|Tuesday, October 7
Defining bravery in college sports
By Tom Farrey
As the whistleblower in the now-notorious Enron financial debacle, Sherron Watkins was demoted after she first brought concerns to the chairman of the energy firm. She was given make-work projects at a metal desk, 33 floors below the mahogany executive suite she previously called her office. Lawyers schemed how to fire her. She lost sleep, friends and a career within what was once the seventh-largest company in the nation.
"People are more emotional about their college teams than they are about their stock portfolios," said Watkins, who knows the passion of college football from her years as a University of Texas student during the Earl Campbell era of the 1970s. "I can see death threats for them."
Her vision is 20/20. Bring abuses to light in government or corporate America, and your bosses might turn a Machiavellian shade of ugly -- while the man on the street pats you on the back and a magazine names you a Person of the Year, as Time did in 2002 with Watkins, WorldCom's Cynthia Cooper and the FBI's Coleen Rowley. But talk about a running back who turned in a paper that was written for him, and hardly anyone runs to your aid -- especially the man on the street, whose face is sometimes painted in team colors and whose keyboard is soaked in venom.
This is the lonely experience of some of the most influential figures in college sports in recent years.
They expose the greed of coaches.
They reveal the hypocrisy of college presidents -- and prompt some to take action.
"I have never been in a position of having a whistleblower incident," said Vanderbilt chancellor Gordon Gee, who is leading an effort to reform college sports and recently dissolved his athletic department. "But I watch them, at the University of Tennessee and other places, and I think as university presidents our role is to take them seriously and that we not simply treat their allegations as unsubstantiated and incoherent and coming from people of no value."
Truth is power. But these messengers, perhaps more than anyone in these increasingly frequent scandals, have paid the price for their moments of conscience. In the dust-ups at Ohio State, Louisiana State, Minnesota, Tennessee, USC, Georgia and elsewhere in recent years, one of the consistent threads has been a profound backlash against the initiating whistleblower, in the form of public and private disruption to their lives.
"I've been rendered homeless, slept in cars, slept on the ground," said Norma McGill, the former Ohio State teaching assistant whose allegations in July of academic misconduct involving Maurice Clarett continue to engulf the reigning national champions. "It's been very hard."
McGill's is a dramatic case -- perhaps too dramatic, some have suggested. Her former boss at the African-American and African Studies department has questioned the mental fitness of the former graduate student, who concedes she has wrestled with clinical depression in the past. It's easy to wonder if the scandal alone forced her into life on the street in her hometown of Lexington, Ky.
But McGill is by no means the first whistleblower to flee the pressure cooker of a college town.
Linda Bensel-Meyers, then a tenured English professor at Tennessee, hung in for three years after her concerns about academic misconduct among football tutors became public. She finally left this summer for a position at the University of Denver.
Jan Gangelhoff, the former basketball secretary at Minnesota whose admission of writing athletes' papers toppled Gophers coach Clem Haskins, wasn't even in the Twin Cities when the St. Paul newspaper published its report just before the 2000 NCAA Tournament; she was living just over the border in Danbury, Wis., at the time. Still, to escape the attention, she moved to an isolated Native American reservation at the northern edge of the state.
Another similarity between McGill and many other whistleblowers is her gender. While men have played the role as well -- former Baylor assistant coach Abar Rouse comes to mind for taping Dave Bliss and outing the basketball coach as a liar -- shining a light on the bad behavior of athletic programs often has fallen to females.
The godmother of NCAA whistleblowers, Jan Kemp, notes that many of these cases, including hers at Georgia two decades ago, involve the mis-education of young students. She suggests that perhaps a maternal instinct kicks in.
"Women don't like to see children harmed," she said.
So college coaches and presidents, be warned: Ignore these idealists at your own peril.
And know that, more often than not, they say they'd do it again. Despite all the trouble.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.