These news conferences, sadly, have become routine. Here we go again.
You know the drill: University of Minnesota athlete, coach or athletic director gets in trouble. School official stands up at news conference to face questions. Another stain on their image. Clock restarts until the next episode.
Gophers athletics can’t escape this stuff. Can’t get out of their own way. Not even when things look promising and excitement is starting to build and the athletic department has genuine momentum that feels refreshing.
Naturally, along comes trouble. Another mess resulting in more ugly headlines that will make their way to national websites and college sports roundups in newspapers from coast to coast.
On Friday, the university suspended senior center Reggie Lynch from the men’s basketball team after a school investigation found that he engaged in sexual misconduct in April 2016. Lynch is appealing that decision and is being allowed to practice but not play in games.
This is the second time Lynch has been accused of sexual misconduct. Both cases happened around the same time. The first one resulted in Lynch being arrested but no charges filed against him.
This latest incident likely ends his Gophers career. From a timing perspective alone, it seems doubtful that the entire appeals process will be resolved before the end of the season.
Coach Richard Pitino and athletic director Mark Coyle will be pilloried for allowing Lynch to play — especially in light of the national #MeToo movement — while the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) office conducted its investigation.
An accused person deserves due process with an investigation, but where Pitino and Coyle open themselves to criticism is that this was a second, separate allegation of sexual misconduct against Lynch.
What we don’t know — and what neither Coyle nor Pitino could discuss because of privacy rules — is how much they knew when they learned of this accusation in October. That’s an important question because the perception will be that they put winning first. They faced a dilemma; what if they had suspended Lynch but the EOAA investigation found no basis for punishment? Not being able to defend their decision publicly makes matters worse.
Lynch’s suspension casts a pall over a season that once held so much promise. The turnaround by Pitino’s program last season after a series of troubling off-the-court incidents became a wonderful story of redemption. This team and this season had the potential to be special. No more. Lynch’s alleged misconduct has brought more shame and dramatically altered expectations.
Basketball is secondary though, because this a serious matter. Scars from the football case two seasons ago and previous sexual misconduct incidents remain. Norwood Teague, the football scandal, the sex video that resulted in suspensions of three basketball players and now Lynch, these recent cases perpetuate negative perceptions of the entire athletic department.
Citing privacy laws, Coyle and Pitino offered no details about Lynch’s case. Coyle strangely didn’t even make an opening statement during an awkward news conference, so it wasn’t clear that Lynch had been suspended until six questions in.
The football sex assault case in 2016 and the university’s handling of it remains a sensitive subject inside the department. The EOAA’s report recommended discipline for 10 players, even though five were not named in the original incident. Those second five were exonerated during the appeals process and their recommended punishment overturned.
Those players missed the bowl game and had their reputations tarnished by a flawed EOAA report. Their supporters argued that suspensions should have been held off until after the appeals process was complete to avoid punishing them before resolution.
This is not to suggest that Lynch is innocent or shouldn’t be punished. Two sexual misconduct cases against him is alarming and undercuts measures taken by the basketball program to clean up its act. It’s just context about how the university’s investigative process and timing of discipline in these incidents can be complicated when our initial reaction is to demand swift punishment.
However Lynch’s case ends, the damage is done. This is another blow to the school’s image. Sadly, this has become too commonplace.