Athletics policies on punishment debated

The charges have been dropped, but questions still linger about the administration’s response to the arrests of two football stars and three men’s hockey players outside Gourmet Heaven two weeks ago.

The recent Yale arrests, coupled with three incidents involving Harvard football players over the last few months, have brought national attention to Ivy League athletes and administrators. But the variation in disciplinary responses to each of the cases has left outsiders wondering what exactly defines fair and to whom the judicial system and the athletic departments are responsible.

Mike McLeod ’09 runs against Lehigh on Saturday. Some critics have concerns of how administrators have dealt with sports crime.
Matt Lucas
Mike McLeod ’09 runs against Lehigh on Saturday. Some critics have concerns of how administrators have dealt with sports crime.

Administrators at both schools would not speak to individual cases, and cautioned against looking for patterns in discipline. Director of Athletics Tom Beckett said individual decisions regarding discipline do not reflect any specific overarching philosophies.

“There’s no set formula,” Director of Athletics Tom Beckett said. “Decisions are made that are absolutely based on the situation. There’s no leniency, or lack thereof, based on the athlete or sport involved.”

But students at both Yale and Harvard appear skeptical that each decision is made on a truly equitable basis. Tyler Press, a Harvard sophomore who used to play on the varsity soccer team, said she thought some teams might withhold punishment from players who deserve it in order to stay competitive.

“I think the standard is unfair,” she said. “[Harvard and Yale] do follow Ivy guidelines, but they enforce them differently.”

Students’ opinions of disciplinary differences have been shaped in part by recent incidents in both Cambridge and New Haven, each involving members of the schools’ respective football teams.

In July, Harvard football captain Matt Thomas was arrested and charged with assault and battery for trying to force his way into his girlfriend’s bedroom. In response, coach Tim Murphy dismissed Thomas from the team.

Murphy took disciplinary action twice more before the 2006 season began. In August, Murphy suspended quarterback Liam O’Hagan from five games for violating an undisclosed team rule. In September, he dismissed senior wide receiver Keegan Toci for an inappropriate display at the team’s skit night.

Tom Denison, a Harvard junior, said he supported Murphy’s decisions despite not knowing details about the cases.

“It seems to me that athletes shouldn’t be getting preferential treatment in any case,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s fair or not, but you have to imagine the coaches did the right thing.”

Harvard Director of Athletic Communications Chuck Sullivan explained that coaches make disciplinary decisions based on a combination of a general code of conduct and their own interpretation of the rules.

“Coaches do have the discretion to determine what is acceptable policy within their teams, and they communicate this quite often throughout the season,” Sullivan said.

Coaches at both Harvard and Yale have broad control over the disciplinary decisions they make, including the right to keep information private if they deem it necessary, administrators at each school said. Murphy’s decisions, which made private team matters public knowledge, illuminated the inherent conflict between the desire to keep discipline in-house and the occasional need to go public.

Yale head football coach Jack Siedlecki did not have to make those decisions when Mike McLeod ’09 and Matt Polhemus ’08 were arrested outside Gourmet Heaven two weeks ago for fighting with three Bulldog hockey players — Alec Richards ’09, Matt Nelson ’09 and Brad Mills ’07. The incident garnered national attention, appearing on the Web sites of several major publications and news services including ESPN, The New York Times and CNN. On Friday, all charges against the players were dropped.

The administration has not yet publicly punished any of the players, and some students wondered whether the athletes — especially McLeod and Polhemus, whose weekly performances can determine the fate of the ongoing Eli football season — were receiving preferential treatment because of their starring roles on the field.

“They’re guilty of conduct unbecoming to a Yale athlete and should be punished as such, whether it be made to run at practice, sitting out a game or sitting down to be told it was totally inappropriate,” Sharifa Love ’09 said. “It also brings up the question of, if it had been less prominent people on the team, what would have happened?”

Football coach Jack Siedlecki had said immediately after the incident that he was waiting on the conclusion of the legal process before making any decisions on what consequences his players would face.

“It would certainly be unfair to take something away from someone and find out later that they are innocent,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I believe that everyone involved is entitled to the process of seeking the truth.”

Athletic Department administrators said they want athletes to protect the image of the program while doing what is best for individual players and the team. Many students said they hoped to see immediate action, which they said would indicate that athletes are no different from the typical student.

The five athletes were caught in the middle of these sometimes conflicting expectations, which Director of Sports Publicity Steve Conn said can be hard to handle.

“There’s too much pressure on students in general, athletes in general,” he said. “The old school philosophy is ‘College kids do these things,’ but there’s a lot of pressure. A lot of factors make it interesting media fodder when a Yale or Harvard player gets in trouble.”

Administrators said a hierarchy of disciplinary bodies exists to govern the behavior of Yale athletes. Coaches provide the first layer, followed by various administrators and staff members, while NCAA regulations govern many of the restrictions on students’ activities. A Faculty Committee on Athletics, comprised of various college masters, university officials and athletic representatives, oversees some disciplinary guidelines and makes recommendations. Athletes who are punished under the athletic guidelines are also subject to normal Yale College disciplinary proceedings.

After witnessing the public decision-making of the coaches at Yale and Harvard, some students said they see Siedlecki and Murphy’s differing approaches as simply examples of variations in personal style. Andy Detty ’09 said a balance between the two coaches’ actions might be most appropriate, as Murphy seems too stringent and Siedlecki seems too lax.

Varsity golfer Tom Ginakakis ’09 said he thought some people were hoping for strict punishment that would set an example that athletes are not immune to the rules of the University.

“I think everything was handled fairly,” he said. “What I’d say to people who think this wasn’t handled fairly is that it was blown out of proportion. Being athletes, being top performers at Yale, that’s part of the reason it was even blown out of proportion in the first place.”

But some students said the damage done to Gourmet Heaven was enough to warrant swift punishment.

“Explain to me how they blew out of the proportion the fact that they brawled outside a storefront and caused $3,500 in damage,” Love said.

The divisions in opinion among students and administrators reveal that individual assumptions about fairness and privacy are rarely universal, which may explain why the Yale Athletic Department operates on a case-by-case basis.

The problem of determining athletic discipline arises again and again, and often in the spotlight, as onlookers peer into the semi-public lives of athletes in college and elsewhere and ask what is fair to do and know.

“The public feels they have a right to know,” Beckett said. “But the coach has a right to do what the he or she feels is in the best interest of the program with the backdrop of fairness being omnipresent.”

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