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John Blanchette: Rob Spear, University of Idaho failed where it matters most – taking care of students

So many missions for the men – and it’s mostly men – in charge of college athletics. They are there to build, to connect, to coach. To motivate, counsel, inspire, encourage, innovate, ethicize, resource, rally and more.

And win. No one let’s them forget about the winning.

Yes, so many responsibilities. But just one job.

They are there to take care of people.

When exactly did this become so difficult to grasp?

On Thursday, Idaho’s State Board of Education finally cut loose University of Idaho athletic director Rob Spear after lots and lots of investigation and risk assessment and hand-wringing. And presumably even some empathy for the women both he and the university failed, and for those afraid they’d be failed again.

That a conclusion took four months from the time lame-duck president Chuck Staben placed Spear on 60-day administrative leave isn’t necessarily a case study in clock mismanagement. Both Spear and the female athletes who were firm in their resolve that he mishandled sexual harassment and assault complaints deserved more than knee-jerk justice.

Plus, it takes time to decide whether you’re going to eat upwards of $300,000.

This is what Spear will collect from his contract that runs through February 2020, as it was the board’s unanimous vote that he be terminated “for convenience,” a description of no little irony. Few of us can afford convenience that runs to six figures.

But had it clutched for the high moral ground of firing Spear for cause to void the contract, surely the board would have found itself wrangling in court and destined to lose – an independent investigation having found the school complicit in miscommunicating policy to address the women’s complaints. That gave Spear some cover, and thus the price tag would have been even stiffer once all the lawyers had their parking validated.

So it’s not the shutout Spear’s loudest detractors may have coveted. This is hardly the problem.

The problem is how taking care of the most vulnerable people in their orbit still remains a sound bite and not an inviolate practice of too many leaders in college athletics.

We have seen it at Ohio State, where football coach and professional moralist Urban Meyer is on administrative leave while an investigation is made into how it is he kept an apparent serial domestic abuser on his staff, and then got up in front of reporters and “failed in my words” – you know it more familiarly as lying – in addressing just what he knew.

We’re seeing it at Maryland, where two months of virtual silence passed until the school – reacting to an ESPN report into the “toxic culture” of the football program – accepted responsibility for the death of player Jordan McNair, and canned the bully who oversaw the workout that killed him. Still, the enabler of it all remains employed, if also on leave.

We’ve seen it at Michigan State, where the sexual abuse perpetrated by an evil quack in the school’s employ finally played out in agonizing open-court testimony – and where the school’s interim president still persists in the public shaming of the victims at near Trump-level volume.

Each of these was brought to light either by courageous victims or solid reporting or both, just as Idaho’s failures found sunshine thanks to the backbone of diver Mairin Jameson, who took her complaint about a UI football player to Spear back in 2013 and eventually posted her account online, and the aggressive work of Chadd Cripe of the Idaho Statesman.

The ham-handedness of how Spear and Idaho dealt with Jahrie Level’s misconduct was egregious enough. It was only underscored by statements earlier this month by former Idaho track athlete Hannah Kiser to both the Statesman and the Moscow-Pullman Daily News that Spear had blocked her transfer to Washington State, even suggesting it would eventually keep her out of UI’s hall of fame.

No real surprise there, though. Idaho athletic department employees who moved across the state line for a raise or a better gig often got the pariah treatment when they broke the news to the boss.

Are they property, or people?

This is at the heart of this sad episode at Idaho. The need for policy and procedure – for fairness and clarity – is great. But you don’t need policy to empathize, help or simply do the right thing.

Beyond this damaging misstep, Spear has wrangled with one of the nation’s most difficult AD jobs since 2003. He’s worked for 38 presidents, or so it’s seemed – each devoted to either an agenda or inertia. He had the impossible task of trying to keep Idaho in FBS football and then preside over the return to the Big Sky Conference in front of fan base bitterly split on subject. His tenure was not without service.

But along the way, he tellingly forgot who was most in need of it.

And it shouldn’t be that difficult to grasp.


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