On Wednesday, hockey writer Jess Myers published an exclusive interview with former Michigan coach Mel Pearson on The Rink Live, a hockey outlet based in Minnesota. It was the first time Pearson has spoken out since he was fired for his role in alleged misconduct back in August.
And while the outlet rightfully gave Pearson a platform from which to project his voice, unfortunately it neither fact checked nor qualified any claims that the former coach leveled in his interview.
I personally reached out to Myers to help correct these mistakes, and his editors only corrected one of them: the fact that The Daily was not the first publication to release the report. However, there are far more pressing issues than that minor detail. While Michigan as a program wants to distance itself from Pearson, that becomes impossible if misinformation is spread.
That’s what this article sets out to correct. I will explain the major issues with Myers’ piece, with citations from the WilmerHale report itself.
WilmerHale only investigated retaliation
Myers’ article states that WilmerHale’s report ruled that Pearson did not retaliate against athletes nor engaged in discrimination against female staff.
“But the report concluded that the 63-year-old head coach had not retaliated against the former coach or players, nor had he violated school policy governing gender-based discrimination,” Myers’ article reads. “His name seemingly cleared of the most serious charges, Pearson was discussing a new contract with the Michigan athletic director over the summer.”
That is incorrect. The report did not address the veracity of those claims at all.
In a letter dated Oct. 28, 2021, WilmerHale general counsel Bruce Berman outlined that his firm was investigating a formal complaint filed by Steve Shields, former Michigan volunteer director of player development. The complaint made four main allegations, including the two included in Myers’ article. But the investigation’s final report published May 5, 2022, did not focus on proving or disproving those claims; it investigated whether or not Shields was retaliated against for speaking out against those instances of alleged misconduct.
In the report’s findings, Pearson is never exonerated of the formal complaint’s charges. The report could not speak on that, because that was not within the scope of the investigation.
“… Our inquiry was a relatively narrow one,” Page 2 of the report reads. “Did Respondent retaliate against Complainant because Complainant voiced concerns about the continued employment of staff members with knowledge of Dr. Anderson’s sexual misconduct and/or concerns about the mistreatment of female staff members?”
In its findings, the report points to a different reason for Shields’s termination, which directly relates to further recommendations given by the firm. On Page 3, it says that Shields was fired because Pearson believed he was working to “undermine (Pearson’s) leadership of the hockey program” by raising concerns about Pearson’s following of COVID-19 protocols and treatment of student athletes. WilmerHale decided that termination did not violate the University’s sexual and gender-based misconduct policy specifically.
With this in mind, WilmerHale called for the opening up of a new investigation into Pearson and his program with a broader scope.
“Specifically, the University should review whether Respondent’s conduct violates other University policies, including but not limited to Standard Practice Guide 601.90, Protection from Retaliation,” Page 66 of the report reads.
So while Pearson did not retaliate against Shields as defined by one policy, Pearson was never cleared of any allegations made in the formal complaint. Whether other allegations were made in that complaint outside of the four released by MLive is unknown. A Freedom of Information Act request was denied by the University’s FOIA office in February, and a subsequent appeal was denied in March.
Myers let Pearson spread unsubstantiated rumors
In addition to getting the investigation’s conclusions incorrect, Myers did not corroborate multiple allegations within the report. Notably, Pearson makes bold claims that he was told a Michigan staffer tried to celebrate his firing by giving players, at least one underage, alcohol.
Myers made no visible effort to back up that claim, instead allowing it to stand unchecked. Whether the claim is true or not, the word of a coach who was found untrustworthy in the report is taken at face value.
Myers also suggests that former administrative assistant Lora Durkee could not have seen a toxic culture in Pearson’s program because she wanted to stay with the team. Myers writes that Pearson showed him an email from September 2020 in which Durkee asked the former coach to keep her with the hockey program when she might have been taken to another sport.
But whether or not that’s true, most of the allegations in the report occurred after that time. Whether the culture was toxic or not when the email was sent, abuse reported by female staff occurred after that email, and the email has no bearing on the program’s future problems.
The report also includes testimony that Durkee faced discrimination at work, specifically the answers of equipment manager Ian Hume. Hume gave the investigators a list of women that he alleges Pearson and former director of hockey operations Rick Bancroft discriminated against, and it includes Durkee’s name. Facility manager Kris Barnes also said he heard of Durkee’s mistreatment at work, including one instance when she left in tears.
That’s ignoring the fact that, despite what she usually tells people about her retirement, Durkee’s interviews make the reasons for her exit quite clear:
“(Durkee) stated that the ‘main reason’ she retired was that the environment surrounding the men’s hockey program was ‘toxic,’ and, as the University brought employees back to in-person work, she did not wish to return to that environment,” Page 22 reads. “She stated that her retirement had ‘a lot to do’ with Mr. Bancroft and the University’s failure to address her concerns, which she had reported to Respondent and Human Resources, about his ‘rude’ behavior that made her feel uncomfortable.”
Durkee also said in her WilmerHale interviews that she tried to report misconduct to the Athletic Department. She also claimed that athletic department employees contacted her after she announced her retirement, hoping that it wasn’t related to her treatment by team officials.
In suggesting Durkee’s retirement was anything different, Pearson borders on victim blaming.
Why does this matter?
There is a journalistic duty to not only share information with the public, but also to make sure that information is accurate and true. That mission should be at the core of every reporter’s ethos. Giving a large platform to a source who was labeled an untrustworthy witness by a formal investigation runs antithetical to that cause.
Pearson has attempted to remain in close contact with the program in which he led a toxic culture. Multiple sources tell The Daily that he showed up uninvited to a team practice on Thursday, Sept. 22. He also told Myers that he contacted all the program’s incoming freshmen before they went on campus.
Any workers and players fearing retaliation cannot fulfill their job duties or potential with Pearson looming over the program. Interviews in which he spreads misinformation only serve to reinforce his ability to do that.
And that’s exactly what Myers’ article does.