One of my least favorite tasks regarding taking care of my own home is having to call the cable or internet company. I am typically connected to a number menu after a 10-minute hold preceded by having to share my name and address repeatedly until I reach the right department. Once a human connection is established and hope is restored, I am transferred.
As I share my story for the fifth time with the third representative I am met with a scripted human being who then makes up an excuse along with an unapologetic set of facts that include an offer to up-sell me.
These calls, as expected, typically do not go smoothly.
I am often elevated in my voice volume by minute 15, annoyed at having to repeat my story or just plain insulted by the company's attempts to gaslight me as if this problem is only my problem or, that it's not a real problem at all. If you have ever made one of these dreaded inquiries or calls, you know this scenario all too well.
However, every once in a blue moon I will get that customer service rep who gives me no choice but to rave about them in the customer survey following the completion of my call. This is something I will do 100% of the time when it goes well.
I refer to it as, "dropping the rope" for the customer and treating them with empathy and understanding of their issue rather than rushing to convince them this is not the company's fault. Again, this is so simple and basic, yet rare. This positive kind of customer experience on a call controls frustration, tension and relieves two complete strangers of the awkward blame exchange.
Unfortunately, like this call, public figure declaration of ownership of wrongdoing or bad decision making has all but disappeared from places of leadership. In this article, we are speaking about its extinction from athletic leadership.
Among the many, this is just one reason that organizations and universities all over the United States are standing around staring at one another wondering who is next in the national headlines. The most recent MSU/Nassar sexual assault scandal is something I hope remains inescapable by the industry for quite some time.
I continue to be intrigued when athletic bodies are miffed by the public's negative reaction to its administration's inability to do the right thing.
Last week, the now former MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis and his PR department failed in this basic application of understanding of how human decency is portrayed.
While overseeing the athletic department that allowed Larry Nassar to sexually assault and abuse athletes for decades, Hollis remains unscathed. Instead of "dropping the rope" for the angry citizens and students of MSU and admitting wrongdoing, Hollis stated to the press that he feels for the victims of Nassar, while his quote suggests otherwise.
"Every decision I made was a good one at the time I made it." - Mark Hollis, MSU Former Athletic Director
Really? I would never describe those decisions as “good” but while Hollis is denying any responsibility of what happened under his watch, he went even further to claim his sudden retirement was completely planned rather than a resignation. This is the point when the readers or the "caller" on the other end gets heated. It's where the consumer knows you are lying and that even though the company can fix it, they have no desire to take ownership.
Why is this an athletic trend? That's easy, because up until the very moment the Nassar verdict of 175 years in prison was dished out for his decades of sexual assault on athletes at MSU, shamed (yet permitted-to-retire) AD Mark Hollis was living in an impenetrable bubble that allowed him to ignore, deny and smile his way through every press conference while horrible things were happening at MSU.
But Hollis isn't the only one.
Rewind to June 2017 when Gary Barta and the University of Iowa lost huge in the Griesbaum/Meyer case. Barta, even after the embarrassing loss, is still the athletic director at Iowa. Despite being a national embarrassment, Barta was rewarded only a few months later as the recipient of an endowment of five million dollars in his name by a wealthy donor. Despite the case loss, Barta was still recognized by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics as a 2015-16 Under Armour Athletics Director of the Year.This award gives special recognition to those AD's demonstrating a commitment to gender equity in sports.
This is all after a unanimous jury of eight sided with Meyer and Griesbaum and the University of Iowa was forced to payout a total of 6.5 million dollars. Both cases were high-profile discrimination lawsuits, but Iowa didn't seem to bat an eye. Despite getting crushed in court and having every stone of his sexism unturned and exposed in a three-year long case, Barta stated to the press with no hesitation:
"In principle, I am very confident with the decisions that we made. Tactically I suppose there is always things you could think of to improve. But from a principle standpoint we felt like we made the right decisions." - Gary Barta, Post Trial Press Conference
But wait, it gets even worse as the core issue with Barta and Hollis runs much deeper than that because these men are only a small sample size in the massive epidemic of elitism in athletic leadership.
University of Minnesota Duluth's Josh Berlo (you can read about what he did here) and former Baylor AD/current Liberty University AD Ian McCaw (you can read about what he did here) maintain their positions despite being tied to the discrimination lawsuits (Berlo) and the massive ongoing Baylor rape cases (McCaw). Both have refused to take ownership and have since been rewarded by their institutions with raises, contract extensions and all but the ability to completely erase their obvious and historically-documented participation in these scandals.
The reputation of college athletics in general is being steamrolled by the actions of these men and rather than sitting around assuming this a witch hunt of some kind, we should start believing and acknowledging the poisonous waters of this industry's leadership that has gone unchecked since its formation.
Perhaps many are unaware but when you enter the NCAA Hall of Fame in Indianapolis, the very first structure to behold is the Flying Wedge. This statue is a re-creation of what was an archaic version of football in the late 1800s. Today, the art piece is currently the only structure loosely related to rugby in the HOF. As described by the tour guide, the Flying Wedge was brutal and dangerous where the game was a physical free-for-all. Young men being maimed or killed on the field was - at that time - somehow not enough for the coaches and presidents of the schools to consider changes. By 1905, there was one-fifth the number of college football players compared to today. A total of 18 were killed while 159 were severely injured in that one year alone.
It wasn't until a good friend of President Teddy Roosevelt's son broke his nose in a most horrific fashion that the Ivy League was ordered to do something about it. Only then was safety of the athletes front and center, which ultimately led to the formation of the NCAA.
You see, the organization began by recognition of only the interests of the elite which makes it no surprise that we are now daily unearthing shocking details and scandals by the leadership of the elite.
The original NCAA was not founded on any premises that included women, their participation, safety or protection. We have evolved where women are included but there remains that underground mantra in athletic leadership that the presence and strength of women is something to be shunned or eliminated.
In 2018, college athletics is riddled with the inability to apologize to women, the unwillingness to admit wrongdoing toward women and suffers from the bold arrogance of protection by presidents, boards, trustees, and big-dollar donors. This is what college athletics has become because we have allowed it. Our demand for the basics of customer service or even human decency will not be met until the bubble around these predominantly white males in leadership is popped.
Athletic Director Mark Hollis did not have to sit on the other end of the customer service phone repeating his story and accounts about the sexual assault he experienced, but the survivors of Larry Nassar did. Only the survivors' stories had to be exposed and dissected before a courtroom of people and the rest of the world.
Jane Meyer and Tracey Griesbaum of Iowa had to have their names smeared to win verdicts and fought for three years of their lives that they will never get back. Griesbaum, one of the country's most talented and successful women's college field hockey coaches, is now a volunteer assistant at Duke University.
Despite his leave of absence from UI due to an October 2017 diagnosis with prostate cancer, Gary Barta has had to answer to no one at Iowa for his discriminatory actions.
Meanwhile, AD Berlo is still involved in the ongoing case of Miller vs UMD. While former coach and plaintiff Shannon Miller is arguably one of the most successful coaches in women's ice hockey, she will likely never be given the opportunity to coach in the NCAA again.
Imagine for a moment just needing that help from your institution to report your harassment, discrimination, sexual assault, or rape and you get transferred, put on hold, or are made to believe it didn't happen at all. Then, once you finally get someone to listen to your horrifying story, your attacker, abuser of power or perpetrator looks you right in the face and says he would do nothing differently if he had the chance. Basically, sorry, I'm not sorry.
The idea of ethical collaboration for the good of athletics is being erased before our eyes. The absence of gauging right vs. wrong has been replaced by what best protects the interest of the institution. The divisive silos that only exist to separate those who work for athletics and those who believe athletics works for them. Hollis, Barta, Berlo and McCaw are not the only leaders in college athletics who are unapologetic about these crimes, they are simply the ones who got caught.
Human decency is even easier than basic principles of customer service. However, our athletic departments and national governing bodies are failing at both. As organizations or professionals, when we are approached by the victims of these leaders we must cease in our robotic scripted responses that look only to make excuses to protect the institution. We must understand that these institutional problems of abuse of power will not change or be remedied if the leadership is insulated from accountability.
We must demand a stop to the flow of the hollow and unapologetic PR responses to scandal and embrace the reality that the people who lead and operate in these systems are part of the cultural problem.
When we hear a voice on the other line that says, "I'm so sorry that happened to you, Ms Carlson. I'm going to stay on the line with you and get a supervisor connected with us, so we can get you help and make this right."
This is when we will make true progress.