After LSU women’s tennis Co-Head Coach Julia Sell gained national spotlight for allegedly ignoring reports that one of her players was a victim of rape, former LSU tennis players have come forward to describe the “toxic” culture of Sell’s program.
Seven former players and one parent of a former player described Sell similarly, alleging that she is a compulsive liar who divides her team and tears down her players. Three spoke on the record, and four spoke anonymously.
Three of those players were on the 2012-2013 team. They confirmed to The Reveille that Sell knew one of her players had been domestically abused in fall 2012, though it is unclear if she reported the alleged assault as mandated by Title IX laws.
In fall 2012, a player called the police after witnessing a teammate’s boyfriend commit domestic violence during a Saturday night team outing at a Tigerland bar, the players said. According to the three players, Sell held a team meeting about the incident on the following Monday, when she directed anger at the player who called police.
The incident occurred during Julia Sell’s first semester at the helm of the program. Keri Frankenberger was a senior on that team. Her experience under Sell is consistent with accounts of two of her teammates, as well as those of four players who succeeded her.
“She's foul,” Frankenberger said. “Any other coaches around the country who have met her will agree. I do not feel even remotely a part of LSU anymore because of her.”
USA Today published an article in November detailing how LSU and the athletics department mishandled knowledge of students’ sexual assault cases, including two cases in which Sell knew of her players’ assaults and allegedly did not report them.
Sell played collegiate tennis at the University of Florida and worked as an assistant coach for UTSA before arriving in Baton Rouge. She has led the Tigers to six straight appearances in the SEC quarterfinals and the NCAA tournament. Her contract, which pays her $115,000 a year, expires in June 2021. Sell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“She's just toxic. Just a bad, bad person,” one former player said. “I would never want you to play for Julia Sell.”
Kennan Johnson wanted to be a Tiger so badly that she cried on her official recruiting visit to LSU.
At least that’s what Julia Sell said in a video posted to Facebook in May 2017, shortly after Johnson learned that her dream school had awarded her a scholarship.
Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Johnson hung around LSU’s women’s tennis team in high school. She went to all the matches, befriended players, trained with them and fell in love with the program. Her mother even played tennis for the Tigers in the ‘90s, and her father played hoops.
But when it was time for college, Johnson initially had to take her talents elsewhere. She enrolled at two different universities before finally seizing an opportunity to return to a familiar environment. At LSU, Johnson was home.
In that Facebook video about her scholarship, Johnson, surrounded by her teammates on LSU’s tennis courts, opens an envelope. To her surprise, it was her scholarship offer. The team shrieks and embraces her in a group hug. As Johnson looks down at the paper, tears well in her eyes, and she beams from ear to ear. The team dances to “Callin’ Baton Rouge.” It was a joyous occasion.
But that jubilation soon faded, and Johnson’s relationship with Sell quickly soured. If she could go back, Johnson said, she wouldn’t accept the scholarship.
“It was a very toxic environment,” she said.
Johnson, who grew up with a single mother and lived with her grandparents, needed that scholarship to attend LSU. She said Sell frequently dangled it over her head, threatening to take it away if she didn’t meet expectations. Johnson also said Sell told her at one point to keep her “lifestyle” out of the locker room, referring to her homosexuality, lest she make teammates “uncomfortable” or become a “distraction.”
“I constantly felt like I was an issue,” Johnson said.
Sell would frequently lie to her players, seven interviewed players said. Two women recounted that Sell told one player that another had said hurtful comments about them. The players’ relationship grew cold for a while, until later, when they discovered that Sell had lied. Those two women were Johnson and Jade Lewis.
“She has a way of twisting stories and pinning people against each other,” Johnson said. “She wants to be in control. She needs to be in control.”
“I have heard that from the other girls,” Lewis said. “It has happened before.”
When Johnson was still in high school, she attended one LSU tennis senior day. She and her mother had befriended one senior on the team. Johnson picked up a poster commemorating the event, cut out a photo of the player, wrote a nice letter to pair with it and sent it to the senior. Johnson said that Sell later told her the senior ripped up the letter and threw it away, thinking the gesture was funny and childish. Johnson and the senior both told The Reveille that Sell fabricated that story. Johnson called the alleged lie “malicious and disgusting.”
“Any drama that did go on throughout the team,” Lewis said, “it was Julia [Sell], probably stirring the pot.”
Sell turned Johnson’s dream into a nightmare. She said she dreaded going to practice and playing matches because she felt she wasn’t supported, valued or appreciated for who she was.
“You shouldn't go play a sport you love at your dream school,” she said, “and leave wishing you never went there.”
Johnson graduated in May 2019, and in November 2020 she marched with the LSU community to protest how the university and athletics department handled reports of sexual assault cases. At the protest, Johnson stood at the entrance to the PMAC, the stadium where her father once played basketball, before a crowd of several hundred. When she called for the Sells to be fired, the crowd cheered and applauded. She recalled her time playing for LSU and the tears of joy she shed along the way, when she visited, when she earned a scholarship and even when she graduated.
“I was crying because I was honestly so glad it was over,” Johnson said about her graduation in an interview. “And that’s just sad to say. I was glad it was over, almost like a weight lifted off my shoulders.”
“It was like, ‘Yes, okay, I don’t have these chains on me anymore.’ I don’t have to be something I’m not.”
Frankenberger, a senior during Sell’s first season, suffered injuries while being coached by Sell. She said that Sell told the trainers that she and another player on the team were faking their injuries, though both players had played every match and suffered injuries throughout their time on the team.
“She was extremely manipulative,” Frankenberger said. “She would lie to some girls and talk behind their backs and tell them that one girl on the team would say something bad about the other just to start hostility. She kind of acted like a child.”
