Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Coaches, Athletes and Sex: Not a Good Game Plan

In December, Bev Kearney, the highly successful women’s track and field coach at the University of Texas, was looking forward to a new contract from the university with a substantial raise.  In early January she resigned to avoid being fired for having a consensual relationship with a woman on her team in 2002. It is unclear who brought the relationship to the attention of the university, but Kearney acknowledged that she did have a relationship with a student-athlete.

Anyone familiar with athletics knows that some coaches do have sexual relationships with their athletes. It happens at all levels – youth sports, high school, college and professional.  At the youth and high school levels, it is a criminal offense. At the college or professional levels, it may not be a criminal offense, but it is a breach of coaching ethics and an abuse of power by the coach, even when the relationship is consensual.

I believe that coaches who engage in sexual relationships with athletes on their teams should be fired. I draw a hard line on this issue. It doesn’t matter what the gender or sexual orientation of the coach is, it’s wrong and should not be tolerated.

What complicates Bev Kearney’s situation is that, in the wake of her resignation, the University of Texas has now publicly acknowledged that an assistant football coach who had a sex with a female student team manager was treated quite differently. 

Major Applewhite, a former quarterback for UT and now an assistant football coach admitted to having sex with the student during the Fiesta Bowl in 2009.  In addition to keeping his breach out of the media, Applewhite, who was married at the time, was disciplined, had his salary frozen for eleven months and received counseling, but retained his job.  The incident was minimized as a “one night stand.”

Though the ethics and/or criminality of sex between coaches and athletes should apply equally to all coaches – male or female, gay or straight – often the reactions and punishments assigned to the coaches do not. The University of Texas’s differential responses to Applewhite and Kearney highlight the problem.

Applewhite, a white, married heterosexual man coaching football was protected from public embarrassment. His breach of ethics was minimized as a one time lapse of judgement punished lightly and he continues to be employed in good standing by the university. 

Kearney, an African-American lesbian track and field coach, was immediately offered the choice of resigning or being fired for her breach of ethics eleven years ago.  She is no longer employed by the University of Texas. Over. Done.

Even given the differences in the specifics of each situation, UT’s wildly different responses to the two coaches’ ethical breaches is apparent. 

Kearney has  filed a lawsuit against the University charging race and gender discrimination based on the different sanctions meted out to Kearney and Applegate  (I suspect Kearney might have also included discrimination based on sexual orientation too, but Texas has no laws protecting against this kind of discrimination).

The UT board of regents met earlier this month to discuss personnel matters "regarding legal issues concerning individual athletic personnel and legal issues related to inappropriate relations between employees and students." I bet they are talking about Kearney’s lawsuit too.