It would be difficult for any of us who haven’t experienced being Black in America to understand exactly how it felt for a group of young Black college basketball players to sit in a locker room and hear their coach make a reference to his program as a plantation.
But I’d like to think, if I were in a position to make a decision about how to deal with that kind of shocking event, my first priority would be to listen and find out.
At Creighton University, though, apparently the listening came second to the basketball.
That’s the only explanation for the decision Thursday night to suspend coach Greg McDermott after he was allowed to coach Wednesday against Villanova.
It’s unclear how long McDermott’s suspension will last or what precisely changed between Tuesday, when he revealed what happened in a public apology on Twitter, and now. McDermott took no questions from the media on the topic after the Villanova game, but did say on a pregame radio show he offered to resign. Senior guard Damien Jefferson said he wouldn’t answer questions about the situation, either.
Creighton is going to be in the NCAA Tournament, so the stakes are high for how the school handles this over the next week.
But allowing McDermott to coach before suspending him suggests that the sentiment within Creighton’s locker room isn’t nearly as supportive as the school tried to portray by running him out onto the sideline Wednesday night.
That, in and of itself, is unacceptable. It means that saving McDermott was prioritized over what the players were going through. The fact it took this long for Creighton to acknowledge that with a punishment is a complete failure of leadership.
If anything, the situation looks worse than ever. Now there are more questions that demand answers: How did Creighton’s administration hear about the toxic plantation comment? Why didn’t they immediately remove him from the team until they could interview everyone who heard it? Were the players given an opportunity to discuss the situation individually? Was an independent person from Creighton’s diversity and inclusion office brought in to assess the situation?
Or was this just about trying to clean up a mess as quickly as possible before it was time to play Villanova?
I’ll be the first to say I don’t know whether McDermott should lose his job. There’s no obvious answer to this situation. Perhaps it was an isolated, out-of-character mistake and there’s no history of racial insensitivity in dealing with players. If that’s the case, perhaps there’s a pathway for him to regain credibility.
But what he said obviously created a schism that couldn’t be papered over by an apology. That Creighton failed to recognize that immediately and dig deeper into what the players felt that night is unforgivable.
It’s easy for college programs to say they’re all about the student-athlete experience. It’s much harder to actually understand and care about what they’re experiencing.
Getting that part right is all that matters right now. Creighton spent the last several days worrying less about that than the fate of its coach and found out its priorities were backwards.
It better figure out how to put them in the right order.
Follow columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken