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SportsMonday Column: In Gibbons case, separating the investigation from the response

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 9, 2014

In keeping with Michigan’s mishandling of the aftermath of former kicker Brendan Gibbons’ expulsion for sexual misconduct, Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s press conference on Wednesday was, again, unacceptably lacking.

Hoke had put out a statement to a secretive meeting of five select news outlets Monday. Asked again about the Gibbons situation Wednesday, Hoke made references to that nebulous statement. He made a prolonged, stern stare. He made more references to that statement.

He talked freely about recruiting — it was National Signing Day, after all — but in his first open press conference after the Gibbons incident came to light, he said almost nothing at all. He said he has “no idea” how student misconduct is investigated. He said, of those who feel the University is hiding behind something, “That’s your opinion.”

He said, again, “Did I give you a statement?”

This was another misguided, discomforting response to the questions over how Michigan handled allegations of sexual misconduct against Gibbons. But it has now become too easy to confuse Michigan’s botched response for a botched investigative process. The Athletic Department and the University still must answer questions about that. But there are two distinct issues here: how the University pursues charges of sexual misconduct, and Michigan’s unsettling lack of transparency.

To be clear: The idea that the University or the Michigan football team would in any way obstruct or cover up sexual misconduct allegedly committed by Brendan Gibbons doesn’t seem logical.

Consider: Gibbons was, in 2009, a mediocre freshman kicker who was in his redshirt year; better players have been kicked off or disciplined for less; it doesn’t make sense for Hoke to risk his job by playing Gibbons in an effectively meaningless game against Iowa on Nov. 23 — a few days after a University body found him responsible for sexual misconduct. The Ann Arbor police, apparently, did not have enough to press criminal charges.

The University’s sexual misconduct policy at the time required a complainant to initiate an investigation. Unless a complainant came forward, the University had no options. With no action from the police or from the University, the football team did nothing.

In 2013, the same year the University implemented its new sexual misconduct policy, Gibbons was investigated and expelled.

To this point, the University acted exactly as it should. Assuming no complainant came forward, it had no recourse against Gibbons. The football team refrained from punishing someone who had not been charged by the police or investigated by the University. When the new policy allowed, the University took action.

Here, though, the questions begin. When was the Athletic Department notified?

And, more importantly: this case receives public attention because it involves a football player. But what about the others?

The most recent statistics released by University Police under the Clery Act, from 2012, show 21 reports of forcible rape, 21 reports of forcible fondling and three reports of sexual assault with an object. Yet, there were zero permanent separations in the 2011-2012 academic year, according to the recent data from the Office of Student Conflict Resolution. With the new policy in place, what is being done about the others? Why was Gibbons’ expulsion so rare?

There are answers to these questions. The University owes its students and stakeholders the transparency that can provide them.

Unfortunately, transparency is not the default response for the Michigan Athletic Department. This is a university that, according to a 2009 report by the Daily, holds an unusually narrow interpretation of Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. This is an athletic department that gives no access to football practices; limits player availability to internally selected players (Gibbons faced questions just once in 2013, following a triple-overtime victory against Northwestern on Nov. 16); and prohibits contacting players’ families without department consent.

Some Michigan sports are more restrictive than others. Nobody likes to hear reporters complain about access. And when we do complain, we are more often concerned with writing stories about depth charts than with serving as a public watchdog.

Would increased access to Gibbons or other players or families have shed any light on his expulsion earlier? Maybe not.

What this does show, though, is an athletic department whose first reflex is to obscure. “Fort Schembechler” — the nickname bestowed upon the football program’s nothing-in-nothing-out tendencies — is nice for football games, but it is less so for more important matters.

So it comes with little surprise that the Athletic Department’s first reaction was to deny knowledge of Gibbons’ expulsion. It comes with little surprise the University’s first reaction was to cite privacy laws, despite the fact that they explicitly exclude “a student who is an alleged perpetrator of any crime of violence … or a nonforcible sex offense.” It comes as little surprise that Bill Martin, Michigan’s athletic director at the time the alleged incident occurred, denied knowledge of any incident involving Gibbons. And it comes as little surprise that at the first public comments made by Hoke following the Daily’s report on Gibbons’s expulsion, the Daily and other outlets were not invited. It matters little when the press conference was initially scheduled.

Still, all of this is evidence of a mishandled response to Gibbons’ expulsion. That shouldn’t be confused for a cover-up or a delay in investigating his misconduct. Currently, no evidence supports that claim.

We can’t change how the University investigated Gibbons or anyone else in the past. But we can engage in a debate over how the University can better create a safe space, while protecting the rights of all involved. We can ensure the other incidents, the ones that don’t involve football players, are handled properly.

But that would require transparency. The University and the Athletic Department have shown that’s a non-starter.

Helfand can be reached at zhelfand@umich.edu or on Twitter @zhelfand