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N4T Investigators: U of A student says he was bullied, targeted with homophobic slurs

TUCSON – Michael Grabowski was a high school All-American long-distance runner in Suffolk Co. New York. He said he had numerous scholarship offers and chose the U of A. Now he’s filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against the university, alleging assault, discrimination/retaliation, emotional distress and defamation.

“If the truth got out it could be extremely damaging and that’s exactly what I’m hoping to do,” the 19-year old junior told the News 4 Tucson Investigators in his first interview since the case was filed last week. “I’ve been very badly wronged, I’ve been wronged by many people,”  Grabowski said.

Grabowski was kicked out of the Wildcats track and field program last September (the junior kept his scholarship but his attorney says it will be good only through this year). The lawsuit states that’s because he complained to coaches about being bullied and targeted with homophobic slurs by teammates Carlos Villarreal and Hunter Davila. They were better runners so, Grabowski claims, the coaches made him a scapegoat.

The News 4 Tucson Investigators have obtained a video taken at a team party in October 2017 and allegedly posted on social media by Davila. The lawsuit claims the video is homophobic and obscene name.

On a whiteboard at the party, someone wrote, “I am really gay,” included an expletive and signed Grabowski’s name.

We asked Grawbowski, “What were your thoughts when you first saw that video?”  He said, “Horrifying. You know, first thing, it says things that are absolutely not true, not right things, homophobic things. It’s horrifying for a college student to see that somewhere that they’re not even there.”

Grawbowski claims the day after the video was posted, Davila sent texts to a team group chat. The texts said, “Everyone bully Mike.” and, “It’s the only way to improve the team culture, just like James Li asked.” Li is the cross country coach. He’s named in the lawsuit, which also includes Athletics Director Dave Heeke, head track coach Fred Harvey, four other coaching staff members, Villareal and Davila. The former teammates could not be reached for comment.

Grabowski’s attorney, Bill Walker, said, “They have basically, to this point, ruined his life. I mean this happened. There’s no doubt this happened.”

After we reported last March on the possibility of the lawsuit being filed, a text was allegedly sent from athletics department Chief Operating Officer Derek van der Merwe to the track team. It said: “you may have seen/heard about the news report tonight. There will be a team meeting tomorrow at 5:30 pm in McKale 108.”  Walker claims the meeting was held to tell team members not to discuss the case.

Walker said, “It’s about the whole culture here of the University of Arizona protecting its coaches, protecting its money-making institutions. Instead of sticking-up for its students.”

University spokesperson Chris Sigurdson denied that van der Merwe told the team not to discuss the case. Sigurdson declined an interview but said in a statement: “The University of Arizona is committed to ensuring every student has the ability and support to pursue the educational opportunities available at the university and takes its obligation to protect those opportunities very seriously…” this is a very unfortunate situation for all concerned. We intend to strongly contest any lawsuits based on unsubstantiated allegations.”

Walker said, “They kicked him off the team. For what? They can’t even say what they kicked him off the team for.”

Grabowski calls what happened to him, “Totally unjust. It’s something they should be ashamed of. I am just at the end of the day just a college student. I’m not some…you know, I’m a young kid.”

Grabowski is a junior accounting major at the Eller College of Management. He says he misses running with a team and is considering transferring to another university.

If you have any story you would like us to investigate, please email us at investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line, 520-955-4444.

Matthew Schwartz

Matthew Schwartz

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