At first he dismissed the talk as just rumors, the wishful thinking of high school football players and their raging hormones and overactive teenage imaginations.
It was fall 2005 and the player had just worked his way into the starting lineup at Colton High School when he began to hear his teammates talk about standout players receiving “special treatment” of a sexual nature from the school’s athletic trainer Tiffany Gordon, the daughter of the Yellowjackets legendary head coach Harold Strauss, the architect of what has been described as Colton’s pipeline to the National Football League.
The players, according to court filings and interviews, even had a name for the practice: “getting spatted.”
A season later the player, by now one of the area’s top college prospects, was in the school’s training room waiting for Gordon to treat a leg injury.
“Are you ready to be a superstar?” Gordon asked as she massaged his leg, according to court documents.
She then proceeded to fondle his genitals, according to a court filing.
The player was 16 at the time.
In a series of interviews with the Southern California News Group and a lawsuit filed against Gordon and the Colton Joint Unified School District in San Bernardino County Superior Court, six former Colton players allege Gordon sexually assaulted, abused and molested them with the knowledge of Strauss and other Yellowjackets coaches over a six-year period between 2001 and 2007.
The interviews and court filing detail allegations of how Gordon routinely had sexual intercourse with and performed oral sex on players who were between the ages of 14 and 17 in the school’s locker room, training room, bathrooms, weight room and football trailer as well as at her parents’ house during weekly meetings between the coaches and top players. One player alleged in an interview and the lawsuit that Gordon had sex with him at least 50 times during his senior year at Colton High, when he was 17.
“The sheer volume of oral copulation and sexual intercourse occurring between Gordon and the minor student-athletes was not insignificant, and Defendants knew or should have known of the blatant sexual misconduct occurring between Gordon and” the players, the suit alleges.
A former player, referred to in the lawsuit at John Doe 7044, recounted in an interview and a court filing how a Colton assistant coach walked into the school’s locker room while Gordon was performing oral sex on the player.
“This coach did not stop the assault but rather, immediately left the room,” the lawsuit alleges.
Grand Terrace Athletic Director Tiffany Gordon. (Courtesy of Colton Joint Unified School District)
Gordon was performing oral sex on a player identified as John Doe 7046 in the locker room with the lights off on Halloween 2007 when Strauss entered the room, according to interviews and the lawsuit.
“When Coach Strauss made his way through the locker room, he confronted the two and asked why the lights were off,” the suit said. “Gordon made excuses, claiming they were just cleaning up and leaving.”
During the 2005 season, a photo depicting Gordon performing oral sex on a man was widely circulated among Colton High varsity players who believed the other person in the photo was one of their teammates, according to the lawsuit.
“It was later determined that the photograph actually depicted Gordon orally copulating another Colton High School coach. This event made it clear that Gordon’s sexual misconduct was pervasive and certainly not secretive,” according to the lawsuit.
“What happened at Colton High School is unacceptable,” said Brian Williams, an attorney for the alleged survivors. “While at school, students are entitled to feel safe and must be protected. School officials have an obligation to safeguard kids from sexual misconduct, and report any suspicious or improper conduct. None of that occurred in this situation and the time has come to hold those involved accountable.”
Gordon is now the athletic director at Grand Terrace High School in the CJUSD. “She went from a place of power to more power,” John Doe 7042 said. She is currently on a leave of absence, a school official said. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The CJUSD declined to say when Gordon was placed on leave or whether she is being paid while on leave.
The CJUSD has hired a Sacramento law firm to conduct an investigation into the allegations against Gordon. It is the same law firm that Mater Dei hired last year to investigate allegations of bullying and other misconduct within the school’s football and athletic programs.
“From the moment the District was presented with the allegations, we immediately took decisive action by placing the party in question on administrative leave, as well as contacting the Colton Police Department,” CJUSD spokesperson Katie Orlof said in a statement. “The District has made itself, and will continue to make itself, completely available to the Colton Police Department. The District is committed to ensuring that law enforcement has access to all of the facts and information for their investigation.
“Although the current administrative team members were not in leadership roles with the District 20 years ago, the district leadership team is extremely concerned about the allegations being made. Our commitment is always to the safety and well-being of our students, families and staff, and we will work with local law enforcement to protect our community and lend our support to any victims in this case.”
