Norwood Teague scandal proves college sports has a long way to go

BY Reid Forgrave • August 13, 2015

Ever since University of Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague resigned last week amid a flurry of reports of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, two short sentences uttered by a university president have left an acrid, lingering taste in my mouth.

They’ve made me think about a lot of things: How could a university allow a man with a history of various actions against women get away with this? How could an esteemed institution of higher learning, one with an alumni base that has nine Nobel laureates and two former Vice Presidents of the United States, become a petri dish for this type of misogynistic behavior? How can big-time, big-money American sports – despite so much progress in recent decades to create a larger space for women – still breed an institutionalized culture that can lead to a powerful athletic director wielding his power in unwieldy ways.

How the hell can this happen, still, in 2015?

Here are Teague’s reported actions: Sexually harassing two University of Minnesota employees at social events with co-workers; continually harassing and making aggressive and unwanted sexual advances on the female Golden Gophers beat reporter for the local newspaper; and two separate accusations of gender discrimination leveled by co-workers at the University of Minnesota and at his former school, Virginia Commonwealth University.

And here are those two sentences from University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler after Teague announced his resignation: “I view this as the action of one man who was overserved (alcohol) and a series of bad events happened. It doesn’t reflect the culture and the values of this university.”

What that sounds like to me is a university president accepting Teague's resignation while accepting none of the blame.

Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that Kaler was essentially echoing Teague’s sorry excuse for his inexcusable actions by saying, “Whoops – he was drunk.” That excuse rings hollow when it comes from a college student, but it sounds reprehensible coming from a college president.

Let’s also ignore Kaler’s unfortunate choice of words when he said Teague was “overserved,” a construction that seems to put the onus on the bartender and not the sexual harasser.

Instead, let’s focus on that final part: “It doesn’t reflect the culture and the values of this university.”

Actually, President Kaler, you’re right. It reflects something much bigger. It reflects the culture and the values of big-time collegiate athletics that’s too often ruled by a macho, win-at-all-costs mentality.

I asked Lisa Maatz, the top policy advisor for the American Association of University Women, what she thought of Kaler’s comments.

“He totally minimized it – and that’s same old, same old,” she said. “What’s new and different is that more people are getting outraged over same-old, same-old. (Another problem was) it wasn’t addressed until it was embarrassing or dangerous – and quite frankly, that’s embarrassing that they have their head in the sand so deep.”

The University of Minnesota isn’t solely to blame for that culture. It’s the fault of a system that values the so-called revenue sports of football and men’s basketball and often only gives lip service to women’s sports. It’s the fault of people like myself, who focus our media conversation on who’ll win the title and who’ll get drafted in the first round instead of what the marriage of amateur athletics and academics ought to say about society and those compelling stories within it.

But it’s impossible to look at Teague’s outrageous actions – which, if you want to upset your stomach, are documented here (NSFW) and here – and avoid the backdrop that’s been unfolding in the University of Minnesota athletics department. The U.S. Department of Education is in the midst of an investigation of the school’s compliance with Title IX, the federal law that compels college athletics programs to be equally balanced based on gender. That investigation is underway as the school kicks off a massive $150 million athletic facilities project. To be fair, an equal opportunities expert with the National Women’s Law Center told me it’s not uncommon for universities to be noncompliant with Title IX, but it’s also impossible to look at the reported $300,000 in legal settlements on gender discrimination complaints and not see this as two schools sweeping an important problem under the rug.

Here are the details: At VCU, the $125,000 settlement in 2012 was based on a gender discrimination complaint, according to the Star-Tribune. At Minnesota, a female senior associate director reportedly settled a federal gender discrimination complaint for $175,000 in 2013; she claimed Teague had fired her because she questioned his “commitment to Title IX.”  She alleged Teague “expected a woman in my position to take a passive role and defer to men’s opinions.”

It’s a culture of just-below-the-surface discrimination that this week has the University -- belatedly -- requesting an outside investigation into the culture of Teague’s department and the manner in which it appropriated funds.

Sports are a reflection of our society. The fact that misogyny and inequality are frequently on the periphery of our sports world only reflects the misogyny and inequality in the real world.

It’s no coincidence that as this Norwood Teague fiasco has played out in sports, a parallel misogynistic story has been playing out in politics, as presidential candidate Donald Trump – after being called out by Republican debate moderator Megyn Kelly for calling various women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals” – suggested the reason Kelly went after him in the debate was because she was menstruating. By the way, Trump’s lead in the polls only increased after that debate.

In many ways, it’s been a banner year for women in sports. Serena Williams is still the most dominant athlete in the world. Ronda Rousey has become the face of the UFC. Mo’ne Davis captured the imagination of a nation. So did the gold-medal-winning U.S. Women’s World Cup team.

It can be easy to look at these successes of women in the macho world of big-time sports and think that misogyny is in the past

But all it takes is one Norwood Teague scandal to remind us that, no, it’s still very much a part of the present.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.


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