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Lawsuit alleges that bullying and abuse by UC San Diego rowing coach led to student’s suicide

Brian Lilly Jr.
(Courtesy of Lilly family)

The parents of Brian Lilly Jr., 19, say UCSD allowed abuse to fester in its rowing program and ignored their son’s cries for help.

The parents of a 19-year-old UC San Diego student who killed himself in January have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the university and its men’s rowing coach, who is accused of subjecting collegiate athletes to pervasive bullying and verbal abuse.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 30 in federal court in San Diego, accuses head coach Geoff Bond of singling out freshman rower Brian Lilly Jr. to the point of mental deterioration and, ultimately, suicide.

“This horrific tragedy is not the sad, but inevitable, result of an ‘old-school coach’ miscalculating the effect of his harsh coaching style on an overly sensitive Generation Z teenager,” the lawsuit states.

Lilly was described by his family and teammates as a powerhouse endurance athlete with no previous history of mental illness. He was known for his mental fortitude, overcoming physical limitations as a child to eventually compete in the Ironman Triathlon as a high school senior in Scarsdale, N.Y. A chart on his bedroom wall spelled out how to become an Olympic rower.

“It bothers me every day to think my son was the victim of a bully predator coach,” his father, Brian Lilly Sr., said in an interview.

Bond is being sued under Title IX — the civil-rights statute that prohibits sex discrimination in education — as well as on claims of wrongful death, denial of equal protection and deprivation of substantial due process.

Bond declined to comment.

UCSD, as well as its athletic director, Earl Edwards, and associate director, Katie McGann, are being sued on the same grounds, plus claims of negligent hiring and supervision.

UCSD spokesman Matt Nagel released a brief statement Sept. 30: “We are very sorry for the Lillys’ loss, but we are unable to comment on pending legal matters, and Title IX matters are confidential.”

The Lillys, who now live in Connecticut, said their son reached out to coaches and athletics department staff several times with his concerns about the team and Bond’s alleged abusive and erratic behavior, including in a lengthy anonymous athletics department survey, but the school failed to address them.

The lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages.

Promising athlete

Both Brian Lilly Jr. and Bond arrived at UCSD in the fall semester of 2019.

Lilly was a walk-on freshman rower with a competitive ergometer score, the calculation on a rowing machine by which rowers are often ranked. He had grown into a serious athlete, a triumph for someone who was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at age 6 and struggled with his weight in junior high school.

“He was an underdog; he rose out of that disadvantaged condition,” his father said. “Part of what he did at UCSD was speak up for the underdogs.”

Lilly’s scores put him into one of the top three boats on Mission Bay, where the team practices.

Bond — with a resumé that includes coaching at UC Berkeley and for China’s national team — was hired to lead the men’s team at UCSD after three years as head coach at the University of Pennsylvania.

According to the lawsuit, Bond was forced to step down from Penn after the team he coached threatened to quit. A statement from Penn announcing his departure did not give a reason except to say he was stepping down at the end of his contract.

UCSD rowers who spoke with The San Diego Union-Tribune said Bond charmed the team at first. They did not want to be identified by name for fear of retaliation.

“He was a very amicable, outgoing, friendly guy,” one student said. But that changed a few months in, they said.

According to the lawsuit, Bond constantly berated crew members, often in sexually explicit, emasculating terms, and subjected them to “petty insults and erratic behavior.” He encouraged his athletes to work out until they vomited, then mocked them for being weak, the lawsuit states.

Rowers echoed many of the allegations in interviews, describing a toxic training atmosphere that had many athletes walking on eggshells to avoid being the target of an outburst.

“You think, ‘Oh, I’m doing something wrong to create his attitude that’s being manifested in this way.’ You end up projecting blame on yourself,” one rower said. “Sometimes I’ll be at practice and just feel hopeless, like ‘What’s going to set him off now?’”

