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Thursday, January 10, 2013
What to make of Kearney's departure from Texas

By Mechelle Voepel

Track and field fans know longtime University of Texas women's coach Bev Kearney well; she has been a top mentor in the sport at the collegiate level.

And even those who don't follow track and field may have heard her compelling personal story: Overcoming an impoverished childhood and the loss of her mother at age 17 to get a college scholarship. Becoming a coach and building a championship-caliber program at Texas. Surviving a car accident that killed two friends (she adopted the young daughter of one of the deceased women) and having to learn how to walk again. Just this past March, in fact, espnW detailed Kearney's triumphs over adversity and her commitment to motivating others.

So it was jolting news that Kearney, who led the Longhorns to six NCAA titles, had resigned this past weekend in the wake of an investigation by the university. Texas had put Kearney on paid leave in November for what was then termed unspecified reasons.

Now we know the reason. Kearney, 55, told the Austin American-Statesman in an exclusive interview that she had what she termed "a consensual, intimate relationship with an athlete in her program in 2002." The relationship was recently reported to the university by the former student-athlete involved, who has not been identified.

Kearney's attorney, Derek A. Howard, told espnW on Tuesday that Texas women's athletic director Chris Plonsky approved a new five-year contract with a raise for roughly $150,000 annually for Kearney earlier in the academic year. The recommendation was sent forward to the University of Texas regents for approval, but then the former student-athlete, now age 30, came forward.

Howard said Kearney acknowledged the relationship, and some time passed before she was put on paid leave. Howard said she was called by the university on Dec. 26, the 10-year anniversary of the auto accident that initially left Kearney paralyzed. At a subsequent meeting, Kearney was told she could either resign or the university would start the process for termination.

The timing makes for an unavoidable conspiracy theory. Was the revelation of the relationship, 10 years after the fact, just coincidental to Kearney's new contract being in the works? Or was it unearthed by someone to keep her from getting that contract?

Howard and Kearney believe it's the latter. Howard said the university is dealing with Kearney in an overly harsh way, especially considering Texas officials have said in published reports that they believe this previous relationship was Kearney's only such transgression. Howard also thinks it may come to light that not all Texas faculty or staff members have been subject to potential job termination for having consensual relationships with students.

Kearney is not denying she had the relationship, nor is she trying to justify it. She called it poor judgment in her interview with the Austin American-Statesman. But should it end her career at Texas?

A legal battle is expected, which could focus on the exact language of the university's employee guidelines and how the school has dealt with similar transgressions.

In previous interviews with media outlets, Howard had cited a rule, instituted in 2001, that states Texas employees in supervisory positions must report any consensual relationship with an "employee, student and/or student employee who is directly supervised, taught, evaluated or advised by that employee." He said Kearney's transgression, then, was in not reporting the relationship.

But Patti Ohlendorf, the university's vice president for legal affairs, told espnW, "In intercollegiate athletics and the coaching profession, it is unprofessional and unacceptable for a head coach to carry on an intimate relationship with a student-athlete that he or she is coaching."

In other words, that it's a universally accepted guideline that a relationship between a coach and a player would be grounds for a dismissal.

"We told Coach Kearney and Mr. Howard that such a relationship crosses the line of trust placed in the head coach for all aspects of the athletic program and the best interests of the student-athletes in the program," Ohlendorf said. "The University told Coach Kearney and Mr. Howard that we were prepared to begin the termination process. She chose to resign instead."

However this plays out legally, the situation raises an overall question: What do those of us who are involved with, cover or follow college athletics think should be the punishment for a coach who gets romantically involved with an athlete when both are legal adults?

Yes, people of shared interests and goals often do become attracted to and fall in love with each other. But there are very important reasons why it is considered unethical for coaches or professors to engage in relationships with anyone over whom they have authority, even if both are adults. I think Ohlendorf is right that it's a universally accepted rule, even if unwritten.

Still, anyone who has been around college athletics knows such relationships happen between college students and coaches, even though they aren't supposed to. You have to wonder how many college coaches might be out of work today if their entire past-relationship histories were exposed with a zero-tolerance policy.

Also, it's not extremely unusual in women's collegiate sports for athletes to end up in marriages or partnerships with men or women who previously coached them. Just last month at the NCAA volleyball championships, for example, two of the head coaches involved in the final four were men married to women who had played for them in college. One of those coaches also formerly coached at Texas.

It's important to point out that a marriage/partnership between a former coach and player doesn't necessarily mean their relationship started when they were in those roles, but only the two people involved can know that for sure.

And what about when the relationship is between two women, as opposed to a man and a woman? Is that cast in a harsher light or more severely punished? Some will point to former LSU women's basketball coach Pokey Chatman, who in 2007 was forced to resign by her alma mater after what was subsequently acknowledged as an inappropriate relationship with a former women's hoops student-athlete.

LSU handled that situation badly, with an absurd press release before the 2007 NCAA tournament that tried to suggest Chatman was resigning to "pursue other opportunities." The full details of what actually happened were never revealed; the school and Chatman reached a settlement and she went on to coach professionally in Russia and the WNBA.

My experiences in covering collegiate sports suggest there have been situations where the lesbian aspect of an "inappropriate" relationship seems to have provoked a more punitive response. But by the same token, many lesbian partnerships are still not publicly acknowledged, so everything about those relationships, including if they began in an inappropriate way between coach and athlete, is essentially "hidden."

The biggest factor as to whether any such relationships result in a coach publicly getting in trouble seems to be if someone in or outside of the relationship becomes upset about it, or is upset with one of the people involved.

The bottom line -- in not just coaching, but all occupations -- should be this: It is a really bad idea to engage in a relationship with someone who is subordinate to you, regardless if it's consensual. Just don't go there.

But if you do end up in such a relationship, you need to make it known to your superiors, and be prepared to deal with the potential ramifications. Because no matter how vast your accomplishments, the possibility of having to face those consequences can last for a long time. As Kearney is now finding out.