The point of college athletic programs is not to win games, University of Montana President Seth Bodnar told several hundred Missoula residents gathered for a Monday night forum on sexual assault and harassment.
“These athletic programs are about developing leadership and character traits in young people,” he said, ticking off a list of values that included teamwork, discipline, toughness, a solid work ethic. “When that’s your North Star, the wins follow. Focus on those values and the wins will follow.”
Bodnar was among a half-dozen UM leaders who joined a panel discussion hosted by Missoula Rises to discuss perceptions of sexism, sexual assault, entitlement and cyber-bullying surrounding college athletics.
UM’s president since January, Bodnar said he has made his expectations clear to all coaches and athletic department leaders in the weeks since he arrived on campus.
He’s also carrying the message to UM alumni, donors, athletic boosters and community members, Bodnar said.
“This work is never done,” he said Monday. “We are never going to be perfect. But the educators at the University of Montana – and I include coaches as educators – they’ve committed themselves to the development of young men and women at a pivotal moment in their lives. And as a community, we are all part of that, too.”
Missoula Rises became involved in the sexual assault issue late last year when a Missoula woman was cyber-bullied after she posted an online petition asking UM not to hire Bobby Hauck as its head football coach.
Hauck was named to the position shortly thereafter and sat on stage next to Lisa Davey during the two-hour forum, although the two did not look at one another. She reiterated her concerns about Hauck at the event, saying “multiple incidents during Bobby’s first tenure” as UM’s football coach – including 12 arrests of players – helped to create a “rape culture” in Missoula.
“I think there’s a really clear body of evidence that the team was not well controlled the last time Bobby was here,” Davey said.
Hauck responded: “I’ve done this a long time, I’m used to people taking their shots at me.”
As coach of a high-profile athletic program, you can only “do your best,” he said, and keep moving forward.
That said, Hauck emphasized throughout the evening that his top priority is to develop “men of character” who will be “great husbands, great fathers and community members. That’s what we’ve always been focused on.”
Coaches are not, however, “some omnipotent force that controls” what student-athletes do 24 hours a day, Hauck added. “When they do things right, we praise them. When they do things wrong, we hold them accountable.”
Athletic Director Kent Haslam said he “learned quickly that there was no lack of opinion about whoever I hired as football coach” after he fired coach Bob Stitt at the end of the 2017 football season.
“I knew there was no middle ground with Bobby,” Haslam said, describing both intensely negative critiques from some in the community and intensely positive and supportive assessments from others.
In the end, “I felt like hiring him was a great step forward for where we wanted to take our football program,” he said.
As to Davey’s concerns about transgressions during Hauck’s first tenure as Griz football coach, Haslam said Bobby Hauck who returned to Missoula was older and more mature. By the same token, Missoula and UM are “very different” than they were in 2009, when Hauck left to take the head football job at UNLV.
“Bobby’s support network is great in this community and in this state,” Haslam emphasized.
When questioned, Davey did not apologize by superimposing Hauck’s face onto the cover of author Jon Krakauer’s book about the rape culture on college campuses, with a focus on UM and Missoula – which were separately investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012 for discrimination and inappropriate responses to reports of sexual assault.
The book covered incidents that occurred after Hauck had left UM, but Davey said she believes Hauck created the atmosphere of “entitlement” and “privilege” that led to the problems that followed his departure.
Erin Erickson, founder of Missoula Rises and the panel’s moderator, peppered Haslam and Hauck with questions about their past actions and how they train student-athletes in appropriate behavior.
Hauck said, as coach, he fills many roles, including father figure, confidante, mentor, disciplinarian – and that each player needs something different from him and his staff.
He expects his student-athletes to be “active members of the campus community and the larger community,” Hauck said, and the university provides them with avenues for that involvement.
“We want them to enjoy being college students and to get their degree,” he said. “At the same time, our game is very demanding. They don’t have the same life on campus as a regular student. They sacrifice some of that college experience.”
But how do you train student-athletes to avoid the sense of entitlement that could come from the celebrity status their membership on the Grizzly football team carries? Erickson asked.
“That is where the rubber meets the road,” said Haslam. “In our earliest discussions, we tell student-athletes, ‘If you aren’t ready to deal with the celebrity status that goes along with coming here, it’s best not to come here.’ That’s part of what makes this place so unique, so special. But not every athlete is prepared to deal with it.”
Drew Colling, director of UM’s Student Advocacy Resource Center, said she just talked with the football team about the community of the warrior. “You make a sacrifice for the greater good. You are part of this family, this community, and you are held accountable for your actions.”
Colling outlined a lengthy list of training programs that UM requires of all its students, with extra attention given to athletes. The intent is to make the Missoula campus “safe and inclusive for all,” she said.
She said societal attitudes and behaviors “can create an environment that is oppressive to certain groups” – a rape culture. Symptoms of that culture include victim blaming or shaming, objectification of women, denying the problem, mocking reports of rape, and belittling victims until they become unwilling to even report assaults.
“This is not specific to the university,” Colling said. “This is a societal issue. By the time our students come to us, they’ve been brought up in this culture. They’ve been exposed to these behaviors their whole life. By the time they arrive on campus, they’ve been acculturated in the rape culture.”
Bodnar added his praise for Colling and others on campus “who have worked so hard to create the policies that have enabled people to refer to the University of Montana as the gold standard.”
Erickson, too, praised UM’s training regimen and response following the DOJ investigation, but said the Missoula community and Griz fans need to do more to fight back against sexism and sexual assault.
She called on Gov. Steve Bullock to appoint a regent with expertise in behavioral sciences, so that board gives more attention to the issue. She called on the fan site eGriz.com to stop accepting comments from anonymous individuals. And she asked all community members and eGriz participants to speak up whenever they hear or see inappropriate comments or behavior.
UM does not own eGriz, but Erickson and Davey said the university can have an effect on the site’s content – which can be vicious – by calling out inappropriate posts.
“Our hope,” Erickson said, “is that we all leave here ready to move forward and work together to dismantle the rape culture.”