Frankenberger said Sell made her senior year a “living hell.” She said Sell played favorites on the team and treated those players differently from other members of the team. Frankenberger said Sell would buy food and coffee for her favorites on trips but wouldn’t for the rest of the team.
“She would have secret meetings with them and talk badly about us,” Frankenberger said. “She would have them kind of spy on us to see if we said anything bad about her. We eventually had a team that was split down the middle. It was very divisive.”
Another former player who witnessed Sell’s favoritism during her time on the team attested to Frankenberger’s stories.
“If you’re not the type to kiss up to her and give her what she’s looking for, that ego trip,” the former player said, “then she had no mercy turning on you and having others turning on you and spreading false things about people to ruin your reputation.”
One former player described Sell as cold and intimidating.
The former player was coached by Sell for one year and described the culture of the team that year as “toxic.” She suffered injuries that year and said Sell didn’t seem to care.
“I would describe her as cold,” the former player said. “She's not going to be the bubbly, friendly person. She's cold and hard.”
She said the team was excited to have Sell as coach when she first came to LSU. The players were happy to have a young, female coach and expected her to encourage and lead them. As the season progressed, she found Sell to be a “compulsive liar.”
“She was never in my court. She was never helping me,” the former player said. “She was never giving me any kind of encouragement.”
Sell stole her love of tennis from her, and she said after that year under Sell she needed a break from the sport.
“Tennis has been my life since I was five years old. I thought I would be really devastated to be done with it and graduate from LSU,” she said. “But after Julia, it was a relief to be gone, which is sad.”
One former player, who spoke to USA Today with her experience of how LSU handled her rape case, told the Reveille that she reported her rape when she went into rehab. She said her dad and counselor both reported it to LSU, and her dad spoke to Sell about it personally.
She said Sell was very supportive about her recovery in rehab and even sent her letters while she was there. But when her dad told Sell that his daughter had been raped, he received an entirely different side of the coach.
“She straight up said to him, ‘I don’t believe her,’” the former player said.
She said after that, the family never spoke to Sell again.
“You would think that Julia ]Sell] would at least have been put on temporary leave,” she said. “But I don’t even know if they’re going to fire her.”
The former player was in rehab during her senior day match when the team read tributes to each senior. Sell sent her a transcript of the event and told her they still announced her part of the transcript, even though she wasn’t there.
Johnson and another friend both told her that her name was never mentioned in the announcements.
The former player’s father said Sell was constantly focused on his daughter’s weight — if she was losing weight, gaining too much weight, if she was too fast or too slow. The player said Sell’s criticism of her weight was a constant occurrence in front of her and one of her teammates, who the player said had a medical condition that caused her to gain weight.
“And for somebody who has an eating problem, an eating disorder, that really screwed her up,” the father said. “There’s no doubt about it that Julia did that constantly from the time that [the player] arrived on campus — criticized her weight.”
The former player said that Sell once had the “skinniest” player on the team stand in front of the rest of the team and do squats. Then, Sell gave her a 15-pound weight and asked the player to do squats again. She then asked the player which squats were easier — with weights or without.
“We knew she was talking about us,” the player said, referring to her and her teammate. “So that sucked.”
The player came into college with what she described as disordered eating habits and body image issues. She said her coach was aware of this as early as her freshman season, when Sell called the player's parents to tell them their daughter had an eating disorder.
By the time she left the team, she said she had a “full-blown” eating disorder. The player said the environment of the tennis team pushed her disordered eating habits along and incidents like the squats “elevated” her eating disorder. Her father said it was horrible to watch Sell treat his daughter the way she did.
“I would say that [Julia] was mean-spirited,” he said in an interview. “I would say that she was belittling to my daughter and to me on a couple of occasions.”
He said he received phone calls from Sell at least once and sometimes twice per week about his daughter’s weight and lack of motivation to practice. He described the calls as “tattling.”
“I think it hurt her mental health to be treated like that by Julia [Sell],” he said. “I think that it made her doubt herself. I think it made her doubt her ability to play tennis.”
The former player also said there was about a month when Sell made her and two of her teammates do sprints at 5 a.m. three times a week with no explanation.
“She just didn’t like us,” the former player said. “Obviously she didn’t say that, but we were her least favorites. The people she doesn’t like, she just makes them do extra; she yells at them at practice and is on them about the small, small things.”
One gameday, the former player and her roommate both had their cars towed and were late to practice because of it. Sell made her do a punishment workout, the player said, but not her roommate.
The player said she saw no warning signs of the treatment she would later receive from Sell while she was being recruited. She was excited to play for a young, female coach at an SEC school. But once she began playing for Sell, that excitement faded.
“My whole time there, the team was always very divided,” she said. “We were never a cohesive unit. I think that was partially due to her.”
During one season, the player said, she was very unhappy and felt like she wasn’t acting like herself and began drinking and taking prescription drugs recreationally. She said she told Sell about the drug and alcohol use because she felt like she didn’t know where else to turn to. She thought her coach could help.
“She just sent me off to the therapist and tried to put me on antidepressants and that’s it,” she said.
Still, that season the former player said she had her “best season.” She said Sell never brought up the problems she was facing again, until their postseason meeting.
“You let your team down this year,” she said Sell told her, though the former player didn’t lose a single SEC match.
“She just breezed right by the personal issues I was having because I was doing well on the court,” the player said. “I never felt valued as a person.”
The player said she worked very hard that season to do well and was proud of herself for what she had accomplished, but after Sell’s comment, she felt like she could never win with her coach. She felt like she could never please her.
“If I did something wrong, I would hear about it, obviously,” she said. “But if I was doing things well, nothing. Not a word from her.”