Karengate 2020


The dismissal of the coaching staff of the top cheerleading program in the country sent a shock through the cheerleading community on Monday, May 18. As details and testimonials on behalf of the coaches and program came out, more shock waves came. An article written in complete ignorance to the sport added some more. I will note that that journalist apologized for his article and I do commend him for owning up to his mistake there. It takes a lot to take full ownership like that.

On May 19, current athletes, alums, and supporters ran the ‘Seaton Mile’ together in order to respectfully express their support for the coaches. The cheerleading community is paying attention to what's unfolding, but there are a lot of reasons why I think the world needs to be paying attention to what I’ll refer to as Karengate 2020.

The Allegations

Now, where you stand on the appropriateness of the allegations is your prerogative. You are 100% allowed to believe that it’s all super inappropriate. However, I will challenge you to find any collegiate club, program, sport, etc. that is scot-free of alcohol and untraditional traditions. I’m not saying that that means everything should be dismissed and it makes it okay, but I do hope it allows you to have some empathy towards the program and coaches.

Imagine believing that the Alabama football team doesn’t drink after a big win or do inappropriate things ever, for example. You’re telling me Nick Saban is going to get fired for that? Yeah, I doubt it. The punishment the coaches received does not fit the allegations. I’ve seen journalists say that they must be held to the standard of other sports. Meanwhile, I'd argue that most cheerleading programs are held to higher standards. Not necessarily by the schools, but by the coaches. Also, we've seen sexual assault and domestic violence allegations come out for other programs and it’s the athletes “held responsible”, not the coaches. If you know me, you know I'm quoting that because of the joke of a sentence Brock Turner received for being caught raping someone. Literally caught in the act and the justice system failed to appropriately sentence him. And we wonder why survivors don't always report... but that's a whole other issue in itself.

A cheer team allegedly does half-naked basket tosses and inappropriate cheers and they're firing everyone? Come on. My point of all this is that a legacy of excellence was thrown away faster than Tom Brady looking for a roughing the passer call and something isn't adding up. If you're about to say "but the hazing" here, there are numerous athletes, current and alums, stating that there was no hazing. If you felt uncomfortable, you weren't forced to participate. The conduct report also has several witnesses stating that the coaches shut down activities as soon as they'd learn about them.

The Precedent

The decisions made on Monday, if upheld, sets a horrible precedent for collegiate athletics. If you read the report, it notes that a parent called the university to report the allegations. Yes. A parent called the university.

As a high school coach, I work with parents a lot because the athletes on our teams are minors. Even at the high school level, our athletes are instructed to follow a chain of command that helps them develop responsibility and accountability for their actions. If the athletes have any problem at all, their first step is to talk to a coach. We have several coaches in our program, so the athletes are able to approach the coach they feel most comfortable discussing their concerns with. If a resolution cannot be made from the athlete-coach discussion, then the parents are involved. Should things escalate further, the athletic department comes in next. We luck out here because our athletic department is amazing and supports us in this chain of command. I know many coaches who do not receive the same support and have been unable to set up this kind of structure.

In the reports that I read, I saw no mention of athletes coming to the coaching staff to express concern about any activities their teammates were participating in from the year in question. Multiple witnesses reported that the coaches strongly advised against participation in these activities and participation could result in removal from the team. There are also countless testimonials from current athletes and alums that state that if the coaches got word of any of those kinds of activities happening, the athletes were made to condition and held responsible for their actions. Many of these statements came from top industry professionals and people I know personally. People whose words I trust and have no reason to doubt. If high school athletes can be accountable and approach their coaches with concerns, surely collegiate ones can too.

The rumor circulating is that an athlete did not get on to the team they wanted for Nationals so then their parent took all of this information and reported it to the University. It is my initial gut to believe this rumor because of the timing, along with the countless testimonies of people I respect highly. The majority of reported incidents are from the summer. UCA College Nationals was January 17-19. The report was filed February 3. Something isn’t adding up. If the incidents from the summer were so emotionally traumatizing and distasteful, why were they not reported sooner? Let’s say this is rumor is true. Now you open up the floor for other disgruntled athletes who do not get the starting position they are fighting for to have their parents report their coaches for the same exact things. Would Duke fire Mike Krzyzewski because there was a parent complaint regarding the extracurricular activities of the basketball team? I really doubt it. But if we’re holding cheerleading to the same standard as other sports, then he should be right?

