About 11 months ago, University of Illinois President Tim Killeen and chancellors from three U of I campuses spoke authoritatively about budget cuts and academic affairs in a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board.
I was not at all impressed when the conversation turned to the athletics department in Urbana-Champaign. Then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise looked surprised when a Sun-Times reporter brought up allegations of mistreatment by coaches of women’s basketball and football players. Wise came off disconnected from athletics.
The university needs a strong, commanding voice on athletics from the offices of the president and chancellor. Too often, top-level administrators are clueless about the inner workings of athletics. They see high-achieving athletes, many of whom also excel academically, and prefer to assume everything is dandy.
U of I is fighting two lawsuits for alleged mistreatment of a former women’s soccer player and former women’s basketball players. It fired football coach Tim Beckman last year after an investigation found he tried to get players to play through injuries and failed to defer to doctors’ decisions on injuries. Women’s basketball associate head coach Mike Divilbiss departed amid allegations of discrimination in the suit brought by former players.
Problems go beyond allegations of mistreatment by coaches and staff. Four members of the men’s basketball team have been arrested in the last several months, including two in the last month on misdemeanor domestic violence charges.
I wanted to ask Killeen about measures he and Interim Chancellor Barbara J. Wilson have taken to increase oversight of a department badly in need of it. University spokesman Tom Hardy responded for him in an email, pointing out the hiring of a new football coach — former Bears coach Lovie Smith — and a new athletics director.
Hardy said reforms have been put in place.
My confidence in the athletics director, Josh Whitman, took a hit after watching a news conference he held last week alongside men’s basketball coach John Groce.
Whitman correctly pointed out that the players who are facing charges are innocent until proven guilty. He also talked about the campus being made up of 40,000 18- to 24-year-olds who are “learning about who they are.”
“They will make mistakes,” he said. “Everybody here did.”
That doesn’t fly. Most students don’t find themselves in jail. And we’re not talking solely about innocuous charges of being too tipsy.
One men’s basketball player, Darius Paul, was kicked off the team after being charged with vandalism, public intoxication and resisting arrest in France while the team was on an exhibition tour last August. Another, Leron Black, is indefinitely suspended after an arrest for aggravated assault, a felony, after allegedly threatening a nightclub bouncer with a knife. Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate face misdemeanor charges of domestic battery. They, too, are suspended while their cases are adjudicated.
Misbehavior or, in the extreme, criminal behavior, by athletes puts coaches in a bind. Coaches, and usually athletic directors, spend a lot of time with athletes and see their best qualities. They are prone to giving second chances for altruistic or competitive purposes. There is good in that sometimes. Other times, accountability is lost.
Here’s a certainty: When administrators at the highest level don’t weigh in, decisions become easier to live with. That’s rough on the university overall.
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