The Brendan Gibbons case, and the athletic department’s response

To listen to the audio version, click here: Brendan Gibbons 2.14.2014

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 the Brendan Gibbons case, because so little is clear – from the incident that started this saga five years ago, to the various responses since.

But a few things are clear, starting with this: the athletic department continually fails to follow the advice 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, which no longer required the alleged victim’s initiative 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 28th, Hoke said Gibbons had gone home due to a “family matter” – yet we know the university expelled Gibbons on December 20th.

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 28th, 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.

[The first story can be found here: https://michigandaily.com/sports/former-kicker-brendan-gibbons-expelled-sexual-misconduct

And Zach Helfand’s here: https://www.michigandaily.com/sports/sportsmonday-column-gibbons-case-separating-investigation-response.]

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.

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 creating public relations gaffes, then backpedaling with explanations that are disingenuous at best.   The list includes the initial decisions not to take 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 didn’t douse the fans’ anger, but fueled it.

It doesn’t help that the department also has a recent history of bullying the media.  Under Dave Brandon, the staff habitually calls reporters to chastise them for printing what they consider negative stories, or simply unflattering statistics.  They often threaten 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.

Athletic Director Dave 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, which was wise.  But it’s hard to imagine his first brush with the athletic department was the honeymoon either side had hoped for.

* * * * *

Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their FULL name. 

Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit and Flint, and 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later,  I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on WTKA.com, 1050 AM.

On Sunday mornings, from the start of football season to the end of March Madness, I co-host “Off the Field” with the legendary Jamie Morris on WTKA from 10-11 a.m.  And yes, there will be a quiz, so “stop what you’re doing, and listen!”

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-John
johnubacon.com
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  • Forrest Morgeson February 14, 2014 at 7:03 am

    Instead of going on a long rant, I will try to keep this short and simple (Edit: I failed). The “Fort” approach to media relations under Schembechler-Moeller-Carr is well know. It essentially mandated treating the media like mushrooms (i.e. keep them in the dark and feed them manure). Rich Rodriguez tried to change that, and radically opened things up (as you know very well, John). That approach was, in my humble opinion, a total disaster. That approach led almost linearly to a reporter with an agenda uncovering a “massive scandal” involving 90 minutes of excessive pre-practice stretching, and Michigan football being put on probation for the first time ever (while Cam Newtown and Auburn got national championships). In the wake of this, the hostility of the AD to the media is not only understandable but smart, in my opinion. This does not make it desirable, nor does it excuse the fumbled responses to these and other incidents; a marketing whiz like Brandon needs to do better. But I would be lying if I faulted the current AD for approaching the media with a strong, strong level of caution and even hostility in the wake of everything that has happened.

    Regardless, I really enjoyed your take on the very unfortunate Gibbons story.

    Reply
    • Greg Shea February 14, 2014 at 12:44 pm

      As a guy who has practiced pro and college sports PR for most of the last 25 years, I would say that the Fort approach and the RR approach are at opposite ends of media relations spectrum.

      The schools and pro entities that handle media relations the best are those who find a comfort zone somewhere in the middle. It takes some sophistication. It takes courageous leadership that trusts expert (not “presumed”) PR counsel, and a vision of what the desired outcome is. How do we want to be regarded? How do our relationships with the media contribute to that? What are our policies? Let’s set them. How are we coordinated with other stakeholders (the Pres’ office, the team owner)?

      It can be done. Some have done it very well.

      Reply
  • Greg Shea February 14, 2014 at 7:50 am

    The most rational, and most likely accurate, take on the BG situation that I have read or heard yet. Thanks, John. I would, however, be interested in your POV, re: Taylor Lewan’s involvement in the BG situation. I find that to be troubling also.

    GS

    Reply
  • Luke Whalen February 14, 2014 at 7:55 am

    John, I think your take on the Brendan Gibbons situation is right on point here, but there is another element of this saga that I find as troubling as anything else… in one of the Daily’s follow-up articles, they quoted former Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin as saying he was completely unaware of the allegations against Gibbons back in 2009. We’re talking about the Athletic Director claiming that he was not aware of sexual assault allegations on the part of one of his current student-athletes against another one of his current student-athletes… to say nothing of the fact that, yes, there were local media outlets covering the story at the time, as well. Are we really expected to believe this? Personally, I don’t find it the least bit fathomable, and if he is outright lying about this, I want to know why. And if by some miracle he is telling the truth, I would like to know how in the world the Athletic Department could be so astonishingly dysfunctional so as to let this lack of awareness on his part happen (and what they are doing, or have done, to fix such gross incompetence).

