On Tuesday, MLive released WilmerHale’s full report from its investigation into the Michigan hockey program and its coach, Mel Pearson.
The report details numerous instances of misconduct committed by Pearson and former Director of Hockey Operations Rick Bancroft. Those include:
- Discrimination against women who worked with the Wolverines
- Retaliation against former goaltender Strauss Mann
- Deception regarding COVID-19 contact tracing
- Retaliation against former Director of Player Development Steve Shields
On September 2, 2021, Shields himself filed the formal complaint that spawned the investigation. As the Michigan program’s future and Pearson’s future with the team remains uncertain, The Daily breaks down prominent details in WilmerHale’s report.
Misconduct began with gender-based discrimination
The report lists instances of harassment committed by both Pearson and Bancroft against sports information director Kristy McNeil, Director of Performance Nutrition Caroline Mandel and administrative assistant Lora Durkee, who has since retired. Other women were also mentioned to have experienced harassment, largely at the hands of Bancroft, but also by Pearson.
The first incident described involved Pearson bullying McNeil for scheduling Zoom interviews for two players in February 2021. Equipment manager Ian Hume also said in the report that he overheard “so many mean things about Kristy McNeil,” including that Bancroft and Pearson plotted to remove her from the position.
Pearson’s own words show that misconduct occurred, as he told investigators that Durkee had job duties she enjoyed “taken away from her” by Bancroft. Bancroft is also listed in the report to have bullied Mandel in March 2021.
Pearson and staff encouraged athletes to lie on COVID-19 contact tracing
Athletes expressed concern in the report about having to lie in regard to their exposure to COVID-19 before the 2021 NCAA Tournament’s Fargo Regional. Some players were exposed to a teammate who tested positive before the trip, and after arriving in Fargo, one tested positive while another felt symptoms.
The two athletes were then put in a van and driven 18 hours back to Ann Arbor, a situation that one of the athletes said “felt like they were being snuck out of North Dakota.” Michigan eventually forfeited its place in that regional when more positive tests occurred.
The report included a quote from an anonymous climate survey report that said multiple respondents to the survey claimed that Pearson “directed players to lie on health forms and to NCAA personnel at the NCAA Tournament about whether they had had close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID, which upset and scared them.”
Notes kept by Mann and provided to the investigators claimed that athletic trainer Brian Brewster told players to answer “no” regarding close contacts with COVID-19 on contact-tracing forms. Mann also noted that he and his teammates believed that decision came from Pearson.
Pearson retaliated against Mann
After forfeiting in the Fargo Regional, Mann “raised concerns” with Pearson about how the team was handling situations — both its COVID-19 deception and a lack of “respect” displayed toward student athletes. Mann held a meeting with Pearson and video coordinator Evan Hall. In the meeting, Pearson responded by informing Mann that he would have to re-earn his role on the team and might not serve as captain again.
Mann told McNeil on April 28, 2021, that he felt he was being forced out. Two days later, a Twitter post announced that he was leaving the team but did not include details about his future; more than a month later, Mann signed with Skellefteå AIK in Sweden.
Players on the team reported to the investigators that Pearson made comments that resulted in a professional offer being taken away from Mann. Human resources director Tiffany Raymond said Shields told her that Pearson called a hockey agent to say that Mann had tried to get him fired. In the investigation, Pearson said he “might have said something at some point” to alumni or players’ agents.
Sports Administrator Josh Richelew added details of the retaliation, telling investigators that Mann’s scholarship was threatened by Pearson following the Fargo Regional. He also said that the situation made other athletes fearful of coming forward with their concerns about the program. Some athletes didn’t respond to a culture survey in May because they thought it might not be anonymous and Pearson could potentially find out what they said.
Pearson maintained contact with Mann despite the troubling way Mann left the program. Before Mann suited up for his first professional game, Pearson texted him congratulations and said he was proud of him. During the Olympics, when Mann played for Team USA, Pearson tagged Mann on social media posts about his time with the Wolverines. Sources within the program confirmed to The Daily that the two do not have an amicable relationship, and suggested that the contact might have been meant to distract Mann from his performance.
Pearson’s actions didn’t violate specific Michigan ECRT policies
WilmerHale claims that, despite all the instances of misconduct alleged in the report, none of them directly violate the sexual and gender-based misconduct policies followed by the University’s Equity, Civil Rights & Title IX Office.
However, the firm raised concerns regarding the leadership and culture of the hockey program under Pearson’s leadership.
The report states, “The Athletic Department should take steps to address a number of issues discussed in this report, including (1) the mistreatment of female staff members by Mr. Bancroft; (2) Respondent’s inability or unwillingness to hold Mr. Bancroft accountable for his conduct; (3) pervasive fears among both student athletes and staff members of retaliation by Respondent for raising issues; and (4) inconsistencies in Respondent’s recollection, perception, and/or characterization of key incidents and issues as compared with other participants.”
As Pearson awaits a new contract extension after his original deal expired May 1, those recommendations could impact whether he serves as the Wolverines’ coach moving forward.
Michigan Athletics denied request from The Daily for comment, but told MLive that Pearson remains head coach for now.