BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 11/15/2012

Thiel: Can colleges be trusted with athlete welfare?

The Marquess Wilson saga points to a need to have an entity beside his school and conference invited into the discussion. No one is on the side of any aggrieved athlete.

Marquess Wilson, once Washington State’s best player, has put his old school in the worst spot. / Washington State University

Soon as I heard that Washington State athletic program and Pac-12 Conference were going to begin separate investigations into Marquess Wilson’s controversial departure from the Cougars football program, it called to mind one of the most bizarre episodes in sports history, one for which I bore witness on behalf of the Seattle P-I:  The 1997 heavyweight fight in which Mike Tyson chose to make an appetizer of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Pull up a chair.

The conclusion of the match, sufficiently outrageous, was only the beginning of a perverse evening.

The Tyson disqualification caused thousands of fans at the Las Vegas MGM Grand arena to rain down any unfastened objects upon the ring. Officials, journalists, boxers and their entourages made haste for the cover of the dressing rooms.

If that wasn’t sufficient mayhem, after interviews were done, I walked back to my hotel room through the shopping mall that connects the arena to the casino. Suddenly, in the distance, the pop-pop of gunfire could be heard, followed seconds later by a mass of scared patrons and employees sprinting out of the casino, followed in a few more seconds by police officers with guns drawn.

Wow, I thought. The wildest boxing outcome in history just was topped.

Then I walked into an alternate universe  — a 24-hour casino devoid of people. Silent, except for the electronic chatter of slot machines. Toppled stools, coins in untended drink cups, coins on the floor.

Finally, I found a casino croupier, sitting alone in a chair, struggling to light a cigarette with her shaking hand. She filled me in: An argument broke out at a VIP craps table between followers of the two fighters’ camps. Push led to shove, then gunfire, then panic. She didn’t see who did what because all she was watching were the people running in front of her that she was trying to pass.

Then came another turn that connects the events of ear-bite night to empty-corpse days in Pullman. In local media coverage the next day, the panic in the casino was ascribed by police to have been generated by either a champagne bottle dropped on a marble floor, or a metal stanchion, supporting velvet ropes, also being knocked down.

Um, no. As I walked through the casino, I could smell sulfur and I discovered a bullet hole in a wall. The look on the croupier’s face had wet-eye, dry-mouth truth all over it.

The police were saying, in effect: Nothing to see here, people. Move along.

Absent dead or wounded bodies, neither the Las Vegas police nor the casino saw any reason to bleed the community’s lifeblood, tourists, by suggesting it was possible to be shot in a casino. No matter what the video cameras may have captured regarding the shooter (s), the cops understood that the risk to the city’s business was not worth the reward of capturing and charging publicly the miscreants.

And so we get back to Pullman, and really, any institution that is charged with internally investigating an episode of misdeed absent hard evidence: Would any school or any conference risk damaging its reputation (and recruiting ability) by honestly evaluating the apparently subjective claims of a whistleblower?

It’s highly unlikely that Leach and his coaches broke any laws, and probably didn’t exceed the bounds of coaching customs, at least as they have been stretched by coaches such as retired basketball bully Bobby Knight, who also once coached at Texas Tech.

In any event, it will be difficult to find the truth because every player, coach, staffer and most students and faculty at WSU have a vested interest in Leach’s potential success. Even ex-players who departed since Leach’s arrival may not find worthwhile the hassle of honesty.

The issue here is not the veracity of Wilson’s claims, nor the methods of Leach’s coaching,  nor Washington’s State’s house policy. The issue is whether any big-time university whose profile and financial welfare is increasingly subsidized by growing media revenues in a hyper-competitive business environment, can afford to take a hit where it lives — credibility with incoming athletes.

Wilson has put WSU in the difficult position of potentially rebuking its star player, one who risked his standing in the NFL draft to publicly admonish his former school by letter sent to media outlets.

Many will criticize the letter as a self-serving coverup for his deficiencies as a player insufficiently tough to handle Leach’s demands. That could be true. But if it isn’t, it’s hard to imagine, given the current stakes, Leach and the school owning up to the complaints.

An admission creates doubt among recruits and their parents — who already can read the five-year record — about what Cougars football is about under Leach. And even if a premier recruit can excuse it, can he be sure other potential incoming classmates will do the same?

