Monday, March 19, 2007

Chatman resignation raises questions not answered by sports features or gossip columns

The sports world was stunned recently when LSU women's basketball coach Pokey Chatman announced she was resigning her position to "pursue other career opportunities." There was no mention of being lured away by another school, such as Florida, who had shown an interest in hiring Chatman, nor was there any talk about a failure to negotiate a better contract, something Chatman could have realistically fought for. The vagueness of the announcement caused most people to suspect that something else was up, and indeed it was.

The news was all the more shocking because Chatman is one of the most respected coaches in the country, she is a legend in Louisiana, and she is nothing short of a folk hero in Baton Rouge. The band played the "Hokey Pokey" when she walked onto the court, and Chatman never minced words with either the media or opposing coaches. She was known, in fact, for being one of the most open and accessible figures in American sport. As a student athlete, Chatman broke twenty records, five of which she still holds, and her coaching record is equally impressive.

But the Lady Tigers' coach, it turns out, engaged in "innappropriate behavior" with a former student. There are no details as to who the student was, how long ago the behavior occurred, or for what duration it occurred. What is known is that an LSU employee learned of the behavior and informed the LSU athlethic department about it. For its part, the LSU athletic department appeared completely stunned by Chatman's announcement, and took no move to denigrate her reputation in any way.

More than likely, we will never know what really happened. Did a recently enlightened parent give Chatman an ultimatum? Did a disgruntled employee decide to reveal Chatman's indiscretion? Or did the student in question not get what she thought was rightfully hers and made the relationship public? Whatever happened, it seems obvious that Chatman crossed a serious boundary with a student and is now facing the consequences, which is as it should be. But there are other troubling questions about the incident that need to be answered.

The people of Louisiana are aware of the open secret that other LSU athletic department figures have engaged in sexual relationships with students, yet these LSU employees have not felt the pressure to resign from their positions. I am not formulating an apologia for Chatman, but—feeling quite certain that she is not the first one at her school, and in her department, to cross a forbidden boundary with a student—I do feel we need to ask why she is leaving, and her peers get to stay.

There is more than one obvious answer. First, Chatman is a woman, and women are expected to be able to curb their sexual appetites—at least by those who believe that women even have sexual appetites. As we have seen over and over in rape, sexual assault and sexual harrassment cases, men are generally considered "unable to help themselves" when it comes to the temptation of heterosexual sex. We still tell women not to "dress suggestively," and our military women who are raped and assaulted by their male peers are told in various ways that they "should have seen it coming." The message that women and girls get is: Men cannot control themselves, so it is up to you to prevent criminal sexual activity.

The next answer involves Chatman's sexual orientation. There is already a sizeable portion of the population who believes that all LGBT people are predators, that every lesbian or bisexual woman is—as Laura Dern fans know—just waiting to be awarded that coveted toaster oven for getting new "converts" to the "homosexual agenda." To those people, the news about Chatman's indiscretion just reinforces that belief.

Finally, Chatman is African American. Though there is no reason to believe that a white lesbian would have fared any better, being black automatically makes Chatman one-down. Let's be honest: If Pokey Chatman were brilliant in physics or American history, the chances are slim that she would be at the top of her profession. Women have a rough time of it in academia, and our well-known set of cultural biases tells us that being black and lesbian can only make the journey more difficult.

Chatman says that part of her philosophy is to have an attitude that creates excitement when failure occurs because of the great challenge that failure presents. Her philosophy is now being put to the test. Pokey Chatman should not have done what she did. She crossed a sacred student-teacher, student-coach boundary, and abused her privilege as an authority figure. Whatever happens, she brought it on herself. But if Chatman is taking a fall while heterosexual white men at her school get a pass, that is also wrong. Every professor or coach who has sex with a student is equally guilty, and they should all face the same consequences.


I can only assume that "'innappropriate behavior' with a former student" means while that student was enrolled. There's no reason to pry into her relationships with students after they've left the university.

But even with that assumption, I'm not convinced that it's universally unacceptable to have sexual relationships (another assumption we have to read into that description) with students even while they are in school - still less that there's a "sacred boundary" making them off-limits. The question is a complicated one that universities have had a lot of trouble dealing with. Many or most schools do not ban such relationships entirely, though they usually have strict rules on favoritism and sexual harassment.

