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YSU case shines light on athletes, sexual assault

University made player coach two years after suspension

Staff photo / R. Michael Semple The Youngstown State University indoor tennis complex is under construction on the west side of campus, along Belmont Avenue between Grant and West Scott streets. The facility, which will house six tennis courts and be home to the YSU men’s and women’s tennis teams, is scheduled to be finished by the end of 2019.

YOUNGSTOWN — Youngstown State University in 2016 suspended a men’s tennis player it found responsible in a sexual assault. Two years later, it installed him as an assistant coach of the men’s tennis team, and, one semester after that, the women’s tennis team.

Bassem El Mekawi was one of three YSU athletes disciplined for sexually assaulting a female student in September 2015, records obtained by GateHouse Media show.

The case and the school’s subsequent hiring of El Mekawi have not been made public until now. GateHouse Media obtained the information while researching the broader issue of NCAA athletes continuing their playing careers after being investigated and found responsible for sexual assault.

YSU initially provided few details about the incidents beyond redacted records GateHouse Media was able to get after hiring attorneys to negotiate with the university. But as information about the case was uncovered, the university became more cooperative, confirming details, answering questions and sharing new records.

In a statement, YSU said it “takes the issue of sexual violence very seriously” and that its “disciplinary process is designed to be educational and not merely punitive.” El Mekawi graduated this year and is no longer affiliated with the school, the statement said.

“The university holds students accountable and enforces appropriate sanctions for their actions,” the statement said.

Still, critics say the NCAA and its member universities fail to take seriously the risk to other students of allowing alleged sexual offenders on campus and elevating them to positions of prominence.

“What Youngstown State is doing is making the coach and his second chance the focus, rather than the risk to female students,” said Kathy Redmond, head of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. “The message is, if you sexually assault someone, we will still support your future endeavors at the risk of other students.

“It’s just sad, and to me, it sends the message that female athletes are expendable.”

FEMALE COMPLAINT

YSU confirmed that its Title IX office received a complaint from the female student Sept. 18, 2016, about two incidents occurring one year prior. Title IX refers to the federal law prohibiting sex and gender discrimination in education.

The student accused basketball player Sidney Umude of sexual assault on Sept. 5, 2015, at University Courtyard apartments, according to university spokesman Ron Cole, adding that the university classified it as a rape.

The second incident, classified by the university as fondling, occurred two weeks later on Sept. 19, and involved Umude, El Mekawi and football player Sidney Sandidge, Cole said. It also took place at University Courtyard, in El Mekawi’s apartment.

El Mekawi and Umude declined to comment for this story. Sandidge did not respond to at least four messages by phone and social media. The victim could not be identified from the redacted records.

The university placed the players on interim suspension two days after receiving the complaint, records show. After an investigation, administrators found all three athletes responsible for sexual assault by a preponderance of evidence, the same standard used in civil court, records show.

On Oct. 6 — less than three weeks after the victim filed the complaint — YSU suspended Umude for 10 months, El Mekawi for seven months and Sandidge for two months, records show. It also banned Sandidge and Umude from campus residential facilities. And it ordered Sandidge to complete 20 hours of community service.

In addition, the university ordered all three to complete an online training module called “Think About It” to educate them about alcohol use, healthy relationships and consent, records show.

The university additionally found Umude responsible for theft and ordered him to pay $19 in restitution, records show.

Umude and El Mekawi unsuccessfully appealed the rulings, records show. The victim also appealed Umude’s sanction, which the university increased from a suspension to expulsion.

The campus police department did not investigate, school officials said, because the victim requested for the matter to be handled administratively. The university reported the incident to campus police solely as a matter of tracking crime statistics, its legal counsel said.

A copy of that police report obtained for this story almost entirely was redacted. The university cited federal student privacy laws.

Umude transferred to Southern University in Louisiana, where he played two more seasons after YSU expelled him over the incidents. Spokeswoman Janene Tate initially said officials “see no evidence that Southern was aware of Sidney Umude(‘s) disciplinary action at his former university when he was admitted as a transfer student.”

YSU disputed that, saying athletics officials did tell Southern.

Later, Tate conceded that Southern did have a copy of a form from YSU saying Umude had been expelled.

Umude now is listed on the roster of a professional basketball team in Denmark, the Svendborg Rabbits. Sandidge did not return to Youngstown State, but later appeared on the roster of a semi-pro football team in Virginia.

NCAA RULES

The case highlights how NCAA athletes who have been investigated and punished for sexual assault can continue their playing careers, and in El Mekawi’s case to join the ranks of college athletic staff.

Notorious for penalizing athletes who’ve smoked marijuana or accepted cash or gifts, the NCAA has no specific penalties for athletes found to have committed sexual assault and other violent offenses.

El Mekawi reapplied to YSU after completing his suspension and Title IX training, said Cole. The university granted his application in the fall of 2017 and reinstated him to the tennis team for the 2017-18 season. He played 35 matches in his final year of NCAA eligibility, winning about half.

He became an unpaid assistant coach of the men’s tennis team in fall 2018 and the women’s team in spring 2019, Cole said. The women’s team head coach, Mickael Sopel, was El Mekawi’s head coach during his four years on the men’s team, the school’s website showed.

The university deleted all references to El Mekawi from the men’s and women’s tennis teams’ online rosters after GateHouse Media began asking questions.

El Mekawi also worked as a paid intern in the university’s athletics office during his final semester in spring 2019, Cole said. Officials know of no other incidents in which he was involved, Cole said in a statement.

YSU is the same school that in 2016 recruited football player Ma’lik Richmond, one of two former Steubenville High School athletes convicted in 2013 of raping an intoxicated girl at a party. Richmond spent a year in juvenile detention and was listed on the juvenile sex offender registry until 2018.

Cole said the university has received no reports of misconduct involving Richmond.

“YSU is committed to the highest standards and best practices in supporting anyone affected by sexual misconduct or interpersonal violence,” Cole said. “We provide those affected with both university and community resources as well as appropriate accommodations. Creating a safe and secure campus environment for our students, employees and visitors is our top priority.”

Gatehouse Media is a news publisher with publications in 39 states, including Ohio.

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