Under California law charges for misdemeanor statutory rape must be filed within one year, three-years for felony statutory rape.
SCNG does not name the survivors of sexual abuse.
The lawsuit was filed in the three-year window created by Assembly Bill 218, which was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2019 and went into effect January 1, 2020.
Under the new law, alleged survivors have a three-year period to file past claims that had expired under the state’s statute of limitations.
Alleged survivors must file civil suits within eight years of becoming an adult or three years from the date an adult survivor “discovers” or should have discovered they were sexually abused, under current California law.
Two sets of rules
Interviews conducted earlier this month with the former Colton players and court filings portray a football-obsessed school and a community more concerned about success on the gridiron and a national reputation as a launch pad to the NFL than the safety and mental health of some of the same players who put Colton on the radar of college coaches and pro scouts.
“They wanted our team to win titles and (expletive) and not make waves,” a former player, referred to in the lawsuit as John Doe 7042, said in an interview.
At Colton High, the players said, there seemed to be two sets of rules: one for Strauss, Gordon and the Yellowjackets football program and another, far more strict, set for everyone else at the school.
“It was like the football program was bigger than the school,” John Doe 7044 said in an interview.
Players and coaches talked openly on an almost daily basis about Gordon having sex with players, the former players alleged in interviews and in the lawsuit.
The “CJUSD, through its coaching staff, knew, tolerated, encouraged, and sanctioned Gordon’s conduct,” the suit alleges.
Coaches, like players, even joked about Gordon’s sex abuse, the players said in interviews and court filings.
The term “spatted,” referring to the practice of taping a player’s ankle over his shoes either for support or style, took on a new meaning at Colton. As players and coaches lined up to get into the training room or locker room they wisecracked that they were waiting to get “spatted,” their word for receiving sexual favors from Gordon, according to interviews and the lawsuit.
John Doe 7046 recalled standing in line with an assistant coach who cracked that the player was “getting spatted” before him, according to the lawsuit.
“It became like a running joke,” John Doe 7044 said. “We were not only victimized but we became the butt of a joke.”
The former players in interviews and the lawsuit also shine light on the still pervasive, if somewhat dwindling, cultural double standard of how the sexual abuse of underage males by females in positions of authority is viewed differently than men sexually abusing girls or boys.
“This is a very important story,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
Two decades after they first encountered Gordon, the former players said their lives continued to be impacted by what allegedly took place in the Colton High locker and training rooms. They have been hounded by issues with authority, trust, sex, and intimacy. They have suffered from depression.
Some players have been resistant to having relationships with women. Others said their views on sex and their trust issues have undermined marriages and long term relationships. One former player said most of his intimate relationships have been with older women. Another former player said he was so distrusting of authority figures in secluded settings that he never once visited a professor in college during office hours.
“It really changed how we looked at sex,” said John Doe 7044. “To us, this is just like a sport, we’re not connecting, just trying to find this type of feeling.”
Most of the players said they are currently in therapy to deal with issues related to their interactions with Gordon.
As they try to navigate their past they are frustrated by the reactions of many of their former Colton teammates as well as former coaches, friends and other persons close to the Yellowjackets program. Teammates who were envious and joked about Gordon and the players 20 years ago still continue to fail to see the harm in a female authority figure allegedly providing standout players sexual favors, the former players said.
“My biggest frustration,” said John Doe 7045. “I’m tired of the narrative of ‘Oh, you were boys, you knew what you were doing. It’s OK.’
“It’s not OK. It’s wrong. If I’m the (athletic director) is it OK if I do this to some girl at the school?” Doe 7045, who like five of the players is Black, continued. “No, they would put me under the jail.
“But because I was a boy and she was a woman it’s, ‘Oh, no big deal.’ No, it is a big deal. It’s not OK for kids to have to go through it.”
It is a mindset not limited to Colton, experts said.
“It is accepted by many people,” said Charol Shakeshaft, a Virginia Commonwealth University researcher and professor, who in 2004 published Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature for the U.S. Department of Education.
“The assumption is based on the stereotype that all boys care about is sex and that any kind of sex is fine and then what’s the harm? It’s what they wanted anyway and it’s based on the stereotype of boys of hormones in overdrive and what’s the big deal here? And the big deal is that this isn’t about sex at all. This is about betrayal and power. And it’s about the betrayal of a person, in this case students, by a person who has power over them and for them, to help them. And they’re supposed to be able to feel safe around the adults in schools and athletics and to have these adults looking out for their best interests and this is a betrayal of the trust they have in adults.”
