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KU Investigation: 6 Female Athletes Say They Were Inappropriately Touched By Massage Therapist

Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service

At least six female athletes at the University of Kansas reported they experienced unwanted touching from a massage therapist who was recently charged with a child sex crime, the school said Tuesday. 

Investigators also discovered that an athletic trainer knew of “unwarranted and unwanted touching” by Shawn O’Brien, but the school said in an email to staff and students that the trainer did not “appropriately report the conduct, as it is required by the university.”

KU started an internal investigation into O’Brien, 48, after he was charged with indecent liberties with a child younger than 14 in his home. TheLawrence Journal-World has reported that the incident occurred in 2013, but the child didn’t tell a state social worker until 2018.

According to contracts between O’Brien and the KU athletics department obtained by the Kansas News Service, O’Brien provided massage services starting in 2015 for the women’s basketball team. That eventually expanded to tennis, softball and soccer. His contracts were terminated earlier this year when KU learned of the sex-crime charge.

The school also said that O’Brien, who owned a massage business in Lawrence, provided free massages to the student population at the KU Alumni Association’s Finals Dinner beginning in 2011 and as recently as fall 2019. O’Brien also provided gift cards for off-campus massages at his business in Lawrence, Medissage-Kamehameha Massage, LLC. KU said that local police are investigating.

O’Brien’s lawyer, Philip R. Sedgwick of Kansas City, Kansas, told the Kansas News Service on Tuesday that his client denies the new allegations, as well as the charge O’Brien faces in Douglas County District Court. 

“I’m certain that we’ll be able to present that when it comes to trial,” Sedgwick said, adding, “I think it’s sad we tend to presume he’s guilty.”

KU Chancellor Doug Girod and Athletics Director Jeff Long said in the release that the school has interviewed nearly 40 student-athletes and seven staff members. It has filed Clery Act reports for all of the allegations of unwanted touching. The Clery Act requires colleges and universities that receive federal funds to keep and disclose crime statistics.

Other universities have faced scandals regarding medical staff and athletes, notablyMichigan State, where a doctor who also worked for USA Gymnastics admitted sexually assaulting female patients for decades, and Ohio State, where a physician sexually abusedmale student-athletes.

KU is asking for anyone affiliated with the school who has information about O’Brien to contact its Office of Institutional Opportunity & Access or KU Public Safety. It also said its “numerous protocols” in reporting inappropriate behavior were “not followed,” and the school is “committed to strengthening education efforts of all staff and student-athletes in this area of mandatory reporting.”

Correction: O'Brien's first contract with the KU athletics department was in 2015, not 2012.

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @stevebisaha

Erica Hunzinger is the news editor for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @ehunzinger.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Stephan Bisaha is a former NPR Kroc Fellow. Along with producing Weekend Edition, Stephan has reported on national stories for Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as other NPR programs. He provided data analysis for an investigation into the Department of Veteran Affairs and reported on topics ranging from Emojis to mattresses.
Erica Hunzinger is the news editor for the Kansas News Service.
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