The University of Michigan named a new president last month, and the football team landed another great class of recruits last week. But there’s another story that keeps eclipsing those two.
I’ve been reluctant to write about Brendan Gibbons, because so little is clear – from the incident that started this saga five years ago, to the various responses since.
A few things are clear, though, starting with this: the athletic department continually fails to follow the advice of legendary athletic director Don Canham, “Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story.”
This story starts back in 2009, when Wolverine kicker Brendan Gibbons had an encounter at a party with a female student. Ultimately, only two people know what happened, but we do know she contacted the Ann Arbor police, then decided not to press charges.
This put the university in a tough spot. In 2009, it was a tenet of university policy that it would not look into such situations unless the alleged victim came forward. But in 2013, the university revised its code, no longer requiring the alleged victim to start an investigation.
That’s why it wasn’t until November 20 of 2013 that the Office of Institutional Equity concluded that Gibbons “engaged in unwanted or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, committed without valid consent, and that conduct was so severe as to create a hostile, offensive, or abusive environment.”
From everything I’ve seen, the university played it straight, and the athletic department never attempted to interfere with the process. That’s the good news.
The bad news is, having gotten the hard part right, the athletic department seemed determined to get the easy part wrong.
The various responses have given the appearance of skullduggery where none existed. We still don’t know when the athletic department found out about the panel’s ruling. But we do know three days after the ruling, on November 23, head coach Brady Hoke started Gibbons, who kicked three extra points in a 24-21 loss to Iowa.
Before Michigan’s next game, against Ohio State, Hoke – who might have been following orders – claimed Gibbons had injured his leg. Before Michigan’s bowl game, on December 28, Hoke said Gibbons had gone home due to a “family matter” – yet we know the university expelled Gibbons on December 20.
I understand that Hoke was trying to grant his player as much privacy as possible, but all he had to say was Gibbons had broken team rules. Obviously, lying for him breeds suspicion.
The public didn’t learn Gibbons had been expelled until January 28, when the university’s student paper, The Michigan Daily, broke the story. No one in the department has publicly questioned anything in the Daily’s story, or its excellent follow-up by Zach Helfand (a former student, in the interest of full disclosure), or asked for any corrections.
But a few days later, when Hoke addressed the Gibbons issue with a group of reporters, the Daily was not informed of the event, leaving many to conclude they were being punished.
The department has vehemently denied excluding the student reporters, claiming the other reporters had asked for the interview days in advance. For that reason, they say, it was not a formal press conference – which seems to be a distinction without a difference, especially when Hoke released a prepared statement at the event, whatever you call it.
But even if we take them at their word, they were naïve not to predict the public wouldn’t believe them, especially given this administration’s habit of backpedaling after public relations gaffes with explanations that are disingenuous at best. The list includes the initial decisions not to bring the marching band to the Cowboy Classic in Dallas; banning the seat cushions they sold to fans for $20 at the spring game; displaying a giant Kraft macaroni noodle under the scoreboard the day before a home game; and paying thousand of dollars for the skywriting stunt over Spartan Stadium. Each time, the department’s attempts to backtrack fueled fans’ anger, instead of extinguishing it.
It doesn’t help that the department also has a recent history of bullying the media. Under athletic director Dave Brandon, the staff habitually calls reporters to chastise them for printing what they consider negative stories, or simply unflattering statistics. They’re not above threatening to cancel exclusive interviews.
One writer told me, “Every interview and press conference the department sets up is presented as a huge favor, not just them doing their jobs. They show amazing contempt for the media.”
What happens next? Gibbons is gone, the police consider the case closed, and the Daily reporters have returned to official media events.
Brandon recently told The Detroit Free Press that the relationship between an athletic director and a university president is “tremendously important.” That is particularly true at Michigan, where the athletic director answers only to the president.
Michigan’s president-elect, former Brown provost Mark Schlissel, has not commented on this situation, and wisely so. But it’s hard to imagine his first brush with the athletic department was the honeymoon either side had hoped for.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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