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Lawsuit Claims Bullying, Verbal Abuse Led to UC San Diego Athlete's Suicide

Brian Lilly Jr., 19, died in January. His parents claim their son had no mental health issues before his rowing coach “demoralized” him

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Parents of a UC San Diego athlete are suing the school and the head rowing coach over allegations of bullying and abuse that they say went unchecked by the institution and led to their son’s death.

“We would like to give Brain a voice,” Brian Lilly Sr. said. “People need to know what happened to my son."

Brian Lilly Jr., 19, died by suicide on January 4 -- five days after his parents helped him move into an apartment near the college for the spring semester.

“This was a complete shock to us. We never, ever, ever would have in any way left UCSD after five days being with him if we thought for a minute that he was not in a good place and certainly if he was in any way in fragile mental health,” Brenda Lilly said.

Brian Lilly’s parents describe him as an empathetic underdog who overcame many obstacles growing up -- from rheumatoid arthritis at age six to weight issues in middle school.

“He was a friend to everyone, he adored life. He was a vivacious young, enthusiastic college student,” Brenda Lilly said.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Brian Lilly's parents said the UCSD rower had the mental fortitude and physical strength to take on any challenge -- except his coach, Geoff Bond.

“He fat-shamed him. He called him ‘fat Brian’ multiple times,” Brenda Lilly said. “He knew that Brian had had a weight issue in his youth and that was something that he had worked very, very hard on and was really proud of clean eating and he really espoused that because it changed his life.”

Bond was named head coach in October 2019, the same year Brian Lilly -- a Scarsdale, New York native -- joined the varsity team as a freshman. Earlier that year, Bond was head coach at the University of Pennsylvania. According to the lawsuit, Bond was forced to step down there after team members threatened to quit. UPenn announced Bond’s departure but did not detail why.

“He's a repeat offender, he had a problem at UPenn and that didn't turn out well for Bond and it's documented,” Brian Lilly Sr. said.

Brian Lilly and Bond’s relationship deteriorated significantly during the 2020 Spring semester, the Lillys claim.

In a wrongful death lawsuit filed Thursday, it alleges that Lilly was bullied, verbally abused and retaliated against by coach Geoff Bond. The “social ostracism,” continued after Brian Lilly questioned why another rower was allowed stay on the team while undergoing an unrelated sexual assault investigation.

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The suit also alleges that Bond and an assistant coach knew about the sexual allegations but failed to report it, as mandated under Title IX, despite both coaches telling Brian Lilly that they had.

In January 2020, Brian Lilly told Bond and the assistant coach that he was suffering emotionally and mentally over the accused teammate’s “unchecked conduct and the coaches’ failure to take action regarding the allegations,” the lawsuit says.

“Then he became persona non grata to Bond and then anyone who was under Bond’s control,” family attorney Nicholas Lewis said. “He was given the cold shoulder or if he got any attention, it was completely negative, insulting and debasing him; make him feel like he was not part of the team and not a real a man or a real rower.”

Brian Lilly had been demoted to a developmental boat even though his score was above that position, his parents said. They also put him in the same boat with the athlete he reported—making it more uncomfortable for Brian Lilly, his parents said.

“The school failed Brian, OK. We don't want that to happen to anyone else. At this point, the best thing is for Geoff Bond to be taken out of coaching,” Brenda Lilly said.

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A week before his death, His parents said Brian Lilly emailed coach Bond to opt out of rowing for the semester because of COVID. Brian Lilly told his dad he was surprised the coach never responded.

“It doesn't sound like a lot, but it is very impactful, and it can weigh on a person," Brian Lilly said. "My son mentioned it to me for a reason because it bothered him. And that was right near the end.”

Bond would glorify athletes who trained until they threw up, the Lillys said. Brian, trying to appease the coach, would push his body to the limit. They claim there was a pattern of mind games. Once, while completing an intense, non-stop 200m practice on a row machine, Brian threw up.

“So he finishes the piece, his friend gives him the paper towels, he's cleaning up and you know what coach Bond says, he says to my son, ‘Throwing up is for sissies.” You want to talk about breaking a kid down, after he was just working so hard that he threw up on the machine,” Brian Lilly Sr. said.

“It's psychological torment. These kids don't know what to do. You know, they honor him. They want to do everything that he tells them to do,” Brenda Lilly said. “Brian did not have any mental health issues before he met Geoff Bond.”

The Lillys explained that in the sports world, parents don’t confront coaches or raise concerns out of fear of their kids being retaliated against by coaches or teammates.

“If you do that, the athlete is immediately blackballed and considered that they are violating the trust of the coach. And that's it. And Brian said that to us many times. He said, ‘I'll be off the team immediately. You can't do this.'”

The university turned a blind eye to this. It wasn’t that the University didn’t see the signs. They ignored the signs.

Attorney Andrew Miltenberg

When asked about the allegations, UCSD said in a statement:

“We are very sorry for the Lillys’ loss, but we are unable to comment on pending legal matters and Title IX matters are confidential."

NBC 7 emailed coach Bond asking for comment and did not get a response.

“You don't have to just be Larry Nassar at Michigan State to damage people. You don't have to be the football coaches at Penn State to damage people,” attorney Andrew Miltenberg said.

“The university turned a blind eye to this,” Miltenberg said. “It wasn’t that the University didn’t see the signs. They ignored the signs.”

Since February, Lilly's parents said they haven’t heard any updates on the investigation and never received condolences from coach Bond after Brian Lilly’s death. They’re asking supporters to call the UCSD president and demand answers.

The lawsuit is requesting the coach be fired and are seeking undisclosed economic damages. The parents are also requesting that Bond be placed on administrative leave during the investigation.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

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