When the University of Montana announced last week that it would not renew the contract of women’s soccer coach Mark Plakorus, Athletic Director Kent Haslam claimed Plakorus had resigned. “It really did come down to both he and I deciding it’s a good time for him and it’s a good time to make a change,” Haslam told Bill Speltz of the Missoulian and 406mtsports.com, adding that the coach and university officials “mutually agreed it was time for him to move on.” Later in the week, however, Independent intern Micah Drew reported that Plakorus had been fired after an investigation found text exchanges with Las Vegas escort services on his work phone.
Congratulations to Drew, who will be rewarded with an extra serving of gruel. The mysterious woman who sold you to the Indy would be very proud of you, if she could be found. Also, are we to understand that the UM Athletic Department has been less than forthcoming about an issue involving sexual misconduct?
We should note here that there is no evidence Plakorus hired any escorts. The university does not record the contents of text messages, only numbers, dates and times. Also, UM was not looking for escort-service contacts when it examined the records on Plakorus’ university-issued phone. According to the Missoulian, UM’s Title IX office discovered the exchanges while conducting a “team culture survey” prompted by some students’ concerns about the coach’s “excessive texting” with players.
Whether this behavior influenced UM’s decision not to renew Plakorus’ contract has been unclear from its public statements, which have focused on the escort texts instead. But Haslam didn’t mention any of that at first. He cast the end of the coach’s tenure as Plakorus’ personal decision to move on. Plakorus echoed this explanation in his own press release, saying that he was stepping down “to pursue new opportunities that will allow me to grow as both a coach and person.”
It makes a lot of sense that Plakorus would explain it that way. The university’s decision is harder to understand. For years now, UM has scrubbed away at the stains left by sexual assault scandals involving its athletic department. It has worked hard to establish a new public reputation as a safe place for women. Now, by misleading the press and conniving in Plakorus’ exit story, it has sent the message that UM is a safe place to violate policy and then go away quietly.
“By misleading the press and conniving in Plakorus’ exit story, UM has sent the message that it is a safe place to violate policy and then go away quietly.”
That is not what we want from our newly conscious university and its ostensibly contrite athletic department. In hindsight, it would have been better for Haslam to lay his cards on the table. He might have said that Plakorus used his work phone to communicate with escort services. He might even have described the findings of the team culture survey and followed it up with a strong statement about the university’s commitment to protecting women on campus.
That would have been satisfying. This botched cover-up, on the other hand, suggests that the UM athletic department has learned little from its previous mistakes. But this line of reasoning reveals a flaw in how we think about UM and what we want from it in the post-scandal era.
I can think of a reason Haslam didn’t tell reporters why Plakorus was fired: lawsuits. You can’t put someone out of a job and then tell the press that a survey of women’s soccer players found him creepy. That’s the legal equivalent of a homemade noose. From a risk-management perspective, letting Plakorus resign quietly was the correct play. And all the incentives in the UM system encourage Haslam and administrators in similar positions to think in terms of risk management.
The problem with risk management is that it’s unsatisfying. We see the university’s past scandals as a cultural problem. We want UM to demonstrate that its culture has changed, ideally with public gestures that will begin to make up for the public screwups of the past. But the university is not a person who ignored sexual misconduct before and wants to call it out now. It is an institution. Its behavior in situations like these has less to do with culture than with the institutional incentives at work on a public university. In this case, the incentive for UM to protect itself as an employer outweighed its incentive to demonstrate a commitment to protecting women.
That might seem cynical, especially from the perspective of the individual who is at no risk of a wrongful termination lawsuit. The individual wants UM to prove that it has changed. The institution, on the other hand, is incentivized primarily to prevent another scandal like the one that threatened it earlier this decade.
If we want to understand UM’s institutional behavior, we should recognize that the best way to prevent a scandal is to prevent misconduct, but the second best way is to try to prevent public knowledge of misconduct. That’s what the athletic department did last week. I find it unfortunate. I don’t think we should approach it as good or bad, though, so much as predictable. The university is responding to the incentives at work. If we want it to act differently, we should give it different reasons.
Dan Brooks is on Twitter at @DangerBrooks.