with her teammates, even addressing them all after a practice and saying she’d try to be a better, more involved teammate.
Many of her teammates apologized, she said, or said the situation was rooted in misunderstanding.
But Miller-People’s efforts were for naught. In a meeting in late September, she said, coach Royal said he didn’t think she was “a fit for the team" and it’d be best for her to sit out indefinitely.
As for Baptiste’s assertion in the Friday letter to her that Royal’s actions were precipitated by Miller-People’s “tone and demeanor,” she said in an interview she was late to that meeting, but apologized. She also said she got frustrated with Royal but his response was, in her view, disproportional. He stood up, she said, and screamed at her from across the room.
For much of the season, Miller-People remained on the official roster, but she did not play or practice following that meeting.
The fall semester ended earlier this month, and Miller-People went back home to northern New Jersey.
Her father said he’s been trying to get her to talk to a therapist, but “at this point, she hates rehashing it. It brings up pain.”
“She doesn’t want to talk to strangers anymore,” Miller said. “Her talking about it, it would probably send her into a deeper depression."
If La Salle is brought up at home, he said, she often begins crying and walks away to her room.
Miller-People is hoping to transfer to Temple University for the spring semester, she and her father said, and Baptiste has told the family in emails that the La Salle athletic department would support her in the process, with the athletic director working on that personally.
She doesn’t know yet whether she would play soccer there, Al Miller said, in part because their women’s soccer coach resigned last month.
But her best friend goes to Temple. So with or without soccer, Miller-People is hopeful she’ll be happier.