That is why the big-time schools need to create an independent board for athlete welfare, where players can get a fair hearing for grievances. It can only help both sides.

Right now, the NCAA monopoly is answerable to nothing but its own self-interest. It’s always been that way. Now, however, the major conferences, not the NCAA, are negotiating rights-fee deals in the billions that threaten to cleave schools from one another as well as warp university mission statement. The pressure to win, once only white-hot, has increased to win even more often, so as not to get left behind the gravy train.

That’s why Leach, at $2 million per, was hired as the state’s highest-paid employee. And it’s why, sooner than later, the biggest conferences will break away from the NCAA’s governance, because it’s an antiquated impediment to more revenues.

Even though Washington State is part of the very successful Pac-12, the Cougars are getting left behind competitively within the league. The last thing WSU needs is the controversy that Wilson created. But Wilson reached for the only tool he had, short of the courts  — public exposure.

I don’t know who is telling the truth in this saga. But no one independent of either party has been invited into the discussion. Until that happens, any outcome lacks credibility.

I’m sure the Cougars don’t much care about my opinion. But WSU, and every school, might care about the opinions of its difference-making potential recruits. A school doesn’t want these players asking, “If it can happen to Marquess Wilson, will it happen to me?”


YourThoughts

  • Joe Fan

    I just don’t believe this will seriously hurt recruiting. Leach wants tough minded players and he will cater to those types. He is trying to change the loser-mindset of the program, and thus will be given some slack by recruits. History has shown that “tough to play for” coaches can recruit good if not great teams. I think if the Cougs stay the course with Leach things will work out favorably in the end, and this comes from a Husky alum.

  • Tian Biao

    Art is right. Wazzu and the Pac-12 will ignore the bullet holes in the walls – the metaphorical ones – and move right along. And i agree with Joe Fan, this little dustup probably won’t hurt recruiting, such as it is. The bigger recruiting handicap is Pullman itself, the least appealing place in the conference (though i haven’t been to Utah or Tucson) . . .

  • Lincoln Hater

    Troubling article Art because it is so true. I know you purposely avoided the comparison to Penn State and what can happen when football is all important to a University.

    Success in any sports team or business concern starts with the top. If the head does not establish the right objectives then all is lost. I.E. the Mariners and Lincoln.

    I totally agree the Pullman is a big negative in the PAC 12. But how the leadership handles this offset is the question. How many thought that the grope to hire Leach was a positive decision for the program? If one leads down the wrong path, they get what they deserve. Unfortunately they way it usually works is the innocent get punished. Wilson?

    So as a Huskie fan I should be happy. But somehow I can not be.

    Thanks Art for another great article. Am I wrong or are you on a role? The last three articles have been outstanding examples of journalism.

    • Jenkins

      You “agree the Pullman is a big negative in the PAC 12?” What are you talking about? Given that you can’t spell “Husky” correctly, I put little stock in your opinion of Thiel’s journalism.

    • http://twitter.com/AngryArgyle Adam Boots

      I’ll be less careful with my response than Jenkins. You’re an idiot.

      Outside sources have indicated from the start that they (the Media) have been at literally EVERY SINGLE practice and not seen anything “out of the ordinary” for an NCAA Football practice. Additionally, as a “Huskie” you should learn to spell or stop claiming that or other Huskies (it works when pluralized, just not singularly) will get pissed at you for having a less than 4th grade spelling ability and claiming to be a “Husky”.

    • krwth

      The only piece I’ve disliked in this whole article is the fact that Pullman is a negative. How can diversity be a negative. When you look at the whole of the conference only Pullman is out by itself amid the farms and its intentions of origin. UW is built in a city and acts as a city, so how does that benefit players to see the differences that location can give you in life?

    • Wazzu

      Take it easy on Lincoln Hater, he is a Typical “Huskie”, meaning he didn’t go to college, just worships their jock straps.

  • http://twitter.com/rharkins63 Rick Harkins

    I think this is a fair article and do agree than an independent board is probably the way to go. I also think Wilson had no idea what a $**tstorm these accusations would raise, and he was just trying to save face to preserve whatever little NFL stock he had remaining. I think he got some bad advice and will come out looking worse than ever.