There are obvious reasons to look askance at teacher/student relationships: the power differential between the two makes truly free consent a questionable issue; the possibility of disruption or bad feeling is real and such consequences can be highly destructive; the typical differences in age and social position make such relationships more likely to fail than the student may often believe. There is also the "ick factor": older faculty may be taking advantage of students' naivete' or unrealistic expectations, even in cases where the relationship is nominally voluntary. And this is true even in relationships where the student is not under the direct supervision of the professor. Of course, it goes without saying that relationships involving coercion or promises of favoritism are sexual harassment and a violation of the obligation of impartiality. This makes relationships between professors and their own current or potential students immediately suspect and more or less impossible (and since it's in precisely those cases that teacher/student attractions arise, this cuts out a large percentage of likely relationships of that kind). In the case of a sports coach, who often occupies a revered position in athletes' lives, a relationship with a current player would be almost impossible to justify as voluntary, non-disruptive, and non-manipulative.

Yet, leaving aside the question of sexual harassment, none of the above concerns rises to the level of an absolute moral barrier to such relationships. They may all be good reasons not to get involved in them, but it is not immoral to do something that is a bad idea (it's just a bad idea). It is not immoral to have a relationship with someone much younger - or much older. It is not immoral to take the risk of a bad breakup, or to start a relationship and then have a bad breakup. It is not immoral to enter a relationship with false expectations, or to have a relationship with someone who has false expectations. (It is immoral to deliberately create false expectations, or to fail to clarify them when they surface, but at some point you have got to let people take responsibility for making their own decisions.) On the other hand, there are good reasons to let people alone and allow them to find their own way - successfully or not - in intimate matters.

Almost all college students are legal adults. They have sexual autonomy and the legal and moral right to make their own decisions about relationships. It is perfectly legal for two 18-year-old students to marry each other - undoubtedly a terrible idea in most cases - and nobody will stand in their way. There is no reason it should be illegal for a really hot 18-year-old student to have a short-term passionate fling with a 42-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed, bearded, satirical, part-time philosophy teacher living in a small apartment in Brooklyn (um . . . to take a random example). If all parties are careful to avoid cases in which favoritism or coercion are potential issues, the other objections to such relationships are largely of the "ick" or "it's a bad idea" variety - precisely the kinds of objections we fight against when the religious right attempts to impose them on all other sexual relationships.

If this coach had a sexual relationship with one of her own players while that player was on the team, that speaks to a very high degree of distorted thinking. Even then it is not necessarily immoral (it is not equivalent to sexual harassment or favorable treatment - it just raises the serious possibility of such treatment); it is obviously such a very bad idea that resignation or firing may be the right response, but even so, since the student herself does not seem to have complained, I don't see why anyone else needs to worry about it. If she merely had a relationship with a student on campus, who was not in the sports program, I see no obvious problem at all. And you're right, there are undoubtedly double standards of many kinds operating in the case as well. All good reasons not to allow ourselves to be stampeded into a sex-negative overreaction of precisely the kind the truly oppressive forces would love to see.

By Blogger Kevin T. Keith, at 10:54 AM  

I appreciate your analysis, Kevin, but there is no way that a sexual relationship with a student cannot be looked upon by other students as creating favoritism. And, in my opinion, there is no way that the student in question could not be treated differently (by the professor) as a student: Either there will be unconscious shows of favoritism, or conscious "punishment" by bending over backwards not to show favoritism.

I doubt seriously that Chatman had a sexual relationship with someone not her student, though that is certainly possible. And even if that were the case, it blurs boundaries in a way that certainly makes me very uncomfortable.

By Blogger Diane, at 11:22 AM  

I have been trying to get my thoughts together on this issue for a week now and will eventually post about it--including the double standard(s).
But just for your information, the issue of how many players remains unresolved, though the university, which concluded its investigation, said no one on the current team was involved in a relationship with Chatman outside of the coach/student-athlete one. And it was her assistant coach, Carla Berry, who alerted university officials to Chatman's behavior about a month ago, which is when the university started surveilling her.

By Blogger ken, at 4:05 PM  

I knew there was no current team member involved, but I didn't realize it was Berry who alerted officials. Thanks for the info, Ken.

By Blogger Diane, at 6:27 PM  

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

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