$14m settlement for California water polo players who accused coach of sexual abuse

The players sued the club and national association over coach Bahram Hojreh

Twelve female water polo players in California who have accused their former coach of sexually abusing them when they were minors have reached a settlement of €13.85 million (€11.35 million) in a lawsuit they brought against two organisations they say failed to protect them.

The players sued USA Water Polo, which sanctions local clubs in the sport, and International Water Polo Club, a club in Los Alamitos, a city in Orange County, California, that was led by the coach, Bahram Hojreh.

In the lawsuit, the 12 players said that from 2012 through 2017, Hojreh abused them during what were supposed to be one-on-one coaching sessions in the water. During these sessions, the players contend, he grabbed their breasts and reached under their bathing suits and sexually assaulted them, according to the lawsuit.

Hojreh told the players that they needed to fight him off, the players said, and that what he was doing was showing them techniques they would have to deal with while playing in college.

Hojreh, 45, also faces nearly three dozen criminal charges in connection with the allegations. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. The settlement in the civil case was filed in Orange County Superior Court on Friday, according to Morgan Stewart, a lawyer representing 11 of the plaintiffs. Money for the settlement will be paid by the insurance company that represents both USA Water Polo and International Water Polo Club, he said.

In a statement Monday, Christopher Ramsey, chief executive for USA Water Polo, said: "We have heard the plaintiffs' testimony, and their allegations are heartbreaking." He said he hoped the settlement "allows them to begin a new chapter in their lives."

An email message sent to the International Water Polo Club on Monday night was answered by Mark Hojreh, who identified himself as the former coach's brother and one of his personal lawyers. Mark Hojreh said his brother had always denied the allegations but added: "I cannot go into the details of the evidence that would prove his innocence." He also said the insurance company agreed to the settlement without the consent of the International Water Polo Club.

Stewart said in an interview on Monday that the lawsuit highlighted the need for systemic change in how the sport was governed. USA Water Polo, he said, collects fees and club memberships from the clubs they sanction, “but then they refuse to supervise and they refuse to really train in any meaningful manner these club teams and their president.” That situation “creates an unreasonable risk to minors participating in club programmes,” Stewart said. “You’re going to create an environment that might be ripe for sexual abuse.”

Bahram Hojreh also coached water polo at schools in the cities of Irvine and Anaheim; Stewart said lawsuits against the schools stemming from Hojreh's behaviour there were still pending. The 34 criminal charges that Hojreh is facing in Orange County stemming from the allegations made by the 12 players in his club include nine counts of sexual battery involving an unconscious person and one count of performing a lewd or lascivious act with a child under 14.

John D Barnett, Hojreh's lawyer in the criminal case, declined on Monday to comment on the settlement. The plaintiffs were all members of Hojreh's club. The abuse occurred between 2012 and 2017, when the players were minors – some as young as 13 or 14, Stewart said. In 2017, allegations surfaced that players in the club were assaulting opponents during matches – deploying the manoeuvres that Hojreh had demonstrated on them, according to Stewart.

USA Water Polo said it first learned of the allegations against Hojreh in January 2018. That is when the organisation was contacted by the US Center for SafeSport, the independent watchdog created jointly by Congress and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee to investigate sexual abuse allegations in the Olympic sports. "Upon being notified by the Center, USAWP immediately suspended Hojreh's membership," USA Water Polo said in a statement.

Stewart said Hojreh presented himself to players and their parents as a major figure in the world of water polo. That perception was instrumental to his abusive behaviour, according to Stewart. Hojreh told his players that they had to endure the sexual assault in order to play at a higher level, Stewart said. “And that’s how he kept them silent for a number of years, by basically threatening their future careers.”

The settlement comes at a time when sports coaches and administrators have increasingly been called out for abusive behaviour. In 2018, Dr Larry Nassar, the former sports medicine doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, was sentenced to 40 years to 125 years in prison for sexually assaulting gymnasts in his care.

That case eventually led to charges of human trafficking and sexual assault being filed in 2021 against a coach of the 2012 women's Olympic team, John Geddert, who killed himself a short time later. And in 2020, the president of the French Federation of Ice Sports, Didier Gailhaguet, resigned after several underage figure skaters accused their coaches of rape and sexual abuse. – New York Times