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Brendan Gibbons, and the UM athletic department’s response

John U. Bacon

The University of Michigan named a new president last month, and the football team landed another great class of recruits last week. But there’s another story that keeps eclipsing those two. Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon has details.

I’ve been reluctant to write about the Brendan Gibbons’ story, because so little is clear – from the incident that started this saga five years ago, to the various responses since.

One thing is clear: the athletic department continually fails to follow the advice legendary athletic director Don Canham,

“Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story.”

This story starts in 2009, when Wolverine kicker Brendan Gibbons had an encounter at a party with a female student. Ultimately, only two people know what happened, but we do know she contacted the Ann Arbor Police, then decided not to press charges.

This put the University in a tough spot. In 2009, the university would not look into such situations unless the alleged victim came forward. But in 2013, the University revised its policy, which no longer required the alleged victim to start the process.

That’s why it wasn’t until November 20, of 2013, that the Office of Institutional Equity concluded that Gibbons’ “engaged in unwanted or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, committed without valid consent, and that conduct was so severe as to create a hostile, offensive, or abusive environment.”

From everything I’ve seen, the University played it straight, and the athletic department never interfered with the process. That’s the good news.

The bad news is, having gotten the hard part right, the athletic department seemed determined to get the easy part wrong, giving the appearance of skullduggery where none existed.

We still don’t know when the athletic department found out about the panel’s ruling. But we do know that, three days after the ruling, head coach Brady Hoke started Gibbons, who kicked three extra points in a 24-21 loss to Iowa.

Before Michigan’s next game, against Ohio State, Hoke claimed Gibbons had injured his leg. Before Michigan’s bowl game, on December 28th, Hoke said Gibbons had gone home due to a “family matter” – yet we know the university expelled Gibbons on December 20th.

I understand Hoke’s desire to grant his player privacy, but not lying for him. All Hoke had to say was Gibbons had broken team rules.

The public didn’t learn Gibbons had been expelled until January 28th, when the university’s student paper, The Michigan Daily, broke the story. No one in the department has publicly questioned anything in the Daily’s story, or asked for any corrections.

But a few days later, when Hoke addressed the Gibbons issue with a group of reporters, the Daily was not invited, leaving many to conclude they were being punished.

The department denied excluding the student reporters. But if so, they were naïve not to predict many wouldn’t believe them, especially given the department’s habit of backpedaling after PR gaffes like the seat cushion ban, the giant Kraft macaroni noodle under the scoreboard, and the skywriting stunt over Spartan stadium.

The department also has a recent history of bullying the media. Under Dave Brandon, the staff frequently calls reporters to chastise them for printing what they consider negative stories, or simply unflattering statistics. They also threaten to cancel exclusive interviews and to pull press passes.

One writer told me,

“Every interview and press conference the department sets up is presented as a huge favor, not just them doing their jobs. They show amazing contempt for the media.”

What happens next? Gibbons is gone, the police consider the case closed, and the Daily reporters have returned to official media events.

Michigan’s president-elect, former Brown provost Mark Schlissel, has wisely not commented on this situation. But it’s hard to imagine his first brush with the athletic department was the honeymoon both sides wanted.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.