NC State former athletes sue, alleging sex abuse by trainer

A second former student athlete is suing N.C. State University, accusing the campus of not protecting students from sexual abuse by its former director of sports medicine.

The lawsuit alleges the university created a hostile educational environment and enabled sexual abuse by Robert M. Murphy, its longtime director of sports medicine. It alleges that N.C. State failed to take action after a former soccer coach reported in early 2016 concerns that Murphy was grooming students for sexual contact.

A 2022 campus Title IX investigation concluded that Murphy violated the university’s then-sexual harassment and discrimination policy while treating Benjamin Locke, according to documents provided to The News & Observer. Locke filed a complaint in August against N.C. State, Murphy and school officials with similar allegations.

But the university closed that investigation after Murphy, who has never been criminally charged, left his job due to an “involuntary separation” last year.

“NCSU created a hostile environment for Plaintiff and was deliberately indifferent when it failed to adequately respond to multiple coaches’ actual knowledge of and the coaches report of Murphy’s sexual abuse,” states the lawsuit filed Wednesday in North Carolina’s U.S. District Court in the Eastern District.

A spokesperson for N.C. State didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit. Murphy’s attorney also didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit filed Wednesday is listed as John Doe. His suit alleges Murphy sexually abused him twice under the guise of treating injuries in 2016, the lawsuit states.

“Murphy took advantage of the extraordinary imbalance of power and privilege between himself and Plaintiff, an injured and vulnerable teen-aged athlete, to engage in a course of action by sexually abusing him,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit seeks financial damages for the former student athlete’s psychological and emotional distress and related expenses.

Kerry Sutton, the plaintiff’s attorney, said her client moved forward with a lawsuit after learning of the lawsuit filed by Locke in August.

He filed as John Doe because he is worried about the impact the lawsuit could have on his family, but also wanted to corroborate Locke’s account, said Sutton, who also represents Locke.

“He wanted to be a voice so that other guys would know this really did happen,” Sutton said.

Rob Murphy (center in white hat), who was listed as an associate athletic director and director of sports medicine at N.C. State, helps a crew move an injured football player in the first half of N.C. State’s game against JMU at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. Ethan Hyman

Two alleged instances of abuse

The anonymous former student athlete initially worked with Murphy after reporting hip pain in 2016, the lawsuit states.

Murphy took the student athlete to the trainer’s private office, where he watched the student athlete undress and commented on the size of his penis, the lawsuit states.

Murphy used his bare hands touch the student’s genitals while wrapping his hip area, the lawsuit states.

Later that year, the plaintiff visited Murphy again, reporting back pain, which Murphy linked to the student’s groin, the lawsuit states.

During a Sunday session, Murphy had the student get on his hands and knees on a training table, the lawsuit states. Murphy then moved both of his hands inside the student’s shorts, with one hand touching his genital and another moving over his anus.

The student convinced himself that he was overreacting, but didn’t allow Murphy to treat him, the lawsuit states. The situation diminished the student’s ability to participate in sports and other activities, the lawsuit states.

In the first lawsuit, Locke estimates that Murphy touched his genitals between 75 to 100 times from August 2015 to May 2017 during treatments for injuries that should have been referred to a doctor.

Federal civil rights law

Both suits contend N.C. State violated Title IX, federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination at federally funded schools, by creating a hostile education environment and failing to take action after a report was made about Murphy.

In early 2016, former State men’s soccer coach Kelly Findley told Senior Associate Athletic Director Sherard Clinkscales he suspected Murphy was engaging in “sexual grooming of male student-athletes,” the lawsuits state.

“I have always and will continue to be a protector and advocate for all student athletes’ well-being,” Clinkscales wrote in a text to The News & Observer in response to the August lawsuit.

During the dropped Title IX investigation one or more male student-athletes corroborated Locke’s claims, the lawsuits say.

At least two trainers interviewed during the investigation indicated that touching students’ genitals and asking student athletes to remove underwear or compression shorts isn’t a standard acceptable practice.

In June 2022, Locke was told Murphy had left State for reasons unrelated to his accusations, the lawsuit says. Murphy’s leaving was an “involuntary separation,” the student was told.

This story was originally published February 1, 2023, 11:14 AM.

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in the Triangle for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the Media & Law Award for Best Series in 2018 and 2020.

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