The Cancel-Your-College-Coach Playbook

Student newspapers are learning the subtle arts of rumor and innuendo.

Corporate media owes a lot of its ideological conformity and hubris to journalism schools. Media critics and advocates for reform suggest that journalism needs to return to being a trade that one learns on the ground—through apprenticeships, beat reporting, and small-market outlets—rather than a profession where an advanced degree from the right institution is a cheat code to a high level of influence and access.

Most colleges and universities already house such an apprenticeship program: the student newspaper. But instead of offering an alternative path or mindset, student newspapers give aspiring journalists their first taste of the media’s power to cancel disfavored individuals.

Student newspapers can give aspiring journalists their first taste of the media’s power to cancel disfavored individuals.Dartmouth’s eponymous student newspaper and the Daily Free Press of Boston University formulaically canceled their track & field coaches earlier this year. These undergraduate papers followed the same playbook that has been used by major media outlets to cancel professional coaches, athletes, and sports-industry executives.

The discrepancies, omissions, and inferences I outline below are not unique to The Dartmouth or the Daily Free Press. Some stand out to me as a track & field coach. But, mostly, I recognize them from the dozens of cancelations I’ve read about over the last year. Whether it’s a newspaper of record, a student newspaper, or a wire service dressing up a university’s press release about the results of a law firm’s investigation into a coach, the elements are always the same: vague allegations brought forth anonymously, then interpreted in the worst possible light via a steadfast refusal to interrogate context, culture, or professional best practices.

Three student journalists at The Dartmouth collaborated on a story about the December firing of men’s cross-country and track & field head coach Sean McNulty. They spoke to five former athletes and one parent of an athlete, all of whom were granted anonymity. Despite the fact that an athlete would naturally be a parent’s best source of information, The Dartmouth failed to note whether their sixth source was the parent of one of the athletes to whom they spoke.

The Dartmouth obtained a letter the parent had sent to the athletic department’s chief compliance officer, which had set off the chain of events leading to McNulty’s firing in December 2023. The only specific allegation in that letter (and in the article) is the only allegation the university or the newspaper proved against McNulty: that he claimed on his résumé to have been a member of the University of Kentucky’s track & field team for four years, when he had in fact been a member for only one, over a decade ago.

Everything else in the article is rumor and innuendo.

The parent’s letter had followed an earlier missive from many of the team’s student-athletes to Dartmouth Athletics. That communication had claimed that 20 of 24 runners suffered injuries during McNulty’s time and that eight to 10 of those were femoral stress fractures.

If Dartmouth ever conducted a formal review, the student paper omits it in favor of fuzzy claims.Femoral stress fractures are quite rare, accounting for less than one percent of all injuries to distance runners. If one team had multiple femoral stress fractures, it would absolutely be a matter for a multidisciplinary investigation—of training regimens, nutrition, body composition, and recovery practices, spanning far more than just the team’s one year under McNulty.

If Dartmouth ever conducted such a review, The Dartmouth omits it in favor of fuzzy claims such as the one that “[athletes had] never before experienced anything that resembled McNulty’s training.” The Dartmouth could have validated assertions of this kind by comparing the athletes’ training logs to any of the standard texts in running coaching, or by showing them to other Division I coaches for their interpretation and comment. This appears not to have happened.

The strongest statement a neutral observer could make is that McNulty wasn’t a very good coach. He may have been in over his head, having made the jump from a small Division III school to a successful Division I school. Indeed, the article quotes the athletes calling him “an unsuccessful Division III coach” whose hiring at Dartmouth “felt like a pretty big slap in the face.” Just a few paragraphs later we hear how the athletes had “adored” an earlier coach, Justin Wood. “Our group ran incredibly well under [Wood]. He helped us forge this identity as the ‘men of Dartmouth.’” (Ironically, Wood himself came to Dartmouth directly from a Division III school, as well.)

No one could play the under-preparedness card against Gabe Sanders. Between his two stints at Boston University, he coached numerous NCAA Division I All-Americans and finalists at Stanford, in addition to the first relay teams in Stanford history to reach the NCAA Championships.

