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Missoulian drops the ball with coverage of UM football scandal

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This morning I woke up to the news of Robin Pflugrad and Jim O’Day’s dismissal from UM’s athletic program. While I was not surprised that these two men were asked to leave presumably because of their involvement in the recent sexual assault scandal involving members of the football team, I am shocked to see the manner in which the Missoulian presented the reception of the news within the Griz community.

Bill Speltz’s article, published under the headlines “Griz football program in limbo following firing of O’Day, Pflugrad” and “Griz left shocked, wondering why” on the Missoulian and Independent Record websites, respectively, seems to console the wrong parties. The article uses the words “unsettling,” “bombshell,” and “heartfelt” within the first 250 words that describe the difficulties of switching coaches in the middle of spring training. The article states that the football program needs to “rebound from its current predicament,” depicting the UM football community as being in a state of total shock after losing competent and well-respected leaders. In contrast, the Missoulian‘s initial article on the alleged UM sexual assaults that appeared on December 16, 2011 is written in a dry professional tone, free from the emotional rhetoric present in today’s article.

While I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t speak to the quality of Pflugrad and O’Day’s coaching and leadership abilities, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they were both proficient in their jobs as they relate to athletics. I don’t doubt for a second that they will be missed by players and fans alike. But Speltz’s article highlights the emotional stress that the football community is currently undergoing, while sidelining the real victims: the survivors of sexual assault. Their stress and ostracism will no doubt increase with the outpouring of support for the coach and athletic director who mismanaged the handling of the sexual assault allegations. Speltz’s article will probably be the way most people find out about Pflugrad and O’Day’s dismissal, and thus has tremendous power in forming public opinion on the scandal. By framing it in such ways that stresses the problems for fans and athletes, Speltz excludes the ongoing problems for those people who are still dealing with the trauma of sexual assault.

Pflugrad and O’Day’s role in the recent sexual assault allegations at UM resonate with an article published in the National Catholic Register a few days ago about the rampant protection of football players by Notre Dame officials from allegations of sexual assault. First-year student Lizzy Seeberg committed suicide in August of 2010 after school authorities shielded a football player from police inquiry and failed to proceed with an internal investigation of her sexual assault. Notre Dame and the University of Montana aren’t the only schools that protect their star athletes from legal ramifications, but are emblematic of a larger problem. I bring up Lizzy Seeberg’s story because Melinda Henneberger’s thorough investigation reveals the ugly underbelly of a university when confronted with a crime seemingly perpetrated by a beloved athlete. I can only wait in dread of the details that emerge as the UM investigations unfold.

I hope that today’s events are the first step in changing how UM- and by extension, all colleges and universities- treat allegations of sexual assault, especially involving student athletes. When institutions of higher learning protect their athletes from legal scrutiny, they send a message to their students and communities that the alumni-rallying money machine of athletics is more important than the physical safety of their students. The Missoulian‘s coverage, among other things, only helps support this message.

About the author

Ellie Newell

Born and raised in Helena, Ellie recently completed her bachelors degree in English Literature at Whitman College where she was co-president of Feminists Advocating Change & Empowerment. She lives in Bozeman.

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  • Amen, brother. You'd of thought it was the end of the world. Hell – I was at a meeting that was interrupted to convey the "news."

    Interesting that you mention Notre Dame. Nate Montana transferred to UMontana from Notre Dame, where it is well-rumored that he was involved with a history of sexual assault.

    These are not new rumors. When he transferred here, that was the story surrounding his arrival.

    I don't take joy from Pflugrad's firing, nor do I find it as anything even near to being more important than the lack of justice for the victimss and apparent ongoing ineptitude of the University to get a handle on things – or the fact that the athletic department and the football program apparently did not (even now) seem to grasp the severity of the situation.

    Frankly, I'm of the mind that the U is quite pleased that Griz nation is in mourning, with attention focused away from what should really be the true issue.

  • My thoughts as well, Ellie. I understand the loyalty papers have to their home team, but it's unprofessional and it doesn't serve the community. Even apart from what's right or wrong, it's become abundantly clear that ethical scandals are far more damaging to universities and their sports programs than a few bad seasons. I think i it's the responsibility of the 'football community' to be vocal in making it clear that they'd rather lose with a clean team than win with one marred by the sort of atrocious behavior that has been reported. I know what kind of team I'd rather root for.

    And good to hear from you again, Ellie!

  • Hello: I've certainly been critical of the Missoulian's coverage on certain issues over the years; however, I'd just like to point a few things out in this particular case.

    First, the Missoulian's coverage of the UM sexual assaults/rapes/cover-up issue over the past 6 months has generally been excellent. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if it wasn't for the Missoulian's dogged pursuit of the truth with this on-going issue that some of the accountability we are starting to see (ie recent firings) would have never happened.

    I'd also like to point out that Bill Speltz is the Missoulian's sports columnist, so it would be no surprise that he writes sports-related stories. In fact, the article of his that was linked to in this blog post (http://missoulian.com/college/griz/griz-football-program-in-limbo-following-firing-of-o-day/article_e5d7f3ae-7a1a-11e1-8b07-0019bb2963f4.html) takes readers to a special "GrizSports" section of the Missoulian's website.

    I also have to imagine that one of the issues that the Missoulian was facing as this story broke was that nobody at UM was talking to the media following UM's Presidents very short (and very short on details) announcement about the firings. This was likely complicated by the fact that the announcement happened just before Spring Break in Missoula. Seems like some of the current and former UM football players were willing to speak with the media immediately after the firings, so hence you have the story from the Missoulian's sports columnist Bill Speltz.

    The Missoulian does have a news article today about this issue, written by Gwen Florio, who in my opinion has done solid reporting on this issue for months. http://missoulian.com/news/local/um-keeps-mum-on-… As you'll see, the title, "UM keeps mum on reasons for O'Day, Pflugrad firings" shows the difficulty that media outlets are having getting answers from UM's administration.

    I'm sure in the coming days and weeks more information will come to light, as will more accountability and justice for the victims. However, I just don't think we should judge the Missoulian's otherwise very good investigative journalism on this issue over the past 6 months simply because their sports columnist wrote a sports-related article about the firings of the head football coach and athletic director. Thanks.

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