The former players and their attorneys maintain in interviews and the lawsuit the cultural acceptance at Colton High School, especially within the football program, enabled Gordon’s alleged predatory behavior.
“Historically, it has been easy for society to downplay the power of a female sex assault perpetrator over boys. In reality, we know the power of a female predator is particularly insidious and dangerous to children,” said Mike Reck, an attorney for the alleged survivors. “The alleged perpetrator here leveraged her position of power over these boys to choreograph her own depraved desires upon them. Not only did she count on the cultural pressure on teenage boys to never turn down sex, Ms. Strauss-Gorden was instilled with the institutional authority of Colton High School’s athletic department and its revered football coach, her father. She gained intimate physical access to the boys through her position as athletic trainer and played their innocence, their hormones, and their love of football against them. Point blank, these boys never stood a chance and the one adult who was most supposed to protect these athletes most was the father of the offender.”
Colton High School varsity football head coach Harold Strauss is pictured in 2004. Strauss’ daughter Tiffany Gordon was the school’s trainer at the time. Strauss died at age 60 in 2019. (Photo by Silvia Flores,The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Harold Strauss, a massive man with an even bigger grin, was a larger-than-life figure at Colton.
“He ran it,” John Doe 7042 said. “He ran the show. He had say over anything and everything.”
Strauss coached high school football in Oregon and Washington before returning to Bloomington, an unincorporated section of San Bernardino County where he grew up. He coached 18 seasons at Bloomington Christian winning a pair of CIF Southern Section titles
But it was at Colton where he literally put his program on the national map.
Season after season the Yellowjackets won running Strauss’ gimmick single wing and double wing offenses gleaned from the decades old playbooks and Rose Bowl tapes he found online, and with a steady stream of talent headed to Power 5 conference schools and the NFL.
Strauss kept a map of the U.S. behind his office desk. Pins on the map represented the places his athletes had played.
Often those pins landed in places like New York, Baltimore, Kansas City and the NFL. Six players from Colton, a school with less than 2,000 students, were on NFL rosters during both the 2014 and 2015 seasons. A year later, 10 former Colton players were invited to NFL training camps. Colton’s 2005 roster included six future NFL players.
Strauss, who died at age 60 in December 2019, once told the Inland Empire Community News he viewed his players as family.
“Coaches are like psychologists,” he said. “You get into your player’s lives like a parent. When they hurt, I hurt.”
But Strauss wasn’t there for the players when they needed him most, the former players and their attorneys said.
“If the genders were reversed, the response would be undoubtedly different,” said Jemma Dunn, an attorney for the alleged survivors. “This is not only unfair, but fails to recognize the damages caused and silences male survivors. These men were in their most formative adolescent years and should have been able to trust those in authority; both their trainer who, as an adult, took advantage of their adolescence, and the coaches and staff around them, who encouraged it. The law does not distinguish between genders and neither should we. They deserved better.”
Tiffany Gordon joined her father at Colton shortly after he took over as head coach in 2000.
Gordon had a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from Cal State San Bernardino and a master’s in education and a teaching credential from the University of Phoenix, according to the CJUSD.
But Gordon’s primary credential, the former players said, was that she was Harold Strauss’ daughter.
“Tiffany really had carte blanche over the program,” John Doe 7042 said. “She had a lot of authority.”
While each child sex abuse case is unique, researchers have been able to develop profiles of certain types of child predators.
“Some abusers we don’t know why or how are kind of hardwired to sexual interest in children or 8-year-olds or in blondes or in whatever and so we call those people pedophiles even though that’s not an accurate name,” said Shakeshaft, speaking in general. She declined to speak on the specifics of the Colton case. “But it has to do with what their focus is.
“An opportunistic abuser is someone who takes advantage of a situation. They may not be particularly interested one way or another in high school boys per se but takes advantage of a situation where they have access to kids and they are able to through charm, persuasion, whatever get them involved in a sexual act.
