University, Kaler can’t afford third strike in near future

ECM Editorial Board Column

For the University of Minnesota, there is much work to be done to regain the trust of students, parents and the state at large. It can start with a recalibration of the U’s moral compass.

Ten Gopher football players were identified and investigated, along with a juvenile recruit, following sexual assault allegations. Four of the players have been expelled and two suspended upon recommendations by the University of Minnesota’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.

Minnesotans are all investors in the University, whether by writing tuition checks or having our tax dollars subsidize the institution. That is why we deserve a clear plan on how the school will repair trust in the institution and hold student-athletes to a higher standard going forward.

In September, a woman alleged that multiple players pressured her to have sex and she was too intoxicated to give consent. This put the U of M under the microscope for the last six months, revealing disgusting behavior and absent accountability.
The controversy peaked in December when remaining members of the team announced a boycott of the Holiday Bowl, a move supported by some coaching staff, including Head Coach Tracy Claeys. After a copy of a lengthy report following the University’s investigation was leaked to news outlet KSTP, the players ended the boycott. Claeys was fired a week after the bowl game.

While the Minneapolis Police Department investigated and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman twice reviewed the case, no criminal charges were filed. Still, the damning 80-page report from the University made it clear that the players involved did not live up to the school’s code of conduct for student athletes. Freeman called their behavior “deplorable.”
Although the University’s core functions are education and research, we cannot dismiss the power of athletics and how they lend to the U’s brand.

The University’s high-profile sports teams are the most familiar faces to the public and their closest connection to the maroon and gold. Of late, there have been some poor ambassadors on the football fields, basketball courts, wrestling mats — and in the school’s top administration. This comes on the heels of a scandal involving one of the school’s top administrators, former Athletic Director Norwood Teague, who resigned after it was revealed he sexually harassed women he worked with.

This was the first strike against University President Eric Kaler, who then brought in Mark Coyle to lead the athletic department and turn things around. We are entitled to expect him to get it right.

In September, Coyle fired longtime wrestling coach J Robinson following an investigation into players’ use and sale of Xanax, a prescription sedative.

Among the many failures in lack of oversight by the University, it is unacceptable for a juvenile recruit to be turned loose without responsible supervision. We expect changes in protocol to be made.

At a public speaking engagement in Oakdale early this year, Coyle admitted the last seven months had been the toughest of his life. “The last five weeks have rocked me,” he said.

Coyle emphasized that accountability needs to be shown by student athletes, adding that the word has lost its meaning. “It should be a privilege for athletes to put on that M jersey,” Coyle said.

We agree, and point out that a privilege is distinctly different from a right. Just because a student is not charged with a crime does not mean there shouldn’t be significant repercussions.

Coyle said he is responsible for developing and enforcing the student athlete code of conduct.

The University is well within bounds to bench, or turf, athletes who do not live up to the school’s standards. We need to see the rules enforced, along with recruitment of student-athletes who are of the quality in talent and character that will make that the school, and the state, proud.

Now that a coaching change is in place with the hiring of P.J. Fleck, it’s time for the University to present a comprehensive plan on how it will hold its student-athletes and staff accountable going forward.

Sadly, all of these incidents take the spotlight away from deserving students and athletes who are working hard to achieve degrees in the classroom and success in highly competitive athletics.

This is the second major incident on President Kaler’s watch. Clearly, it’s time for a major culture change. Despite some raising concerns about their involvement, the University’s Board of Regents must play an important role in the turnaround.
Kaler, and the Regents, are ultimately responsible for making sure the University of Minnesota is a safe place for all students to learn, and where women are respected. There will be no excuse for a third strike.

An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board