In his first public statement on the piercing, tangled case of former University of Missouri swimmer Sasha Menu Courey, MU athletic director Mike Alden late Thursday night offered conciliatory and sensitive remarks on the matter.
This represented a stark change of tone from what had been a defensive posture by his department.
The tragedy of Menu Courey's 2011 suicide has become the catalyst of two investigations in the wake of an ESPN “Outside The Lines” report that amplified a previous sexual-assault allegation printed in the Columbia Daily Tribune.
Her death and what can be learned from it “needs to be the focus,” Alden said in a phone interview. “It doesn’t need to be (us) turning around trying to defend what one person’s doing or another person’s doing or whatever.
“If that’s the way that came across, then I would apologize.”
Part of the perception that fending off blame was more meaningful to MU than resolutions stemmed from the absence of Alden, who during the first few days after the report came out was in Florida, performing his role as president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.
Alden said he wished he hadn’t been tied down with that, though he stressed he was in regular contact with the department.
And when it was suggested to him that a swift and compassionate personal stance from him might have changed the tenor of the last week, Alden said, “It may have, frankly.”
As for not offering a statement along the way, Alden said he had believed Mizzou’s responses to the report, via posting email exchanges with ESPN and rebuttals, would be seen not as unseemly but as offering balance to what MU felt was an incomplete and skewed presentation.
Plenty of MU’s points were valid, and ESPN insinuated negligence on the university's part. It’s reasonable that the school should stand up for itself.
But the resounding tone came off tin-eared, and it repeatedly seemed to put a cringe-inducing onus on Menu Courey’s parents to have initiated any investigation of the alleged rape of their daughter.
That’s why it almost certainly would have come off differently from the start had Alden found a way to be visible and vocal right away.
That was MU’s chance to own the message instead of chasing it or tilting at it. Instead, it wasn’t untilWednesday that the school's approach began to change.
That’s when MU system president Tim Wolfe stepped into the void and within the first minutes of his news conference at the Reynolds Alumni Center expressed everything that had been missing in Mizzou’s hollow approach to Menu Courey.
In particular, Wolfe offered openness, accountability, humility and empathy.
“Words probably don’t adequately express my sympathy and prayers and thoughts (that) go out to Sasha Menu Courey, her family, her friends and her teammates,” Wolfe began, speaking with what came off as firm sincerity. “It’s unfortunately a tragic situation that’s kind of personal to me since I’m a parent of a female freshman student athlete myself.”
Asked if he believed the university failed Menu Courey, Wolfe paused and said, “What I feel as a parent is one of our students is dead. And I don’t want to feel that any more. And our goal is to help (the) Sashas of the world in a way that we can never let this happen again.”
There are those who believe Wolfe overstepped. But if he did, he had to because of all the understepping that had taken place before that.
Alden said he was enthusiastic about the intervention of Wolfe, with whom Alden said he spoke over the weekend. They agreed, Alden said, “this isn’t an athletic department issue. This is an institutional issue; this is a comprehensive issue” about “support mechanisms” and “safety nets” for students at Mizzou.
When Wolfe said he thought it would be good to “get an outside set of eyes on this whole issue,” Alden said he told him, “I think that’s the right thing to do, President Wolfe.”
It also was imperative with no one in the athletic department saying the most fundamental things that needed to be said — words that came easily enough to Alden on Thursday night.
“There will be lessons to be learned, absolutely, as you look at all this,” he said. “But I just don’t know what all those are yet.”
One should be this: Going forward, Alden has to find a way to be visible sooner when MU is in crisis mode.
Otherwise, he might appear to be distancing himself from controversy or leaving his staff to face up to a mess that it’s unfair to saddle them with.
Wolfe may believe that, too.
He declined to respond to a question about whether he would like to have seen the athletic department take a similar path before he had to, but not before making it clear that’s part of what he wants to learn from the investigation.
“I will wait to see what comes back from the investigation and the findings ” he said. “And I will make some observations post-that.”
But Alden already could observe this for himself: Whatever it would have taken, being around and accessible for this situation could've made a major difference in perception from the beginning.