“Very often the adults who sexually abuse high school kids are not preferential abusers. They’re opportunistic abusers. They just take advantage of whatever situation comes about.“
Gordon not only had opportunity, the former players and their attorneys allege in interviews and the lawsuit, she also used her position as trainer and as Strauss’ daughter as leverage in pursuing sexual acts with the minor-aged boys.
“There is no real difference than if it was a teacher or a priest or anybody in authority,” said sex therapist Stephen Braveman, a leading expert on the sexual abuse of boys by adult women. “When somebody in authority they’re supposed to listen to them and do what they are told and it’s hard to say no even when they think something is a little wrong about this.
“She’s a trainer and she’s training them how to be successful and win and all. If you can be good at sex you can be good (at sports).
“The power dynamic is definitely there.”
Harold Strauss, head football coach at Colton High School overlooks football practice in 2009. (Photo by Rodrigo Pena, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
John Doe 7042 was Gordon’s first alleged victim, according to the lawsuit.
He was first introduced to Gordon as a freshman in 2001 when he was promoted to the varsity of the CIF playoffs.
“Under the guise of providing medical treatment and physical therapy, Gordon took advantage of John Doe 7042 during treatments and sexually assaulted him by repeatedly brushing her hand against John Doe 7042’s groin and penis,” according to the lawsuit.
The player was 14 at the time.
“I was taken back by it because it was forward as hell,” the player said.
Gordon’s abuse escalated to fondling and performing oral sex on the player until weeks later he returned to the locker room during practice to retrieve items from his locker. Gordon was in the locker room and the pair had sex “while his teammates were practicing,” according to the lawsuit.
“It was like I was put on a freeway in the wrong direction,” the player said. “Put on the freeway and I didn’t even have a license.”
Once Doe 7042 was sleeping in a van carrying him and his teammates to a football camp in Oregon when he awoke to find Gordon performing oral sex on him, according to the lawsuit.
“I woke up shocked,” he said.
But if his teammates noticed no one said anything.
“It wasn’t out of the ordinary,” Doe 7042 said.
Gordon continued to have sex with the teenager through the remainder of his high school career.
“At the time I was, ‘It’s cool,’ because you were supposed to feel like it was cool,” the player said. “But it definitely didn’t feel like it was supposed to be happening.”
John Doe 7047 was introduced to Gordon by John Doe 7042.
Doe 7047 was promoted to varsity as a sophomore in 2001. It was during this time that he began receiving regular therapy and treatment from Gordon “in the unsupervised areas” of the locker and training rooms, according to the lawsuit.
“As John Doe 7047 excelled in his athletic skills, John Doe 7047’s interactions with Gordon became more frequent,” the lawsuit said.” Gordon became increasingly flirtatious, displayed outward favoritism, started inappropriately touching and fondling John Doe 7047’s genitals on CJUSD property.”
The following year, when Doe 7047 was 16, Gordon began having intercourse and oral sex with the player in the training room and at her home, a pattern that continued throughout his time at Colton High, according to the suit.
“Almost immediately” after transferring to Colton in the fall of 2003, John Doe 7043 began hearing rumors of inappropriate sexual misconduct between Gordon and other minor student-athletes, according to the suit.
“On one occasion, John Doe 7043 walked into the training room, abruptly startling Gordon and John Doe 7047, a star player of the Yellowjackets, who appeared to be in a compromising position,” the lawsuit said.
Later that season Gordon took Doe 7043 on a date to a local drive-in theater. She began kissing the player, who was 17 at the time, and then performed oral sex on him in the backseat of her car, according to the lawsuit.
She would later have sexual intercourse with the player at different locations at the school and her father’s house during the weekly “Captains’ Dinners” between the team’s captains and the coaching staff, the lawsuit said.
John Doe 7044 also started hearing rumors about Gordon’s alleged sexual misconduct shortly after enrolling at Colton High in 2002.
“It was just the environment and all around it that was super sexually charged.”
During a Captains’ Dinner his senior year he said he witnessed Gordon “disappear” with another player. Shortly thereafter Doe 7044 sent her a text confronting her about having oral sex with players, he said.
“I was expecting her to go scorched earth on me,” Doe 7044 recalled. “Instead of shutting it down she said send me a photo of your penis.”
Gordon responded by texting the player a nude photo of herself with the message that they needed “to take care of this” the next day, according to the lawsuit.
