Applewhite and Kearney: A Major Difference

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By Bill Frisbie, Lead Writer
Posted Feb 2, 2013
Copyright © 2018

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Major Applewhite

Yes, the University of Texas treated differently former Texas women’s track coach Bev Kearney than it did football assistant Major Applewhite after both acknowledged misconduct in separate incidents.  The argument, here, is that there is a fundamental distinction between each painful indiscretion.

On the surface, both episodes appear similar. On the surface, the repercussions seem terribly uneven. 

Applewhite “engaged in an inappropriate consensual behavior with an adult student one time during the 2009 Fiesta Bowl activities,” Men’s Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds said in a statement Friday. Kearney resigned in January after news surfaced of her former romantic relationship with a student-athlete on the UT women’s track team.

Applewhite’s salary was frozen for one year. Kearney said she would have been fired had she not resigned.

Is it fair?

This episode is loaded with the highly-charged issues of race, gender and sexual orientation. Specifically, did any one of these factors result in a discriminatory double-standard regarding UT’s disciplinary measures enacted against Kearney?  It is the very question Kearney raised during a January interview on CNN  (“Is it because I’m black?  Is it because I’m female?  Is it because I’m successful? Is it now because of my sexual preference?”)

Patti Ohlendorf, head of University of Texas legal affairs, has stated that any relationship between a coach and student-athlete is both unprofessional and unacceptable. But the issue has less to do with University policy as it does the equitable enforcement of the policy, according to Kearney’s lawyer.

Kearney’s attorney, Derek A. Howard, told The Austin American-Statesman in January that his client has been “subject to a double-standard and has received a far harsher punishment than that being given to her male counterparts who have engaged in similar conduct.”

Now, the matter is on the docket for Sunday’s called meeting of the UT Board of Regents. The stated agenda includes items having to do with legal issues “surrounding individual athletics personnel” and issues having to so with “inappropriate relationships between employees and students.”

Kearney’s relationship lasted approximately five months, according to reports. Applewhite’s misconduct was a “one time” thing, according to Dodds.  The issue, here, is not the shelf-life of either relationship but rather the professional role each coach held with the respective student.

Let me be clear: I'm not making excuses for Applewhite’s behavior. But I believe there is one important point of distinction to be made between Applewhite and Kearney’s misconduct, and that this distinction is reflected in the repercussions.

Based on reports, Applewhite’s indiscretion involved an incident with an adult, non-student athlete. Meanwhile, Kearney admitted to an affair with one of her adult student-athletes. The issue has to do with whether a relationship between a coach and a student-athlete directly under the coach’s supervision can be construed as consensual. 

The issue turns on whether the power-displacement is so inherent between a coach and an athlete that it renders the relationship non-consensual.  There is no ‘age of consent’, many argue, in relationships where this kind of power-displacement is assumed (e.g., professor-student, clergy-parishioner, therapist-patient, etc).

This is precisely the issue the NCAA addressed nine months ago in a report stating that an adult,  student-athlete cannot give consent because he or she is “significantly less powerful” than a head coach, assistant coach, athletics director, athletics trainer, sports psychologist or other athletics department employee with any sort of supervisory control or authority.

Please note: the NCAA’s statement was intended as a model of policy rather than as a legal mandate.  However, The University of Texas enacted a policy in 2001 requiring the disclosure of any intimate relationship between coaches and athletes, or between any supervisor and subordinate.

From my perspective, it seems harsh that Kearney was allegedly pressured to resign considering her relationship with a student-athlete ended 10 years ago. There is no evidence that Kearney has since engaged in an intimate relationship with one of her athletes.

One could easily argue that if there is a double-standard here, it has to do with the importance of the almighty Texas football program relative to non-revenue producing sports. My argument remains: the most critical factor is whether the indiscretion involved a student-athlete upon whom a UT coach (to use the NCAA’s language) held “supervisory control or authority.”

My understanding, according to reports, is that Kearney held that kind “supervisory” status -- and that Applewhite did not.  As such, I consider Kearney to have been guilty of professional misconduct while Applewhite was guilty of personal misconduct. Neither is acceptable. Both are obviously painful. But only one gets you fired.

None of us can unequivocally state that neither race, gender nor sexual orientation is a factor here. That’s because we typically interpret life events through the lenses, if not biases, of our respective races, genders and sexual orientations. But now, the University of Texas has been brought into a heated discussion as to whether those differences between us can be quantified, particularly the extent to which our biases might come to bear on our sense of justice.

The time, it has to do with the disciplinary measures the University has enacted against two of its coaches.  The fact that it involves two icons within UT Athletics makes it all the more painful.

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