At least no one implicated was promoted.
But this week, Northwestern, my alma mater, promoted to athletic director a deputy, Mike Polisky, who is one of four defendants (along with the school) in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed in January by a former school cheerleader, Hayden Richardson. She charges that Polisky was dismissive and obstructive of her complaints about being fondled and peppered with suggestive comments by athletic funders at parties to which the cheer team was dispatched. The university severed ties with the cheerleading coach, Pamela Bonnevier.
I don’t know Polisky. The lawsuit hasn’t been heard or settled. The school president, Morton Schapiro, instead of taking questions at a podium or in a Zoom room, wrote a letter in response to criticism over Polisky’s promotion. He said the school “denies that it or any of its current employees violated any laws, including Title IX,” and that an independent investigator found “no information to suggest that [Polisky] engaged in any conduct that is a violation of policy.”
It sounded like the coach of a star player who ran afoul of the law allowing the player to continue playing — because the coach determined through his or her own investigation that nothing unseemly occurred.
But I do know this: The hiring was insulting to Richardson and her former teammates who corroborated her claims.
It was embarrassing to alumni such as me who, like proud alums of any school anywhere, have developed a fanaticism for our school that we express most fervently by cheering for its teams.
And it was not surprising.
What Northwestern confirmed is what the Washington Football Team reminded: Women remain disrespected in sports by the men who run them.
We witnessed it during college basketball’s championship tournament in March when the NCAA failed to provide women’s teams the same workout equipment as men’s teams until it was publicly embarrassed by a woman’s player who posted video of the discrepancy on social media. We saw it, if we looked close enough, in baseball when it was lauded after its Miami club made Kim Ng its general manger. Ng had been in baseball management most of her adult life but was just getting a shot at GM at age 52, after watching Theo Epstein (with the Red Sox) and Jon Daniels (with the Rangers) both land GM jobs at 28.
We witnessed it at Northwestern, where Schapiro announced in March he will retire as president in August 2022 after 13 years running the campus. I have championed what Schapiro has done for my school and was proud to stand with him for photos. Polisky was an assistant to Jim Phillips, who in December announced he was leaving Evanston, also after 13 years, to become commissioner of the ACC. Phillips oversaw the department when the men’s basketball team played in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2017. I dropped everything to go and loved it.
The other most important people at Northwestern are 1959 graduate and now billionaire businessman Pat Ryan, who spearheads the trustees, and 1997 graduate and now coach of the football team he starred on, Pat Fitzgerald, whose successes as a player and coach I have traveled the country to witness.
But the candidates over whom Polisky was chosen, the Chicago Tribune reported, were Anucha Browne, who starred for Northwestern basketball in the mid-1980s before becoming a sports executive; Nina King, Duke’s deputy athletic director; and Janna Blais, another Phillips assistant who served as the university’s interim athletic director the past five months. That’s three women, none of whom are named in a sexual harassment lawsuit. That’s two Black women, like one of the former cheerleaders who backed up the harassment charges against the university.
And you wonder why college athletic leadership is so bereft of women and Black and Brown leaders. As is academia. And corporate America. And professional sports. It is because too often a White male is given a benefit of doubt when he needs it, while women and people of color are doubted, no matter their credentials.
This is why only five women, two of whom are Black, work as athletic directors at so-called Power Five programs, the 65 schools that are largely the biggest and wealthiest in the country. This is why only a handful more athletic directors at those schools are not White men. This is why when these institutions declare that they stand for diversity, equity and inclusion, it so often peals like platitude.
My alma mater could have made a difference. It didn’t, and it is without excuse.
What happened at Northwestern wasn’t its failure alone. It was a failure of the ecosystem in which it now thrives: big-time athletics, be it college or the pros, where money rules ethics, morality and equity. What about Polisky won him this job, according to reports? He was part of Phillips’s successful branding strategy for Northwestern athletics and, presumably, was most likely to keep the machine humming. Dollars outweighed decency. It doesn’t sound like that bromide about sports building character.
It could turn out, of course, that Polisky, his co-defendants and the university as a whole are cleared of wrongdoing. But the damage is done — and not just short term to the university’s reputation. There is a larger pernicious issue. It is that of the hesitancy of women on college campuses in particular, where studies have shown sexual harassment to be pervasive, to step forward to alert authorities. Victims fear retaliation or, as in the charge at Northwestern, that they won’t be taken seriously. In this case, the accused not only wasn’t sidelined; he was elevated.
As University of Southern California education professor Stephen Aguilar warned in a 2019 study of sexual harassment reporting on campuses: “The attitudes of university leadership, a university’s prior response to sexual harassment reports, and prior outcomes for those who reported sexual harassment also play a prominent role in reporting behaviors. An organizational climate that exhibits tolerance of sexual harassment … may have leaders with dismissive attitudes that undermine formal [or informal] reporting processes. This perceived dismissiveness has been shown to deter victims and whistleblowers from reporting sexual harassment.”
No one should have to be reminded this is a real problem everywhere. Was the #MeToo uprising really that long ago? Our institutions should behave better by now.