The following day Gordon gave Doe 7044 a massage for the first time and when the locker room was empty performed oral sex on him.
The player was 17 at the time and had not been sexually active he said. But shortly after the first encounter, he and Gordon were having sex “almost daily,” the former player said.
The former player said he thought Gordon would help him by making sure the coaching staff mentioned him to college coaches. “She would make sure they sent film out, called those coaches. Instead, I was getting Jerry Sanduskyed,” the former player said, referring to the former Penn State assistant coach who was convicted for molesting boys. Some of Sandusky’s sexual abuse took place in the Penn State locker room.
“The focus was shifted from working out to trying to find places to have sex with Tiff,” Doe 7044 continued.
When rumors about Gordon and the player having sex started spreading during his senior year, Gordon told him to change the name attached to her telephone number on his cell phone and put a photo of an African American girl on the contact page, the former player said.
Gordon began fondling John Doe 7045 during treatment his freshman season, according to the lawsuit. During his junior season, Gordon had sex with him 20 times, according to the lawsuit. Gordon continued to have sex with Doe 7045 during his senior season including at Captains’ Dinners in which she “would regularly pull” him aside to have “unprotected sex in her bedroom” at her parents’ house, the lawsuit alleged.
Doe 7045 said his interactions with Gordon shaped how he viewed sex and relationships.
“It felt normal to have sex and not have a relationship and think it’s OK to have sex and not text them or talk to them until you want it again,” the player said.
Realizing it was not normal
But over time, the former players said they began to realize that their interactions with Gordon were not normal. Some of them might have bragged about having sex with Gordon or high-fived teammates after allegedly getting spatted. But as they struggled in their relationships, in their marriages, had issues with their bosses, had trust issues with just about anybody in authority, they began to see what happened in high school in a different light.
“At that time it might not seem like a problem,” Braveman said. “How could it be abuse? If nothing happens they just move on, they graduate, nobody ever says anything about it. Years later they may not think anything of it until they have kids and of the same age and then they go, ‘Oh, that’s how old I was. Oh my god, I was victimized at that age.’
“If nothing else, society says it’s against the law. So they were victims. A law was broken and they were victims. And then you get back to your niece, your nephew, your son, would you want this to happen to them? They’re a victim, whether they felt victimized or not.”
Doe 7045 was in a sociology class in college. Sex abuse was part of the course’s focus.
“That’s when I realized I was molested,” the former player said. “I was like ‘dang, that feels a lot like what happened to me.’
“That’s when I understood what happened to me wasn’t right. It kind of dawned on me in college that these things change kids and how they deal with the world.”
But for the most part, the former players kept their feelings to themselves.
“It’s one thing for this to be with a Mrs. Robinson next door,” Finkelhor said. “But when you have a religious authority figure, a venerated school teacher, this is a coach, a doctor, all those roles complicate the problem. They make it harder to talk about, to sort it out.
“And a lot of people don’t want you to talk about it. You are going to be upset that you’re talking about this respected person.”
Eventually, they began talking about their high school experiences in therapy.
“It was a multitude of things,” Doe 7042 said. “Relationships, my insecurities with how I was interacting with other people in relationships.
“Part of the reason I had to go to therapy was because this fake porn (sex) sent me into real life with no real experience.”
Doe 7042, like his teammates, hoped Gordon would acknowledge that what allegedly took place two decades ago was wrong.
About a year and a half ago, Doe 7042 visited Gordon at Grand Terrace High School.
“I wanted to see if she had any remorse,” he said. “I went there under the guise of whether there were any coaching jobs at Grand Terrace. I talked about it in therapy. I was looking for some form of closure or something that made me feel less like (expletive) and I got just the opposite.”
Gordon, the former player said, showed no remorse.
“Be a human being toward another human being,” he said, “and not just treat them as a piece of meat.”
Ultimately it was Doe 7042’s son who prompted him to step forward and talk about the case publicly. His son is 10 years old. In four years he will be a 14-year-old freshman at Grand Terrace High School, the same age his father was when he encountered Gordon.
“A large part of this is for it to stop, to change the future, to change the culture,” he said. “I think about my son. It has to stop. My adolescence was taken from me. My childhood was taken. I was a kid.
“I was taken advantage of as a kid. I was broken, had my legs taken out from underneath me and it’s taken a long time to stand again.”