Rachel Furlow: Men’s basketball coach investigation must put student athletes first

Rachel Furlow, a senior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

Abuse allegations about athletics head coaches at Division I schools are nothing new. In the past two years, Mike Rice from Rutgers University, Joanne McCallie from Duke University and Connie Yori from the University of Nebraska have all been accused or found guilty of verbally or physically harassing their players. And now GW men’s basketball coach Mike Lonergan has been accused of similar misconduct.

In an explosive Washington Post article published last week, several anonymous current and former players accused Lonergan of repeated verbal and emotional abuse against student athletes and of making graphic remarks about Athletic Director Patrick Nero. 

Title IX Coordinator Rory Muhammad allegedly told a student that University officials had already investigated the coach’s behavior and that it had been “handled.” The student athlete expressed concern that he and his teammates felt that their complaints had not been taken seriously by administrators, especially because no other players had been contacted to corroborate or refute the allegations.

The Title IX office is now conducting another investigation of Lonergan’s behavior, calling in outside counsel to assist, as “some of the reported allegations go beyond the scope of Title IX,” according to a University release.

Because the investigation is still ongoing, it is critical that the GW community doesn’t assume guilt or innocence in the allegations. The true controversy lies with the alleged actions, or lack thereof, by GW administrators when they investigated Lonergan in the past. This instance, combined with a proven history of coaches’ misconduct nationally and general university inaction, indicates a troubling trend for university officials to limit their liability at the expense of the well-being of students.

Officials won’t release details about the investigation because it is a personnel issue. However, if the University did not properly investigate a player’s report or if the investigation caused Lonergan to increase harassment against Nero, the University would be in violation of Title IX.

Regardless of whether University officials conducted a fair investigation in the spring, they certainly failed in making students feel like their concerns would be fully investigated, which the student athletes indicated to the Washington Post.

GW needs to conduct a thorough and fair investigation into Lonergan’s behavior, because universities’ high-profile teams and coaches are not above the rules of the law, nor do they outweigh student athletes’ well-beings, just because they bring an institution notoriety and revenue. It’s time GW asks the hard questions that many other universities didn’t ask, rather than simply stopping after officials clear the sports programs of any legal liability.

Lonergan’s career at GW has led the Colonials to a NIT win and a bid in the 2014 NCAA tournament, turning the program from an underdog to a team to be watched. As a result, Lonergan’s contract was extended in 2014 for seven more years at GW.

GW men’s basketball currently brings in the most revenue – $3.1 million in 2012 – and has well-attended games. This increases the University’s revenue and can attract higher quality applicants who follow the team. In cases of alleged harassment by coaches towards their players at schools across the country, the success of the team – and revenue brought into the school – seems to forgive indiscretions.  

The 2013 Rutgers University scandal with their head men’s basketball coach, Mike Rice, is disturbingly similar to what is currently occurring with Lonergan, but with physical abuse in lieu of Lonergan’s reported verbal harassment. Eventually, it became clear that Rutgers University officials had been aware of the situation before a video of the harassment was publicly released. The initial investigation on Rice found that he had not created a “hostile work environment.” After the public release of the video and a second investigation, though, Rice was fired.

By initially clearing Rice of the fireable offense of creating a “hostile work environment,” Rutgers cleared the institution of any Title IX investigation liability while hedging on the more murky issue of whether a coach that yelled obscenities was fit to work with students.

In the case of Mike Rice, there is some suspicion over Rutgers’ initial investigation, because the team was bidding to enter the A-10 conference at the time. Although the administration denies there is any link between that and the leniency of Rice’s punishment, it is undeniable that a coach accused of serious assault would not look favorably upon the university’s chances at admittance to the conference.

Just as Rutgers University protected Rice after the internal Title IX investigation, other coaches accused of verbal and physical abuse have been protected by athletic institutions. Bob Knight, Indiana University’s successful men’s basketball coach, was well-known for violent outbursts, but he continued to coach for 30 years before being offered a lucrative analyst position at ESPN. His coaching prowess and success of his team is often cited as the reason that Knight never faced consequences.

GW needs to avoid any missteps in an investigation and consider students’ concerns first and foremost. The GW community will have to wait and see what comes of the current investigation into Lonergan’s alleged misconduct, but while the investigation is still ongoing, officials should put players first.

Athletics departments must remember that they are nothing without their student athletes, and universities are nothing without their students.

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