A Hall of Fame high school football coach in Oklahoma has been hit with state charges after his players accused him of fostering a “cult-like environment,” rife with racism, toxic masculinity, and demeaning abuse.
After a lengthy probe by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, Ringling High School Head Football Coach Phillip Koons was charged with outraging public decency on Tuesday. If convicted, he could face up to a year in jail, and hundreds of dollars in fines.
According to players on the football team, the coaching staff harassed them with degrading comments during workouts and while they were in the locker room, claiming he was their “daddy” and they should consult him before ever speaking to their own parents.
“These boys were subjected to a cult-like environment where this guy would groom them, break them down to where they were at a point that they wanted to quit playing football, some of them wanting to commit suicide, and then would build them back up within that cult system and create a deal where he was the most important thing in their lives,” one of the players’ attorney, Tod Mercer, told The Daily Beast. “He would isolate them from their friends, from their family, even from their doctors.”
Along with attorney Cameron Spradling, Mercer explained that Koons would emotionally destroy his players with bouts of insults, calling Black players on the team the N-word, “porch monkey,” and “stupid African.”
Koons is also listed on the Ringling Public Schools district website as the principal of Ringling High School. According to Mercer, Koons’ wife is the school counselor, along with other family members who fill additional positions. His sons, Cooper and Sterling, are assistant football coaches, Mercer said.
“Ringling Public Schools… they created this culture of abuse and harassment, intimidation of their players for years. …Assault and physical abuse and mental torture were just part of their unofficial curriculum in the athletic department,” Spradling told The Daily Beast. “It is an environment that is like Lord of the Flies.”
Mercer provided a list of statements to The Daily Beast that a football player had made regarding their time on Koons’ team.
“Phil Koons and Sterling Koons have made racist comments about fellow teammates during football practice[,] calling a player a porch monkey, n—–, African and jigaboo,” one of the statements read. “This hurt considering you could clearly see the player getting upset. The player also came up to me and expressed how he felt targeted and singled out by his skin color.”
Along with racist slurs, Koons allegedly made fun of players’ weight, referring to some of the teens as “fat fucks” and telling them to “lay off the twinkies,” according to the player’s statements. He also allegedly referred to the residents of the town as “inbred” and called students “fuck ups” and “fucking idiots” consistently.
He also made fun of people with mental disabilities and autism, according to the statements.
Koons allegedly went on homophobic rants toward his players and those from opposing teams, repeatedly using anti-LGBTQ slurs.
“No group of society was immune from his attacks,” Mercer said. “He would attack and insult women. All races.”
Koons allegedly had inappropriate talks with players about their romantic relationships, degrading girls who dated multiple players on the team for being “sloppy seconds.”
“This got so extensive Phil, Sterling and Cooper even started naming football plays after girls in the school who had current or past relationships with a player on the team,” a statement from the player claimed.
Another statement from the player accused Koons of openly having sexual conversations with his sons (his assistant coaches) about teachers and media personnel who would come to report on the team during practices and games.
“Phil Koons, Cooper Koons and Sterling Koons have talked about teachers[’] tits, ass, body and many other humiliating things while encouraging each other in front of us like it was [a] cool thing for your coaches to be talking about your teachers like that,” the statement read.
In one instance, coaches forced the players to do burpees while naked in the locker room.
“[Koons] would often grab his junk and tell them, ‘You don’t have the balls to play for me. You gotta be a man to play for me,’” Mercer said.
The legal team for the players plan to list Cooper and Sterling as co-defendants in a civil rights lawsuit against Koons.
“I have been dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts due to Phil Koons, Sterling Koons and Cooper Koons,” the player who submitted the statements wrote in a final note. “I would dread going into practice everyday because of how they treated me and the rest of the team. … Phil preached that he was just turning us into men and making us tougher and that he was going to make us into leaders. …Being up there was like being brainwashed and conditioned every day that it was normal, and we don’t need to go to our parents because they are just going to tell us what we want to hear and wouldn’t make us any tougher. I wouldn’t wish this kind of treatment on any kids.”
Allegations first arose about Koons’ behavior before he was hired by the Ringling Board of Education in 2018, Mercer said. He explained that Koons had a controversial past—despite being an Oklahoma Football Hall of Fame coach—where he allegedly engaged in similar practices at other schools.
According to a 2016 article from Oklahoma City Public Affairs, as the head coach at a previous school, Koons told high school players—after lowering his pants and exposing himself—that they had to have a “dick” in order to play football.
“There are some coaches that can only have winning programs through threats and intimidation and fear placed into these boys, and they believe that that’s how they create a winning program,” Spradling said. “We’re talking about Oklahoma football. And as long as a coach has a winning program, we have administrators and boards of education that are willing to turn your back on what the situation is. And the casualties are these boys.”
Koons accepted the Hall of Fame coaching award in 2022 proudly saying, “It just goes to show that the kids bought into what I was doing,” according to Central Oklahoma Weeklies.
When Koons’ contract was up in Feb. 2023, parents brought their concerns to the board of education, but it was unanimously renewed, local outlet Oklahoma City 4 reported. However, the Oklahoma State Department of Education placed Koons on administrative leave later that month as a criminal investigation was launched due to parents’ complaints.
Then, Koons was reinstated at the beginning of June, just in time for football season, Mercer said, claiming the school board prioritized a winning football team over students’ safety.
“There’s really no question about it,” he said.
“[Koons] just is who he is, and [the board] knew it when they hired him,” Spradling added. “They just wanted to have a winning program, and they got that but they left a lot of damaged boys in his wake.”
Ringling Public Schools did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment Wednesday, and Koons’ legal team declined to comment.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
The Daily Beast