“You kind of become desensitized to it, you think this is normal, you should get used to this,” the rower continued. “Then, after Brian passed away, I definitely started to think more retrospectively and realize, wow, this is not really normal behavior.”

“This horrific tragedy is not the sad, but inevitable, result of an ‘old-school coach’ miscalculating the effect of his harsh coaching style on an overly sensitive Generation Z teenager.”

Lawsuit filed by Brian Lilly Jr.'s parents

Retaliation alleged

The relationship between Lilly and Bond deteriorated significantly at the start of the 2020 spring semester, according to his family and teammates.

According to the lawsuit, Lilly learned that several female students had accused a fellow freshman rowing teammate of sexual misconduct and assault.

Lilly and others on the team were outraged by the reports and believed that the accused crewmate — operating on the team with seemingly no consequences — reflected poorly on the rowing program.

The suit further alleges that Bond and the assistant coach knew about the sexual allegations but did not report them, as mandated under Title IX, despite both coaches telling Lilly that they had.

At the end of January 2020, Lilly approached Bond and the assistant coach and said he was suffering emotionally and mentally over the accused teammate’s “unchecked conduct and the coaches’ failure to take action regarding the allegations,” the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, Bond told Lilly that he “and [his] homies should act as if nothing is wrong” and that “the coaches were handling the situation.”

Lilly was retaliated against as a result, according to the lawsuit.

In late January after the conversation, Lilly was inexplicably moved to the non-competitive fourth — or last — boat, the lawsuit states. Team leaders began to treat him with “outward hostility and cold ostracism.”

The dress-downs from Bond also increased, the lawsuit states.

“Brian got the worst share of it,” one rower said. “Brian felt like he was being gaslighted by certain members of the team and the coaches.”

The accused teammate also was in the fourth boat, heightening tensions.

When Lilly confronted Bond again, in late February, Bond insisted he had reported the allegations to the administration after hearing of them and that an investigation had found no evidence of wrongdoing, the suit says.

A rower told the Union-Tribune that he was interviewed as part of an investigation, though he believes it was initiated by a resident assistant who received a report of sexual misconduct against the student and reported it to the Office of Prevention for Harassment and Discrimination.

By mid-March, the emerging COVID-19 pandemic forced the team to go on hiatus.

Mental crisis

As did many students, Lilly returned to his parents’ home and finished the semester remotely. His mental health continued to decline that summer and he ultimately checked himself into a hospital to treat symptoms of schizophrenia and a psychotic episode, according to the lawsuit.

“Prior to attending UCSD, decedent was a healthy, happy young man,” the lawsuit states. “Less than one year with Bond caused Lilly’s mental health to suffer.”

He did well with in- and out-patient treatment, putting the same focus on wellness he did as a teenager, his parents said. He continued his studies at home in the fall 2020 semester.

He decided to return to in-person classes on the La Jolla campus for the spring 2021 semester. Bond emailed him in December asking if he was rejoining the team, and Lilly responded that he would be opting out for the semester due to continuing COVID concerns.

“He waited for a reassuring response from Bond but never received one,” the suit states.

Lilly killed himself Jan. 4 just after moving into a new apartment.

Lilly’s father said he often thinks back to when he first dropped off his son at UCSD and parents were assured during a presentation that their children’s physical and mental health were in good hands.

“My son cried out for help,” he said. “UCSD has failed my son, and there’s a systemic break at UCSD.”

His mother, Brenda Lilly, said they are not only seeking justice for their son but also hoping their personal tragedy will further the broader conversation about the mental wellness of collegiate athletes and rein in abusive coaching.

The Lillys’ New York-based attorney, Nicholas Lewis, said coaches hold tremendous sway over an athlete’s emotional well-being and self-worth and that the vast majority serve as important mentors to youths.

“Geoff Bond’s conduct reveals he is not worthy of the lofty position of head coach,” Lewis said. “Bond did not care to build this kid up; he used his power to break Brian down.” ◆