The Unrealistic Expectations

Why are cheerleading coaches being expected to be in total control of everything their athletes do but others aren’t? You think Coach K’s guys don’t go to parties and do dumb things ever? No one is that naïve. At some point, the athletes have to be responsible for their actions. A coaching staff that is respected worldwide lost their jobs over allegations of things their athletes did. No opportunity for a second chance to get things under control (to public knowledge). Straight up fired. Now, if there were instances of sexual assault and misconduct, I understand a zero-tolerance policy. But now we’re expecting college coaches to stop their athletes from sneaking alcohol and doing dumb things? To me it’s just unrealistic. Not to be all “college kids will be college kids” but college kids will be college kids. If you have to start sniffing every water bottle and Gatorade bottle to make sure there’s no alcohol in there, you will lose trust with your athletes. If there isn’t a relationship of trust between coaches and athletes, you won’t have the magic that results in championship teams. These coaches have a reputation of holding their athletes accountable for their actions if they discover rules are broken. That should count for something here.

Coaches can only do so much. We develop handbooks, social media contracts, and do everything we can to protect our athletes from this exact type of thing. We are all human and humans aren’t perfect. We can preach and preach and preach all we want, but our athletes are human and, ultimately, going to do what they want. We don’t expect our kids to be perfect and we’re not ignorant to the fact that they are probably doing some of the very things we advise them against. Our job is to help guide them through the bumpy road to becoming young adults. Our job is to help catch them when they fall – in cheerleading this is both a metaphor and literal statement. Our job is to help them develop that part of their brain that makes them pause and think before they act. Without mind control, we can’t actually stop them from doing anything. We just hope that they hear 10% of what we say and it protects them from things that could take away everything they’ve worked so hard for.

The Lack of Societal Progress

While the journalist has since recanted his article and recognized the error of his ways, he is not alone in his way of thinking. There are so many people out there that discredit how hard cheerleaders work in their craft. You have teams that win State and National Championships that are afraid to be proud of their accomplishments because their classmates will make fun of them. I’m serious! These athletes walk the hallways and their peers make fun of them for being proud of their accomplishment because it’s “just cheerleading”.

Cheerleading is so much more than what you see on the sidelines.

I still have people that like to tell me that cheerleading isn’t a sport because “it’s funny to see you get so fired up”. I’ve been fighting this stigma for 20+ years. To see articles that tear apart everything that myself and so many people I know have worked so hard to change is defeating.

One of the things this particular article called into question was why the program needed so many coaches in the first place. You’re questioning why there wasn’t more oversight during these activities, but you want to take away coaches? That doesn’t make any sense. Also, there are two teams and they’re both highly competitive. You get that way by building a strong support system around your program. It takes a village.

The uniforms were called out and sexualized. Meanwhile, this particular program wears full shells and pleated skirts. Even if they wore crop tops, why is that being used to take away the athleticism they display? In the original column, cheerleaders are referred to as overexposed, sexual props put on the sidelines to entertain male fans and aren’t essential. The hard work of decades of athletes set back in time by one article. Yes, he changed his tune and owned up to the error of his statements but how many people out there think the same way and won’t read his latest article after he was educated on cheerleading? We’ve got a long way to go to getting the respect we deserve, and this article didn’t help.

I don’t know that it’s possible for the decisions to be reversed. But I do know that we all need to pay attention to how things continue to play out. This could’ve been any sport at any school. The conclusion of this will set a precedent and that precedent will trickle down from the collegiate level. Does the punishment fit the allegations? In my opinion, no. There is not enough evidence to support their firing. This is the kind of thing that will prevent good coaches that could change programs and lives from applying for positions because they question whether they will receive the support they need from their administration. It’s a very scary thing and I hope there is some way that the full truth comes out and we get some clarification.

Until next time,

K

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