A viral campaign began earlier this week, urging students to boycott the kickoff of Michigan’s home game against Penn State Saturday. Originating from the comments section of MGoBlog, an online blog that chronicles Michigan athletics, the boycott is a student response to a series of mistakes and failures from Athletic Director Dave Brandon and the University’s Athletic Department. This list of grievances begins as early as 2009 — before Dave Brandon’s tenure — and concludes as recently as two weeks ago. Student outrage has reached a peak, culminating with protests on the Diag and outside University President Mark Schlissel’s house. Such an outburst is not easy to incite and should not be taken lightly. The University, the Athletic Department and Dave Brandon need to begin a serious push to win back the student body by implementing policies that can preemptively address potential crises.
Perhaps the most alarming fault was the perceived mishandling of the sexual assault case involving former Michigan kicker Brendan Gibbons. Though Gibbons was accused of sexual assault on Nov. 22, 2009, he was not suspended from play until more than four years later, in December of 2013. This delay in confronting the issue revealed a clear flaw in the system that various University units have since had to remedy — including upholding the Student Sexual Misconduct Policy.
The Athletic Department played a significant role in mistreating the situation by concealing Gibbons’ separation from the University. After the Office of Student Conflict Resolution issued Gibbons’ suspension Dec. 19, 2013, a copy of the expulsion letter signed by Gibbons was faxed from the Athletic Department on the same date. This indicates that athletic officials were aware of the separation at that time at the latest. Only a very serious breakdown in communication would explain Brandon’s ignorance of the separation at this point. However, at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl Dec. 28, Michigan Coach Brady Hoke claimed that Gibbons would not play because of a “family matter.” Hoke also stated that Gibbons would not participate in the regular-season finale against Ohio State due to an undisclosed injury. Again, either the Athletic Department had a very troubling problem with communication, Brandon failed to inform Hoke of the situation or Hoke’s statements were made up. Regardless, Hoke’s indirect manner of addressing the questions, as well as providing false information, brings to light an institutional problem within the Department.
The U.S. Department of Education has since opened a federal investigation into the University’s handling of the case. The Department’s Office for Civil Rights is now reviewing whether or not the University violated the Title IX legislation in relation to the Gibbons case, as well as sexual assault and harassment on campus in general. The fact that the Athletic Department and University bungled a situation so seriously as to draw the attention of federal investigators aligns with its repetitive lack of transparency and questionable procedures.
Ticket pricing and policies have also angered students and non-students alike. The increase in the cost for season tickets, coupled with the weakest home schedule in recent memory, makes the athletic department seem out of touch with the reality of fans unable to afford tickets. The switch to general admission seating for students last season also caused students to lose trust in the department’s ability to make decisions regarding student ticket policy, as the system was a failure that had to be altered again in short order, this time with the Central Student Government and the department working together to institute the new policy in place for this year. The Athletic Department’s failure to include student input from the beginning not only manifests in negative opinion, but smothers school spirit and future fans of University athletics.
Most recently, the Shane Morris incident has driven student patience to the brink. By allowing a concussed sophomore quarterback to continue to play, the Michigan Football program put a 20-year-old’s life at risk. Morris’ injury showed that sideline medical policies — which have since been updated — weren’t thorough enough to protect student health. While Brandon has said that it was a miscommunication and a “mistake that cannot occur again,” the fact that it happened at all suggests incompetence as negligence is an unacceptable excuse for risking student lives. Brandon and the Athletic Department need to be proactive rather than reactive. The Athletic Department’s communication issues were not isolated to the field. After the game, Brandon and Hoke publicly contradicted each other multiple times, the most concerning of which was when they were spoke of Morris’ condition.
The fact that a group of students is willing to sacrifice the public image of the University to institute a boycott at this Saturday’s game is a clear example that student opinion of the Athletic Department under Dave Brandon has hit an extreme low point. The Department has lost support of fans with its ticket pricing and policy, and the support of sports fans and non-fans alike with its handling of the Gibbons incident and Morris injury. This outcry and negative sentiment cannot be ignored by the Athletic Department, which must now bring about substantive change to rebuild lost trust.