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.