Picture Becomes Clearer At Ball State, and It's Not Pretty

Ronny Thompson says a racially hostile work environment drove him to resign as coach at Ball State.
Ronny Thompson says a racially hostile work environment drove him to resign as coach at Ball State. (By Kyle Evens -- Associated Press)
By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

There are people at Ball State who want you to believe everything that went wrong is Ronny Thompson's fault. They tell folks Thompson is arrogant and distant and a bad basketball coach. They tell you Thompson didn't extend himself to the booster club. They point to a new black coach as indication that everything's hunky-dory on campus and that Thompson's claims of a racially hostile environment are bogus, despite the coach's photos of hateful signs laying on the floor of what used to be his office.

What they don't tell you is that the Ball State athletic program was already dealing with a selling-books-for-profit scandal that suggested to the NCAA a lack of institutional control and took place long before Ronny Thompson was hired. Some of these same Ball State people aren't forthcoming with the fact that the basketball team had only five players when Thompson arrived and was told by his boss to pass on cocktail parties and concentrate on recruiting. They don't tell you that they didn't even have basketballs for practice or that the players weren't going to class.

They don't tell you Ronny's wife was so worried about the expression of racial hostility that she put her two children in the car and drove from the Ball State campus in Muncie, Ind., to Chicago. They don't tell you that Thompson and his attorney allege the violation of federal civil rights laws, state civil rights laws and the school's own equal employment opportunity policies.

And they certainly don't tell you that Thompson, at the insistence of his suspicious pop, Big John, kept a detailed diary of every meeting and phone call, with quotes, notes, times and supporting e-mails. He has photos, tape recordings and memos that he shared on a recent afternoon while telling his story.

Thompson resigned as coach of the Ball State basketball team on July 12. School officials have not specified why he resigned, and JoAnn M. Gora, the school's president, and Tom Collins, its athletic director, said last week that Thompson would still have his job had he not stepped down. They said they were no longer focusing on secondary violations Thompson and his assistants allegedly committed, specifically being in the gym and in the weight room during times coaches are not allowed to be there. Thompson said he was identified, if you will, by a student who said it was a "tall black man" with a bald head in the gym, as if that doesn't describe probably 250 men on campus. Thompson says categorically he was not in the gym at the time.

Thompson said that in his resignation letter to Gora last month he reiterated the serious concern he spoke of with her only a month earlier when he said: "My decision to leave is not one of my own volition, but due to the intolerable circumstances created by the university. I consider my leaving to be termination without cause. . . . The racially hostile work environment combined with harassment by several members of the administration, including my supervisors, has made a continuing working relationship untenable."

In a June 2 letter to Gora, Thompson says he was told by the school's compliance director that an assistant athletic director uttered "several derogatory comments about black people in general . . . and used the n-word more than once in this conversation. . . . This conduct is outrageous and is in clear violation of the university's EEO policy and non-harassment policy."

Thompson says he was told of the racial slur by the school's athletic compliance director, Kyle Brennan, and that it was Brennan who first tipped him off that he should get an attorney. Brennan, since, has not spoken up on Thompson's behalf or about this episode.

Thompson holds on to every piece of correspondence, fighting what he says is a "systematic attempt to discredit me and my staff." On a recent day in attorney Matthew Keiser's office at Arnold & Porter in the District, Thompson said: "We're asking for an external, independent and public review of everything I have. The university balked . . . "

Gora told The Washington Post last week that Thompson was overwhelmed as a head coach. Sports boosters said he was aloof and cold. The boosters also tell a story of Thompson showing up two hours late to a school golf outing, not mentioning that Thompson was called to a mandatory meeting by his athletic director and compliance director, a meeting on which he took notes extensively.

Thompson told his own story the other day. "I was told when I was hired," he said, "to 'get the program in order.' I had five players when I got there in April. I was told to forget speeches and boosters. . . . They're trying to paint me as some antisocial man without personality, like I wanted to be holed and the athletic director had to instruct me to be nice. That's not me, and has never been me.

"They did want open practices, and I said, 'No.' There had been no coach for 2 1/2 months," Thompson said. "There was no order . . . We're talking about starting a program at ground zero. . . . The first order of business for a coach doing that is to get out on the road and recruit. It was a Division I program with no basketballs. I called [Georgetown Coach John Thompson III] and asked him to send me some balls. There were no jump ropes, no workout gear, no shoes, nothing . . . I'm talking nothing . . . like number two Boys Club on North Capitol. I drove to a store and bought basketballs."

And there was the book scandal that had caused a major NCAA investigation, with student-athletes selling books for cash. Thompson is convinced the school looked aggressively for secondary violations to report to demonstrate to the NCAA that school officials were vigilantly cleaning up their act.

Later, the school alleged that an assistant coach, Steve Flint, was said to be in the weight room, another secondary violation. Just like the report that he had been in the gym, Thompson says, this, too, is untrue. Even worse, Thompson says Collins said to him, " 'Why don't you just get the white coach [Flint] to admit he was there in the weight room and there won't have to be an investigation . . . there'll just be a slap on the wrist.' I asked him, 'What's a slap on the wrist?' And he told me [Flint] would have to be suspended 30 days without pay, or be removed from the road recruiting, or not receive a pay raise.

"In other words, it was, 'Take the hit and sweep this under the rug so the NCAA will leave us alone as we try to bring closure to [the books scandal]. Go along with us, throw the white guy under the bus.' If we admitted to a secondary violation, fine, but if we didn't there would have to be a full-blown investigation."

Thompson said no, he wouldn't go along. And while thankful of the support from a lot of people at Ball State, he's disappointed that Brennan didn't report the racial slurs to the school president and the NCAA.

Tony Proudfoot, Ball State's associate vice president for communications, told The Post's Eric Prisbell yesterday that the university has taken all of Thompson's concerns seriously and that "anything Coach Thompson identified as a workplace concern we are examining because we want to be a welcoming environment for all people." Proudfoot said two faculty members with expertise in workplace climate assessment are examining whether the incident involving the racially charged notes was isolated. University police are investigating the source of the notes.

Oh, there's one more thing. Thompson said his recruiting trips produced what has been described as a top 35 recruiting class, and the No. 4 recruiting class by a non-BCS school. It's too bad for the school and for Ronny Thompson he won't be there to coach them.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company