What’s a Great University to Do?

Posted in: Featured, Moore Thoughts | By: | February 04, 2013

Whenever one of his football players has done something improper and in public, University of Texas head football coach Mack Brown tries to put an end to the controversy by saying, “We’ll deal with this like a family, privately, and keep it in our house.” The tactic is reasonable for a coach managing young people but it ignores the actual size of the UT family, and it raises the question of what obligations Brown has to the alums that write big donor checks, as well as the faithful fans who buy tickets and cheer the old school.

Just keeping it in the family can create new problems.

It's a Family Affair

It’s a Family Affair

A little more than a month after two of his players were sent home from the Alamo Bowl when an unnamed woman accused them of sexual assault in a hotel room, Brown now has before him a story that he’s kept in “the family” for four years. Former Longhorn quarterback and assistant coach Major Applewhite has acknowledged a sexual indiscretion outside of his marriage during the 2009 Fiesta Bowl appearance by UT. According to a number of sports writers doing simple math, Applewhite and his wife had a daughter born in January 2009, which means Applewhite was messing around just as he was about to become a father. This might make the Opie-faced country boy something more than a basic cad.

A Minor Problem for Major?

A Minor Problem for Major?

The university announced that it was aware of the situation, Applewhite had been disciplined, and he was undergoing counseling. But that fails to answer questions that linger. Why now? Was someone threatening a lawsuit? Was a reporter finally onto the story and ready to confront the university? There is also some relevance to the identity of the involved female. A few of the UT football fan sites, which often have information ahead of traditional sports media, have suggested she was a student trainer for the team. This might suggest to the Longhorn nation there was something more to the Applewhite situation than a one-time lack of judgment. Regardless, Applewhite is back on the job.

But Bev Kearney is not.

The UT track coach, who had been with the university for 21 years and had won 6 national championships, resigned when she learned she was going to be fired for a relationship with an adult student athlete that she coached ten years ago. There’s no indication the university had worked to keep this quiet. But what confounds any observer is the timing. Kearney was on the verge of a receiving a raise that would have taken her compensation package from $270,000 for $475,000 by 2017 and she would have become one of the highest paid Olympic sports coaches in the country. Instead, she was forced out for her lack of judgment even after UT Women’s Athletic Director had given her a “near perfect” review and called her “a gift to UT.”

Coach Kearney Honored by the Texas Legislature

Coach Kearney Honored by the Texas Legislature

In terms of public relations, the timing of this is horrific for the university. There are also further complexities related to policy and morality. Like most major universities, UT has a policy against employees being involved with students they coach or teach or otherwise supervise, regardless of whether the athlete or student has reached a legal age of consent. The morality of this may be obvious, designed as it is to keep those with supervisory influence from exercising it for personal benefit over younger, impressionable people, but it leaves unanswered how much discretion there might be in enforcement. If Applewhite’s involvement was, in fact, with a student trainer, he undoubtedly encountered her regularly at practice and during travel, and trainers tend to report to coaches and respond to their concerns for athletes. Wasn’t his influence, in that sense, even greater than Kearney’s?

There are distinct differences between policy and law in this case. Consenting adults don’t need to seek institutional or public approval for sexual relationships. But coaches are governed by policy. Unfortunately for the University of Texas, the timing and blunt comparisons of these two cases are causing great pains. What’s being absorbed by the public is that a married, male, white football coach had extra-marital sex with a student trainer, was disciplined, got counseling, and kept his job. This is compared in graphic relief against the fact that Bev Kearney, a track coach with a record of success and an inspiring personal story, African-American and lesbian, has an adult relationship with one of her student athletes and is chased from her job and huge pay increase.

If UT is to avoid damage to its reputation, it has to be convincing that policy was uniformly and fairly applied in both cases. This will be difficult since both are matters of personnel and privacy. Also, the nature of Applewhite’s behavior will be assessed against the punishment given Kearney. In his public statement, the young coach describes his indiscretion as a solitary event, but this will not be believable to many of the Longhorn faithful. If his partner were a trainer he encountered daily, there is a real possibility there was an established emotional relationship that led to Applewhite’s actions. Was there more to it than sex and, if so, how is his behavior different than Kearney’s, especially in light of the fact that she had continued to build her reputation and the university’s over the decade subsequent to her involvement with the student athlete she coached.

The larger problem is that the university, as an institution, leaves a vague impression that it has acted a bit like Lance Armstrong and has attempted to suppress bad PR. Why now, four years later for Applewhite, does the story emerge, and what caused the Kearney story to surface after a decade? If there are lawsuits or other claims that were quietly settled, this is best disclosed. If policy is applied uniformly, it needs to be strongly communicated.

The more pressing matter, however, is that UT needs more transparency. It is a public institution and needs to be responsive to the people who put their money into the university. Coach Mack Brown might want to consider that his “family” is a bit larger than he realizes and includes the fans and donors and taxpayers. He doesn’t get to simply say, “It’s been dealt with and let’s move along.” He and the board of regents need to give some understanding of the logic behind various decisions. There is more to being a “family” than keeping secrets. In fact, Brown’s declarations of family and not offering more information can be viewed as offensive. And often are. Fan and taxpayers and tuition payers are owed more of an explanation. What are the standards? How were they violated?

It might simply be a problem of sports hierarchy and nothing becomes more important than protecting the football team. Track suffers an inferiority to football and basketball and baseball, and is, therefore, expendable. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the late UT basketball coach Abe Lemons, who was being questioned by a reporter about his salary crossing the $100,000.00 mark in the late 70s. The men’s track coach at the time was earning about a quarter of that amount. But Lemons took great offense at the comparison.

Coach Lemons: "You scored one more point than a dead man."

Coach Lemons: “You scored one more point than a dead man.”

“Don’t compare me to a track coach, son,” he supposedly said. “You know how hard it is to coach track? You go up to your runner and whisper in his ear, ‘Keep to the left, kid, and get back in a hurry.’”

Maybe there is no fairness in sports. But a great university must offer it. Communicate it. And practice it. Along with transparency.

Doing anything less will spread failure like a disease.

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