The story around the top-ranked Kansas men’s basketball team that won’t go away is largely being digested along party lines. That’s predictable, unfortunate and unproductive.
The only thing that matters — rather, the only thing that should matter — is finding out the truth.
This mess should’ve been handled already, but it wasn’t, and by now it is obvious that a Title IX investigation into equal treatment of men’s and women’s athletes at KU is necessary.
Four of the Jayhawks’ top seven men’s basketball players have gone off path: arrested, suspended, charged with a crime, or found by the university have likely committed domestic violence. Some outsiders view this as a sign that the program is teetering on the brink of chaos.
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Many Kansas fans see a problem that is being overblown and unfairly diminishing a season that could be on a Final Four track. One suspension ended when the player was found by prosecutors to have been the victim, one of the arrests stemmed from an expired vehicle tag.
Many within the university and program feel the problems are misunderstood, even as school officials decline to clarify while citing privacy constraints and legal guidelines.
None of this is productive. None of it is helpful. Worse, it’s a distraction from learning what is true and what is not.
The athletic department’s bungling has left a cloud hanging over the basketball program as the Big 12 Tournament opens this week in Kansas City, the kickoff to a month when college basketball has the nation’s sports attention.
Kansas athletics has, at best, allowed a significant image problem to grow and take hold based on slow action and administrative missteps.
At worst, it has a more systemic and troubling problem of protecting male athletes by unfairly and unequally punishing female athletes.
To reset: We know based on excellent reporting by The Star’s Laura Bauer and Mará Rose Williams that women’s basketball player McKenzie Calvert was told she was suspended by coach Brandon Schneider after a Dec. 9 incident at a Lawrence bar in which she threw a drink on men’s basketball player Lagerald Vick.
That suspension was rescinded before the team’s next game after Calvert’s father complained about the difference in punishment handed out to men’s star Josh Jackson for kicking Calvert’s car after she threw the drink.
Calvert did not play in KU’s next game and wasn’t able to work out with her team on two more occasions. She did not play in seven games this season.
Jackson, a projected lottery pick in the NBA Draft, was never suspended for kicking and damaging Calvert’s car that night. Men’s coach Bill Self said Jackson’s punishment was immediate and ongoing but hasn’t divulged what that punishment is, and Jackson has played in every game for KU this season.
Self’s secrecy here is his choice, and is consistent with how most coaches operate. But his insistence on calling Jackson “a great ambassador” for the program adds to the mystery about why a men’s star who has been charged with a crime is seemingly punished more leniently than a women’s player whose property was damaged.
Title IX is federal law, requiring equal treatment of men and women. Self and everyone else in the Kansas athletic program should welcome such an investigation. The men’s basketball team is king on campus, the money-making machine that keeps the rest of the athletic department going. That power is strong, and doesn’t need to be vocalized to be mobilized.
Without an investigation, the suspicion that Self’s power extends over everyone in the athletic department goes unchecked.
Let’s be clear on a few important points. We don’t know all the context here. Criminal charges were never filed against Vick for domestic violence. But a university investigation determined Vick likely punched Calvert repeatedly and kicked her in the face in late 2015.
She played just 13 minutes in the game before the Yacht Club incident and recently had a stretch of 14-for-83 shooting over eight games. So questions about her diminished playing time after the Yacht Club incident come with qualifiers.
Also, coaches should be free to run their programs with reasonable autonomy. Looked at in a vacuum, Schneider’s decision on punishment and Self’s decision on punishment are independently defensible.
The university’s problem comes when both decisions are made and they are inequitable.
Normal KU athletic department protocol dictates that women’s coach Schneider communicates with senior women’s administrator Debbie Van Saun about discipline, and that Self does the same with deputy athletic director Sean Lester — all under the supervision of athletic director Sheahon Zenger.
With the incidents involving Calvert and Jackson — members of the men’s and women’s teams — Van Saun and Lester communicated with each other. But even while expecting the methods of discipline to be kept in-house, they should’ve seen how the two coaches’ respective disciplinary measures could be viewed as unequal treatment.
This is a human failure, a failure in protocol, or a combination of both.
KU has earned its share of negative publicity in the last year. Athletes — in particular, those in high-profile programs such as Kansas men’s basketball — are mostly cheered and adored. But they have to understand that with the adulation comes some responsibility and certain expectations.
The men’s basketball program has had too many players find themselves in avoidable trouble, and there is no doubt that the bigger context of multiple incidents has fed the interest and criticism around what happened in December at the Yacht Club.
The parts of the story that have been made public so far are true, but with Kansas coaches and officials under university-imposed gag orders, the picture is also incomplete.
A Title IX investigation would take into account all sides of the story and be free of undue influence.
It’s the best way to know if the inconsistencies here are as simple as human error, or something worse. It’s also the best way to know how the system can be improved.