The day before the Yale men’s basketball team played its first NCAA Tournament game in 54 years, head coach James Jones spent the final minutes of his press conference addressing not the play of his team as a whole, but the controversy surrounding one former player.
“I’ve been a head coach at Yale for 17 years,” Jones said in a press conference. “This is the first time we’ve made the tournament since 1962 … So I think that’s a great story. And I’d like to tell that one going forward.”
The team struggled this season to keep media attention focused on its performance on the court after news broke that former captain Jack Montague had been expelled from the University for sexual misconduct on Feb. 10. Montague announced that he would sue the University three days before the tournament began. In multiple press conferences, Jones and players attempted to deflect questions pertaining to their former captain back to the sport. Some fans, too, argued that the team’s historic performance ought to be viewed separately from the off-the-court drama surrounding its expelled member.
The team itself made a similar argument when, in a March 9 apology issued after players donned controversial T-shirts in support of Montague, it reaffirmed its commitment to “a healthy, safe and respectful campus climate.”
“Our recent actions to show our support for one of our former teammates were not intended to suggest otherwise, but we understand that to many students they did,” the statement read.
But for certain members of the basketball program, these attempts to detach themselves from the controversies are at odds with their public involvement in Montague’s situation. The team’s head coach himself served as the former captain’s adviser in his University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct proceedings, the News reported Tuesday.
And Montague’s teammates inserted themselves into the discussion with their decision to take the court wearing customized warmup T-shirts featuring Montague’s number and nickname on the back and Yale spelled backward on the front before a nationally televised contest against Harvard on Feb. 26.
“We knew, when we wore those shirts, that there was going to be a reaction, and this is the reaction; we just want to stick together as a team and remain focused,” forward Justin Sears ’16 told the News after posters appeared around campus calling on the team to “stop supporting a rapist.”
The posters’ allegations were leveled despite no official comment from the University on the nature of Montague’s expulsion. Jones did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Still, even as more information about the basketball program’s intimate involvement in Montague’s case comes to light, those who supported the team during its March Madness run continue to do so. And even though the implicit support of the team’s T-shirts appears to differ from the direct support of Jones as Montague’s adviser, no students interviewed seemed to find the distinction notable.
When asked if the news about Jones’ role in Montague’s UWC hearing process affected his decision to support the team during its NCAA run, Mallet Njonkem ’18 said the information had no impact on his choice.
“I don’t think it’s odd that Jack asked his coach of several years to be his adviser for the case,” Njonkem said. “That being said, I doubt knowing that would have made me feel any different about supporting the team during the tournament. I don’t see what there is to gain by not supporting the team during the tournament.”
Andy Hill ’17 pointed out at that the team apologized for wearing the T-shirts, adding that because of the nature of the alleged incident, only the two people involved could know what actually transpired.
“I didn’t have any qualms about going to the [NCAA Tournament] game,” he said. “I was proud that the team recognized the harm that their display had caused and chose to apologize. The members of the team that I know staunchly oppose any type of sexual misconduct, and I know of no allegations against any player on the roster that day. I am a proud Yalie, just as the members of our athletic teams are.”
Athletes and coaches interviewed emphasized how strong the relationship between a coach and his or her players typically is.
“If a coach feels like a captain has a problem, the coach will stick with [the captain]. The captain is like a coach’s right hand, sometimes,” fencing head coach Henry Harutunian said. “It’s somebody the coach sees every day, and they go through the same emotions in the sport … they just spend so much time together that they’re bonded.
Harutunian, who said he was not familiar with the details of Montague’s case and could only speak more generally to the coach-captain relationship, said that sometimes, team members and coaches will be closer to each other than they are to members of their family.
And while several athletes interviewed said they would not necessarily choose their coach as an adviser, they added that since the nature of the relationship between coaches and members of their team can differ, they understood why Montague made this choice.
Montague’s high school coach Dennis King described to the News his particularly close relationship with Montague, who served as the basketball captain during his high school career at Brentwood High School in Brentwood, Tennessee.
“I feel great loyalty to my players, but especially Jack,” King told the News. “He might be my favorite player of all time, and I have coached 42 years as a high school basketball coach. The bond you have with the captain, it’s special … Next to my son, Jack is as close to family as you get.”
Earlier this month, King published a letter expressing his support for Montague in the Brentwood Home Page. King told the News that after speaking with Montague and Montague’s parents about the case, he wanted to express his feelings to the Brentwood community about the “injustice” that had been done to Montague.
Montague seems to have developed a similarly close relationship with his coach at Yale. In a postgame press conference on March 5, after Yale locked up the NCAA Tournament berth, Jones affirmed his affection for the former captain despite the allegations hanging over him.
“Jack knows how we feel about him — we love him. He’s a great young man, and we love him,” Jones said.
Maya Sweedler contributed reporting.