South Carolina

USCB coach bullied college athlete and made fun of her weight, lawsuit says

Mari Cook (right) is suing her former University after she says her coach Laura Heberling (right) bullied her.
Mari Cook (right) is suing her former University after she says her coach Laura Heberling (right) bullied her.

A college softball player is suing the University of South Carolina Beaufort after her coach allegedly harassed and bullied her to the point she quit the team, and she says the school failed to investigate, according to a recent lawsuit.

Mari K. Cook, a former USCB athlete on scholarship and a Beaufort County resident, filed suit against the university Jan. 9 in the Beaufort County Court of Common Pleas, according to online court records.

Cook was injured during an away game in the 2016-2017 softball season and was diagnosed with a concussion, which made her unable to play for a period of time, according to Clay Hopkins, one of two attorneys representing Cook in the suit, along with Olin McDougall.

“After her injury, (Cook) was ostracized from the team when she tried to come back,” Hopkins said last week. “That’s when her coach really started bullying her.”

Cook’s head coach Laura Heberling “mocked her and ridiculed her, making jokes about her weight, and refused to allow her to train with certain trainers,” the suit claims.

Cook allegedly wasn’t allowed back on the team after she failed a physical fitness test, Hopkins said, and was not allowed to train with the university’s track coach to improve her performance.

Hopkins told The Island Packet that Heberling would “often poke fun at (Cook’s) weight.”

“She’d say things like ‘stop eating potato chips and get off the couch,’ while laughing,” Hopkins said. “We learned she had made weight-related comments to other girls on the team, too.”

Hopkins said the comments were made in front of the whole team in a “bullying manner.”

Other coaches and trainers witnessed the interactions and failed to report them to authorities, the lawsuit alleges.

When Cook reported the alleged harassment to USCB officials, the school “failed to investigate,” the lawsuit claims, and “allowed Heberling to continue to make demeaning and insulting comments.”

This eventually led to Cook quitting the softball team, the lawsuit claims.

When Cook told USCB athletic department officials and the athletic director — who is not named in the lawsuit — that she wanted to transfer because of the bullying, she was told “that she was making a mistake and, at first, that he would not grant her release from her scholarship,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit represents only one side of the legal argument.

Candace Brasseur, spokesperson for USCB, declined to comment on behalf of the university.

“It is our policy not to comment on pending litigation,” Brasseur wrote in an email. “However, we take student complaints very seriously and comply with all federal Title IX regulations.”

Cook suffered “embarrassment, humiliation, ostracism by friends, anxiety, grief, emotional distress, physical stress, and other psychological injuries,” because of the incident, the suit alleges. She is suing USCB for damages.

Cook did not sue any individuals in the case because of the South Carolina Tort Act, which gives most government employees protection from lawsuits.

Cook’s lawyers have requested a jury trial.

Heberling was head softball coach for the Sand Sharks from 2014 through 2018, when she announced she was leaving the university for an assistant coaching job at Utah State University, according to a previous USCB news release.

Cook now plays softball at Brevard College in North Carolina, Hopkins said.

The Island Packet sent requests to Cook and Heberling for comment, but neither responded.