    Reply
  • Terry Sturgeon February 14, 2014 at 8:05 am

    I agree with Shea that Lewan’s involvement remains a question that either was misreported or has been completely ignored by all. If he did threaten the victim, as was earlier reported, and the victim then decided not to press charges, wasn’t another crime committed? Earlier reports also indicated that there was significant evidence. There appears still to be a lot that has not been resolved for the public, and maybe it never will be. If not, then the University reputation will suffer from it.

    Reply
  • jim decker February 14, 2014 at 8:36 am

    I always respected the way Schembechler erected, well, Fort Schembechler. From
    a college football perspective it’s in the best interest for the team to control
    access and information and Bo was masterful. Mo and Lloyd were progressively
    less masterful and RR didn’t seem even to be aware of the balance between
    protecting his team and giving the media enough to keep them at bay. Hoke is
    clearly trying to bring the Bo ethos back, but he’s too clever by half. He’ll
    figure it out, but he’s not there yet. Thanks for your work John.

    Reply
  • MarkC February 14, 2014 at 8:40 am

    I think the main problem is that as you stated, we don’t know what happened between the two, only they do. There was enough evidence though for the university to conclude that an expulsion was warranted. That still not a smoking gun which I think makes it unfair for Hoke to say that Gibbons “had violated team rules” when its quite possible that he nor Brandon were convinced of his guilt. It’s a tough spot to be in since the university felt one way but police department felt another. In this case one must err on the side of caution, and I think Hoke’s response was the best he could do given the circumstances. If Gibbons is indeed guilty of everything he is accused of, a more stern response would be warranted but at this point given the facts available(to us) saying he violated team rules indicates a major error in judgement that would affect his future job prospects in whatever field he chooses. A public flogging would go too far given the he said she said nature and subsequent lack of charges.

    Reply
  • Stephen Cain February 14, 2014 at 8:42 am

    I remember an insightful wisecrack on Canham years ago: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” As you so well report, John, the U-M Athletic Department has chosen to blind itself to history and common sense. As a (now retired) journalist for four decades, I was the beneficiary of all those folks who failed to realize that the coverup is an order of magnitude more damaging than the original transgression. From President Nixon and the Catholic Church, there are certainly plenty of object lessons. When you lose the reputation as a straight shooter, folks will never trust you even when you are telling the truth.

    Reply
  • Mark February 14, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    According to this SI story, Mary Sue has a lot of explaining to do.

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/college-football/news/20140214/michigan-rape-case-fallout/index.html

    Reply
  • John W Minton Jr February 14, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    Dear John,
    Bo learned from Woody when he was an assistant at The Ohio State University.

    I don’t remember Woody covering up the truth in the 21 years I lived in Columbus, but he was very protective of his players and his program.

    As a former CEO, Dave Brandon knows all about cover up.
    Abraham Lincoln believed that if you tell the people the truth, they can handle it.

    We live in an age of spin, making it very difficult for an individual to make up his own mind.

    Please continue to bring daylight to darkness. I may not like the daylight, but I abhor the darkness.

    bomberjohn5

    Thanks for the blog

    Reply
  • Larry Grace February 15, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    John – Great work as usual.
    It is clear that UM has lawyered up and does not want any public statements to be used in future litigation.Maybe that is a viable courtroom strategy to avoid monetary damages down the road. However, the potential non -monetary collateral damage to “the brand ” is clear to everyone except apparently those holed up on South State . Because there is no immediate price tag on , say , institutional reputation Mr. Brandon and his flacks seem disinclined to worry about it.

    The irony is that Mr. Brandon who wants to manage all things image related, particularly his own, has managed more than once to muddy the image of the institution for which he is a very well paid employee.

    Reply
  • […] them and you can't even question them right now. On anything. This is a blog from John Bacon http://johnubacon.com/2014/02/the-brendan-gibbons-case-and-the-athletic-departments-response/, who has written several books about Michigan football history and about college football. I did a […]

    Reply

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