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Doering: Stop giving coaches the benefit of the doubt

by Joshua Doering

In the June 16 episode of his podcast called “The Right Time,” ESPN’s Bomani Jones made a profound point in reference to Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy that no one else seems to be talking about. 

Last month, Gundy was pictured wearing a One America News t-shirt, leading his best player — running back Chuba Hubbard — to announce on social media he was disassociating himself with the school. In a matter of days, Gundy issued an apology, met with Hubbard and released a video with his star player. 

 

Just like that, Hubbard was back in the fold and all seemed to be forgiven. 

The rapid resolution to the situation led Jones to ask a simple question: When are college coaches going to stop getting the benefit of the doubt?

Why is there an assumption that when a coach shows any kind of remorse for a mistake everything is fine and the same thing won’t happen again?

At the same time Gundy was smoothing things over with his players, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz had a multitude of former Black players go public with their stories of racist behavior from members of the Hawkeyes’ coaching staff. 

When the stories started pouring in, Ferentz said he was “responsible for anything that happens [in the program].” He also said, “If there have been missteps, nothing’s been intentional.”

As if there was a question whether players had been discriminated against and treated poorly under his watch for decades. As if the racially-charged comments toward Black players were somehow accidental.

Then came the Hawkeye Nation story on July 20 detailing a 2018 athletic department study — read by Ferentz in 2019 — suggesting the exact same kinds of mistreatment those speaking up were talking about were indeed happening. The report specifically identified strength coach Chris Doyle — who has since been fired — and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz (Kirk’s son) as the two coaches primarily responsible for the inappropriate behavior. 

On June 7, 2020, Ferentz told reporters he “would not quantify” racism as a “major issue right now.”

As if the report never existed. As if he wasn’t aware of the things players had said about his son and strength coach. 

Regardless of how Iowa chooses to respond to the Hawkeye Nation story, at least one thing needs to change: Ferentz cannot have the benefit of the doubt any longer. He knowingly chose to ignore the racist behavior in his program until it finally became too inconvenient to do so any longer. 

It doesn’t matter whether Ferentz engaged in it himself or not. He allowed it to happen as the leader of the program and then denied it. Why should the school trust him at all right now? 

The same thing goes for Penn State men’s basketball coach Pat Chambers, who referenced a noose when talking to current Iowa State guard Rasir Bolton. Bolton’s tweet describing the situation made it clear it was not the only racially insensitive comment Chambers had made to him before he transferred out of the program. 

Be it treatment of players of color, NCAA rules violations or anything else, coaches answering for their actions is not enough. These are people running well-oiled machines built on consistency and repetition. Programs don’t change overnight. 

They are also the people supposed to be guiding young men and women through some of the most formative years of their lives. 

If schools really care about their student-athletes the way they say they do, athletic departments will not only do a better job listening to concerns the first time but make sure behavior actually changes once it’s addressed. 

People make mistakes. This is not about eliminating the concept of second chances. This is about making sure people take advantage of them through accountability. 

When problematic behavior goes unchecked, it becomes a pattern, such as what happened at Iowa. Too often, these patterns become public (in a best-case scenario), dominate the news cycle for a handful of days and disappear. There is no follow-up, no talking to players to see if things have actually gotten better. 

Take what happened with Larry Nassar at Michigan State as an example. It is not some atrocity that happened in the past. The work to prevent it from happening again is far from over, yet when was the last time it was part of the national conversation? 

The story made headlines across the country. Then, just like that, it was gone. 

Somebody has to ask the questions if athletic departments are actually going to do their jobs well. We are long past the point where coaches and athletic directors can be trusted to do their jobs correctly on their own. The evidence is endless. 

The way to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future is to react the way Jones did when the news first breaks. Don’t just think about the past and the present. Think about what happens next and be skeptical. 

Wonder if there is a reason to believe it won’t happen again. 

A person who is genuinely interested in changing their ways will make obvious, tangible adjustments before public pressure forces them to. There is a path that leads to redemption and forgiveness. 

It just doesn’t need to involve granting everyone the benefit of the doubt. 

Photo by Phil Roeder / Flickr

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