Mascoutah volleyball coach files lawsuit, accusing former player of ‘smear campaign’
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
A Mascoutah High School girls volleyball coach has filed a defamation lawsuit against a former player who sued him and the school district last year for allegedly violating her civil rights by forcing her to participate in “demoralizing and degrading” activities at practices.
In the first case, Todd Gober and Mascoutah Community Unit School District 19 entered into mandatory mediation in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois in East St. Louis. They reached a settlement with Brooke Junker on Aug. 23. Details are confidential under federal law.
The same day the settlement was reached, Gober and his wife, Breanna, filed the defamation lawsuit in St. Clair County Circuit Court against Brooke Junker, her mother, Beth, and father, Jeff, a retired assistant principal at the high school.
“Beth Junker, Brooke Junker and Jeffrey Junker have made false, damaging, defamatory statements concerning (Todd Gober) to other third parties,” the complaint states. “Those statements were made in writing, in meetings and in conversations.”
According to the complaint, the false statements indicated that Todd Gober:
- Should not be and should not have been hired to coach girls volleyball;
- Had been involuntarily terminated from prior coaching roles;
- Had an illicit affair with one of the athletes under his tutelage;
- Could not be trusted to supervise girls;
- Has been guilty of conduct that has precluded the recruitment of quality athletes.
“Defendant Brooke Junker, with the aid of her parents, has engaged in a smear campaign designed to ruin (Todd Gober’s) standing in the athletic community and stain his reputation in general,” the complaint states.
On Tuesday, Todd Gober declined comment due to pending litigation. Jeff Junker said his family hadn’t seen the lawsuit or received any notice and therefore couldn’t respond.
“We know nothing about it,” he said.
13th season as coach
Todd Gober is beginning his 13th season as an MHS volleyball coach. Brooke Junker graduated from high school in May 2022. She’s a sophomore on the beach volleyball team at McKendree University in Lebanon.
The Gobers’ lawsuit includes two counts of defamation, one count of tortious interference with existing business relationship, one count of false light, one count of intentional infliction of emotional distress and one count of negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Todd Gober also is president and CEO of First Federal Savings Bank of Mascoutah. The complaint’s third count alleges that false statements by the Junkers were designed to interfere with his employer and customer relationships.
The Grobers are asking for in excess of $100,000 for each of the six counts.
“The (Junkers’) conduct has directly resulted in and proximately caused Todd Gober and Breanna Gober severe and extreme emotional distress, including physical manifestations of same,” the complaint states.
Mascoutah District 19 isn’t a party in the defamation case.
David Deets, the school district’s new superintendent, couldn’t be reached for comment on the settlement in the civil-rights case. He replaced Craig Fiegel, who retired this summer. Deets formerly led Harmony-Emge School District 175 in Belleville.
Practice activities at issue
Gober coached volleyball for five years at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville and 10 years at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville before joining the Mascoutah High School athletic department.
Brooke Junker played with the MHS girls volleyball team for four years. She signed up in May 2022 for McKendree’s inaugural beach volleyball team.
Junker filed the federal lawsuit in August 2022. She asked for unspecified compensatory damages and in excess of $500,000 in punitive damages for 10 counts related to discrimination, retaliation and free speech.
“(Todd Gobers’) actions have detrimentally affected (Brooke Junker’s) education and health, and (she) has suffered from mental and emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation, anxiety, and depression,” the complaint stated.
The lawsuit alleged that Gober violated federal and state laws against gender-based discrimination by forcing members of the girls volleyball team to participate in activities described as “punishments” for losers of scrimmage games at volleyball practices.
The activities included spanking and throwing volleyballs at each other, barking like seals and kicking like donkeys, according to the complaint.
It described an obstacle course where one of two girls on each team had to lead her blindfolded partner through a maze of set mouse traps without giving directions such as “right” or “left.” Poor performers were fed sardines, radishes and other “disfavored” food.
“Participants in boys’ sports at Mascoutah High School can expect an entirely different experience than participants on the girls’ volleyball team, and are not subjected to the same degrading and demeaning activities as girls’ volleyball players,” the complaint stated.
Brooke Junker also alleged that Todd Grober retaliated against her and three other senior players for complaining to a school counselor that he “screamed” at them in front of spectators at a game for “letting down their fans.”
Defense attorneys argued that Gober had legitimate reasons for actions he took as coach and that the school district’s response to complaints from Brooke Junker’s parents was reasonable under the circumstances.
The federal lawsuit caused sharp divisions in the Mascoutah community.
Some residents took to social media to praise Gober as a respected coach devoted to his family, the community and the success of the MHS volleyball program and players. Others defended Athletic Director Scott Battas against online attacks that turned ugly at times.
Commenters identifying as former and current members of the girls volleyball team described the practice activities as “fun” and good for team-building. Others condemned them as “inappropriate,” “humiliating,” “abusive” and the equivalent of “hazing.”
Todd Gober spoke about the federal lawsuit in general terms.
“I’m surprised and disappointed and disheartened, and I look forward to all the facts coming out,” he told the BND in August 2022. “Some of the allegations (in the complaint) were taken out of context. I stand by my program and my coaching, and I’m proud of my staff and my teams.”
Fiegel, the former superintendent, declined to comment on the lawsuit at the time, except to say that the school district had insurance to cover such cases, and the insurance company would arrange for legal counsel.
Those attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case last fall. In July, U.S. District Court Judge David Dugan denied it. Belleville attorney and former magistrate judge Stephen Williams served as mediator.
Williams’ Aug. 24 mediation report doesn’t specify or even hint at what is required of each party. A box is checked next to a line reading, “Additional time is needed to consummate the settlement, and the parties request that the Court enter a 60-day order (to finalize documents).”
Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.