Regarding the University of Michigan hockey program: I now have the report produced by the DC law firm Wilmer Hale, and commissioned by U-M. I understand other reporters now have it too, and you can expect to hear from them soon.
Caveats: I am currently traveling through the Upper Peninsula on business, so both time and coverage (internet and cell phone) will be very limited. Also, I’ve scanned the entire report but not read it thoroughly, nor yet asked anyone involved for comment.
Last full disclosure: I believe I know everyone in the report personally, and consider all of them friends, including head coach Mel Pearson and his staffers. That said, my job here is clear: to determine the truth wherever it leads, without fear or favor, as best I can.
In short: the report runs 70 pages, seems very thorough, and as objective as possible, as was Wilmer Hale’s report on Dr. Anderson. While this report was apparently sparked by a complaint by former U-M goalie and volunteer assistant coach Steve Shields, they interviewed just about everyone in the program, and many others, on three central issues.
Namely, alleged Covid-protocol complaints, gender-based discrimination, and retaliation by Pearson against his players. From my initial reading of the report – which warrants a deeper, slower dive – my guess is the Covid-protocol complaints will not stand as major issues, especially since the team ultimately admitted it had Covid and left the 2021 NCAA tournament early.
The other two issues sound a lot more serious. It’s clear former trainer-turned-operations director Rick Bancroft bullied and harassed former secretary Lora Durkee, nutritionist Caroline Mandel, and communications director Kristy McNeil. Bancroft officially retired this spring.
The investigators raise the question of Pearson’s “inability or unwillingness to hold Mr. Bancroft accountable for his conduct.” In other words, Pearson was well aware of the abuse, or should have been, and did nothing.
The third issue, retaliating against the players, is not a crime, but goes to the core mission of a university, which is to develop, enrich, and support the students. The case of Strauss Mann, the first goalie be named captain in Michigan’s 99 years of varsity hockey, and a student in good standing in the business school, is particularly troublesome.
Apparently, when he and some fellow seniors-to-be tried to bring their concerns about the team culture to Pearson in the spring of 2021, Mann felt sufficiently retaliated against, and worried about Pearson bad-mouthing him to NHL teams, that he saw fit to forego his senior year to play minor league professional hockey in Sweden.
At the end of the 2022 season, the entire senior class approached Josh Richelew to express their concerns – another eye-opener.
For all these people to come forward, with their careers in the balance, to express serious concerns about the program speaks volumes. I know most of these people, and am confident they would not do so unless the situation were serious.
Also troubling: the investigators make clear their belief that Pearson lied to them repeatedly on serious issues – in one case denying an important conversation took place, until confronted with the tape recording of that conversation. That alone seems reason enough to terminate his employment at U-M.
The investigators close the report with this conclusion:
These issues facing the hockey program require attention. Despite prior efforts to assess and respond to allegations regarding the culture of the program, additional work remains to be done.
Specifically, the University should review whether [Pearson’s] conduct violates other University policies, including but not limited to Standard Practice Guide 601.90, Protection from Retaliation. In addition, the Athletic Department should take steps to address a number of issues discussed in this report, including (1) the mistreatment of female staff members by Mr. Bancroft; (2) [Pearson’s] inability or unwillingness to hold Mr. Bancroft accountable for his conduct; (3) pervasive fears among both student athletes and staff members of retaliation by [Pearson] for raising issues; and (4) inconsistencies in [Pearson’s] recollection, perception, and/or characterization of key incidents and issues as compared with other participants.
My initial consideration of all this – again, a deeper, slower dive is warranted, including responses from those involved – leaves me with a few conclusions:
-It took a great deal of courage, and faith in the university, for these employees and players to come forward, especially when retaliation for doing so, with their careers at risk, was one of their greatest concerns.
-Perhaps some other information will temper my thoughts here, but based solely on this report, it is not clear to me how U-M could retain Pearson and claim it is serious about protecting students and employees. The hockey program’s problems likely don’t rise to the criminal level, but no employee or student should be expected to put up with such behavior.
-Michigan deserves credit for once again responding to serious issues by hiring Wilmer Hale to conduct a thorough, objective, and unfettered account of the problems – something other universities have failed to do when confronted with their scandals. This is an important distinction, in my view.
-This report was submitted on May 5, 2022. Granted, the Regents, who are not paid, have been working full-time hiring a new president, who seems to be an inspired choice. It is not clear to me who will make this call – athletic director Warde Manuel, outgoing interim president Mary Sue Coleman, incoming president Santa Ono, or the Regents.
But the people who have stuck their necks out should not be made to wait any longer. Action must be taken.