    On a separate note, I get a kick out of Husky fans that take a dig at Pullman every chance they get. I realize it’s not for everyone, but as someone who finds it “the happiest place on earth”, I just shake my head at you. Go Cougs!

  • Jenkins

    Exactly as predicted, people are getting ready for the investigation finding no “abuse.” Look at the facts and circumstances. Nobody else has alleged any abuse, including people who have axes to grind against Leach and his staff. Several players, including former players with nothing to lose by claiming some kind of abuse (and perhaps something to gain) have said none occurred. The Pac-12 is a legitimate organization and will conduct a reasonable investigation, including interviews on an anonymous basis of players.

    The situation is pretty clear here unless you’re looking to create drama — Wilson just didn’t like getting pushed to work hard under Leach and being demoted (symbolically, anyway) to second-string, quit the team, and then had his stepdad release that “letter” two hours before the nationally televised game in order to try to salvage his NFL draft stock.

  • Jenkins

    “Even ex-players who departed since Leach’s arrival may not find worthwhile the hassle of honesty.” What does that mean? At best, it’s speculative. If they’re interviewed, you expect them to lie to say no abuse occurred? What about the possibility of them lying by saying that abuse did occur?

  • http://twitter.com/AngryArgyle Adam Boots

    Obviously, you haven’t done your homework very well. This scenario has been covered from the start by NUMEROUS news outlets not attached to the School OR the Pac-12 and quite literally EVERY SINGLE outside observer has mentioned that they had seen laxidasical effort and NUMEROUS incidents of dogging it, quit, etc. out of the receiver in practices, but NEVER anything out of the ordinary for an NCAA football program (as far as ‘abuse’ is concerned).

    Additionally, the aspect of Mr. Wilson’s letter that shouldn’t have ANY credit whatsoever is his accusations of PHYSICAL abuse on the part of the coaches, as he himself has indicated that “that’s just what he heard from other guys” (other guys being people who do NOT corroborate his story from BOTH sides of the “supposed physical confrontations”).

    So if you’re talking about “Mike Leach coincidences” with this scenario, the BIG one is that you’ve got admitted liars and/or exaggerators CLAIMING the “abuse” and some VERY credible NON-Pac-12, NON-WSU sources claiming that the “primadonna’s feelings were hurt because he wasn’t being treated like the Prom Queen any more.”

    Additionally, Mr. Wilson’s credibility is essentially shot by the timing of his complaint. IF there were any weight to his claims, how come the claims were not made BEFORE he was demoted to third string, BEFORE he walked out of a conditioning drill 15 minutes after it started (that 85 other players went through with no complaints), and BEFORE he was suspended indefinitely from the team for walking out of said conditioning drills?

  • Dude

    Just what we need, another layer of bureaucracy drawing things out and wasting time and money. To put such an institution in place is great in theory, but in reality isn’t practical when there are independent institutions like the Pac12. Does the Pac12 want a strong, well-rounded conference? Of course. On the other hand, they are not going to damage their own credibility to ensure recruiting and wins are sustained at any of their member universities. Is Leach the easiest guy to play for? Probably not. Would I want to play for him? Maybe not. Wilson needs to grow up. The best thing he could of done is just gutted out the rest of the season in his typical lazy fashion and transfer to a DII (or whatever they call them now) school to play out his senior year. Hopefully he’ll learn a lot from this ordeal, but the damage of his claims will carry on peoples’ minds whether Leach and his staff are guilty or innocent.

  • Arthur

    Royce White’s situation with the Rockets is a similar issue. Just as WSU can make team rules and stuff to force dissenting players to quit, the Rockets create fines and required appts to force White to quit. Imagine that there’s a bad boss and a good player – who can the player go to, if the owners and power people have more invested in the boss? It’s simple business, they throw the player under the bus, and make him look like a thug or a wussy who doesn’t obey.

  • dawgtoe

    lets all wait for the investigation to be completed. lots of people at Penn St. didn’t want to believe also. I personally believe that coach Leach is doing things his way and some of the recruits from Wulff are not used to environment. If the allegations are proved to be either true or false, hopefully the punishment will fit the crime guilty.