Let's talk about basketball

Basketball season doesn't start until Nov. 11, but from the start of the semester, it's gained much attention.

On Sept. 17, a university-wide email was sent out stating that Mike Lonergan will be removed from his position as head coach for the men’s basketball team. An investigation, dating back to July, was underway for allegations that he verbally abused players and failed to adhere to regulations of The George Washington University.

Lonergan issued a statement claiming he was wrongfully terminated, despite the fact that Provost Forrest Maltzman said in a press release, “The university recently conducted a thorough investigation into allegations concerning Coach Lonergan. The university concluded that Coach Lonergan had engaged in conduct inconsistent with the university’s values."

The Washington Post investigation details how a player visited Title IX coordinator Rory Muhammad back in April on behalf of himself and his teammates. The Title IX office had already spoken to Lonergan about the abuse situation and believed it was taken care of. However, that was not the case. In addition to verbal abuse, there were claims that Lonergan made crud comments about GW Athletic Director Patrick Nero.

On Sept. 27, 10 days after the email was sent, the university announced that Maurice Joseph, assistant coach, as interim coach for the 2016-2017 season.

According to The Post article, "After each of the past four seasons, three players have transferred out of GW, bringing the total to 13 in Lonergan’s five years." Under Coach Karl Hobbs (2001-2011), there were nine transfers from 2002-2011. Although we cannot establish correlation without causation, the basketball team did extremely well under Lonergan, so we have to ask why players were leaving GW?

As written in The Post, one player (who remained anonymous for security purposes), stated, “The 2014-15 season is probably the worst year of basketball I’ve ever been a part of, because of the environment." He said, “There was a definite point made by the athletic department to change it. But honestly, it didn’t change much at all.”

On the other side, former players tweeted the following:

GW class of 1994 alumna Steve Hadley, who's held men's basketball season tickets for over 20 years, runs the blog GW Hoops, which he started with his former roommate in 1996 to foster a forum to discuss GW men's basketball. Hadley recalled to me in an interview via email, the changes of coaches through the years from Mike Jarvis to Tom Penders to Karl Hobbs and then to Mike Lonergan.

With regards to Lonergan and the email sent out, he stated, "I think (GW) handled it in the typical DC fashion of closed-door conversations, non-disclosure and lack of transparency. I'm not sure if they thought they could hide behind the still-somewhat-obscureness of the program or if they felt like they had no legal choice but to communicate in the manner they did." GW is not a huge sports school, so Hadly said he believes the fans are forgiving enough about the administration's handling.

He said he thinks the reason the university can get away with semi-secretive procedures is because GW sports are limited and niche. As a close observer of GW basketball, Hadley has heard mixed reviews about Lonergan. These range from praise for Lonergan's rough style to aversion to it. These responses were influenced by scores and game records in some cases, he said.

Hadley discussed how the university's basketball program has just been a huge marketing campaign to increase GW attendance. "It wasn't a way to build a program, but along the way they also gathered the inevitable pitfalls of an actual basketball program with none of the infrastructure," he stated. Meaning, at GW the emphasis is on the aesthetic of the sport, not the sport itself.

He admitted, "There's a lot of sausage-making which goes into the on-court product, but like any good American, I don't want to be bothered by the details." Sausage-making is the hard truth that goes into the production of something. Ignorance is bliss? That is not a justification for abuse though.

"There's a lot of sausage-making which goes into the on-court product, but like any good American, I don't want to be bothered by the details."

Hadley joked, "Our idea of a 'scandal is laughable at GW." But that's not to discredit this misgiving or the other basketball-related scandals in the past: Ricker Parker, Sirvaliant Brown, Attila Cosby and Miles

Another close spectator of GW men's basketball is Bob Mentzinger, a 1990 graduate who now does media relations for a small college in Maine. He's a big fan who attends as many games as he can. Over the years he's seen "a concerted effort to bring high character players who can win games while staying on course for graduation. Something of a reaction to the early Karl Hobbs era." Hobbs' time as head coach was characterized by recruiting players with questionable academics, displaying rowdy behavior during games, scheduling easy, non-conference games, and maintaining testy relationships with fans and reporters.

GW as a Division I school is not something we always remember, as it gets lost in the madness of academics, internships, and political activities. Mentzinger said that, "GW is a good school that needs to be creative when it comes to attaining success in D1 athletics." He also stated that, "Such success has only been sporadic, punctuated by high profile scandal. Those cycles must end."

"Such success has only been sporadic, punctuated by high profile scandal. Those cycles must end."

This article is not meant to point fingers, get involved in the legal battle, or provide interpretation that is not warranted. Rather, the goal is to bring to fruition the larger conversation at hand, and that conversation is about sports and university values. Unfortunately no one from the university would comment on the incident or provide interviews with student athletes.

Forget about scoreboards, rankings, rebounds per game, and conference titles - the number one priority for collegiate sports (and let’s be honest, sports in general) is that players feel safe and valued on their respective teams. No one should ever have to fear going to practice, walking into the locker room, or interacting with students.

Forget about scoreboards, rankings, rebounds per game and conference titles, the number one priority for collegiate sports (and let’s be honest sports in general) is that players feel safe and valued on their respective teams.

As outlined by University Human Resources, the university values are: learning, diversity, excellence, respect, service, sustainability, and teamwork.

Undergraduate Director of Athletics and President of the Colonial Army Kate Bell offered profound insight on how student pride in athletics is moving forward. “I can only speak as a student...therefore when I think about improvement, I frame it in the context of what we are doing to make students feel as though they have an outlet,” she stated. Kate’s mission is to bridge the gap between athletes and students as well as give both the chance to take part in the community and family of GW sports.

In terms of resources, there are several places student athletes can go if they ever feel violated.

1. Representative from Title IX Office

2. Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities: to report an incident

3. Network for Victim’s Recovery of DC: for legal assistance and counseling

4. Peer network: GW Listens Hotline, friends, teammates, etc.

In wake of what happened with Lonergan, the emphasis is on community building. Kate reflected, “My biggest priority, the cause that literally wakes me up in the morning, is fostering a stronger community between the student athlete and non-student athlete population.”

We may not have a football team and we may get more excited about the State of the Union than Super Bowl (ok, maybe not quite), but that doesn’t mean our athletes deserve any less respect and support. So be loud, be proud, and raise high.

Originally published by Courtney Buble on gw.therival.news on 11.1.16.

CampusBrandon Bish