But the Daily Free Press (the “Freep”) nevertheless included in its Sanders-canceling article a bombshell. Sanders, in his second spell with Boston University, “threatened to suffocate an athlete with his hands.”

To be clear, no one accuses Sanders of laying a hand on any athlete. Second, the Freep’s source for the allegation was an anonymous post on, a popular website with a very active message board for the running community. Despite the information’s poor provenance, the Freep’s attempt to verify the incident is perhaps best described as incomplete. “A current athlete on the team corroborated the allegation,” the story relates, “and told the Daily Free Press that Sanders allegedly said this in the presence of two other teammates and an athletic trainer.” Yet note the slipperiness of this claim. It’s unclear from the phrasing if the Freep’s corroboration came from one of the three alleged witnesses or merely from someone who heard about it from one of them. The Freep does not say whether they identified, let alone contacted, any of the three people who were supposedly actually there.

Hilariously, a different athlete “alleged” that Sanders tried to move him from one event to another.The remainder of the article works through the coach-cancelation checklist.

Sanders had “mood swings,” “showed favoritism toward certain athletes,” and was “very unpredictable and very emotional,” leading athletes to speak anonymously out of fear of retribution and repercussions.

One former athlete who did go on the record became an assistant coach after graduation. She saw “no ‘big issues’ with Sanders while she was there, but she’s ‘not surprised’ to hear the allegations. ‘I can’t give you an answer as to why that is … It’s just one of those gut feelings.’”

Hilariously, a different athlete “alleged”—as though it is misconduct—that Sanders tried to move him from one event to another. But this is quite common, particularly in college and even in Division I schools. Athletes will often change position, event, or sport (e.g., basketball to track). As athletes’ body types change through their late years of adolescence, or given the increased demands of collegiate sports, they may find that they are not as well suited to play a given sport or position as they were in high school, or even in the previous season. Additionally, coaches may need to move athletes around in order to field a complete team for competition, or to accommodate the annual turnover of seniors and new recruits.

Nevertheless, this anonymous athlete told the Daily Free Press that it was “body shaming” when Sanders said he “did not look like a [short distance] sprinter.”

Cancelation articles often portray coaches as dismissive of mental-health concerns, sometimes in the context of prioritizing winning over athletes’ well-being. Coaches, of course, know that you can’t win with a team of unmotivated, unfocused, and resentful athletes. But to ensure best practices, the NCAA updated its consensus statement on mental health earlier this year. Despite that—and the ubiquity of all things mental health on college campuses—the Daily Free Press manages to cast in a negative light Gabe Sanders telling this same athlete “to see a psychiatrist.”

Niche or non-revenue sports receive little media coverage. Coaches and athletes in track & field, softball, or rowing might receive just a handful of mentions or headlines in the course of a successful career. As a result, a single article that gets an unusual amount of traffic can quickly dominate the search results for that person’s name.

A single article that gets an unusual amount of traffic can quickly dominate the search results for a person’s name.Similarly, student newspapers have a high domain authority for the people, organizations, and events inside the digital boundaries of the campus. This combination makes the overwhelming majority of coaches quite vulnerable to cancelation by student newspapers.

Making matters worse is the fact that the permanence of the internet makes cancelation a forward-facing trauma. Articles like the ones mentioned above will always stand between the coach and a fair judgment from any prospective employer, colleague, or athlete. Every day, such coaches will wonder, “Who will read it today? Is this the day it will go viral again?” Hence the efforts underway to make media humiliation and misrepresentation a clinically recognized criterion for PTSD, as well as a basis for tort or defamation lawsuits.

Part of the value of old-school beat reporting is spending time around your sources and subjects. Covering routine stories builds relationships and provides access that can lead to uncovering or being handed the big story. It also gives reporters and editors the context necessary to recognize the difference between a big story and a non-story, let alone a digital assassination masquerading as a story. Unless, that is, the reporter has no interest in understanding the people and the culture he’s covering and the assassination is the point.

George M. Perry is a sports performance coach, sports businessman, and writer. Before going into the sports industry, he was a submarine warfare officer in the United States Navy and briefly attended law school.