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Shawn Vestal: Legendary WSU quarterback Jack Thompson’s alleged comments in Jason Gesser case fit a pattern of cover-up

Former WSU quarterback Jason Gesser embraces fellow WSU quarterback Jack Thompson before the first half of a college football game against Eastern Washington on Saturday, September 15, 2018, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

It looks like a textbook defensive maneuver, conducted by one powerful man in defense of another – a maneuver executed in four simple words.

Stay in your lane.

This is what Jack Thompson – the Throwin’ Samoan, a first-tier member of Wazzu football royalty – is reported to have told a man who relayed sexual misconduct complaints about former Cougar quarterback Jason Gesser, who had returned to Pullman in 2013 to work for the WSU Athletic Department.

“Jack Thompson told me to stay in my lane and his job is to keep this from the president’s desk,” according to the investigator’s notes.

In the pages and pages of records surrounding the Gesser case, Thompson’s comment was not the most significant, perhaps, nor is he the person most responsible for taking action, since he’s not a university employee.

But it seemed to fit a pattern of a cover-up, which was emphasized by the acting athletic director at the time, John Johnson, reportedly telling the same man: “I don’t want to know anything” about the complaints.

But Thompson’s comments, as reported, struck a uniquely disturbing tone at a time when sexual misbehavior by powerful men is often smothered into silence by a tolerance for sexual misbehavior among older powerful men. It looked like the purest expression of that dynamic that you might imagine: A famous former quarterback covering up for a younger famous former quarterback.

Thompson insists that isn’t the case.

“The idea of some kind of cover-up – I would never be a party to that,” he said.

As for the comments about staying in your lane, he said, “That’s not true. That never happened.”

In an interview Tuesday, Thompson talked about his friendship with Gesser, his response to the allegations and how the news about a former WSU volleyball player coming forward with a complaint Monday had affected him powerfully as well.

“That was a gut punch,” he said, describing the allegations made by Alyssa Bodeau in Tuesday’s Spokesman-Review. “I hurt for her.”

Thompson said he’s saddened by the allegations against Gesser, who he has known for about 20 years, and to whom he is close. But he said that he did not act to impede an investigation into the complaints.

“We love the Gesser family, and my heart aches for them,” he said.

The university investigated a number of allegations about Gesser’s behavior; it concluded that he hadn’t violated university policy, and a spokesman has said it was unable to investigate some of the cases because no formal complaint was filed. The Daily Evergreen, the student newspaper, first reported the allegations last week.

WSU put Gesser on leave this week – and he quit Tuesday – in response to the new complaint: Bodeau, a 27-year-old former Cougar volleyball player, came forward publicly to accuse Gesser of trying to force himself on her following a fundraiser in 2015.

She did so in a bold, unignorable fashion, speaking publicly, by name, with her husband and uncle beside her.

She changed everything.

The investigative files in the earlier complaints include an interview with Matt Almond, the general manager of the WSU IMG Sports Network, which broadcasts Cougar games. Almond told the investigator he had heard concerns about Gesser’s behavior from “numerous people” over “a long period of time.”

Almond relayed his concerns about Thompson to the investigator in an interview in January. He said he was disappointed by Thompson’s response. “It didn’t make sense,” he said. “I feel like I handled it appropriately.”

Thompson said he has no memory of that.

“Categorically, I don’t recall ever having that conversation,” he said.

Thompson said, in fact, that he heard first about the allegations from WSU President Kirk Schulz, and he acknowledges that he did not believe them at first.

“I expressed my disbelief. No doubt about it,” he said. “I said, ‘I don’t believe that’. … But I also said, ‘If the allegations are true, of course you’d have to fire him.’ ”

Thompson’s responsibility here is symbolic rather than official. He’s not an employee of WSU, not someone with the same institutional responsibilities as, say, Johnson or Schulz. Almond’s interview paints a picture of upper-level administrators really trying to wish a problem away. Johnson did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

Gesser has now quit, and WSU is investigating Bodeau’s complaint. Her courage forced WSU to reopen the matter and has made it impossible for anyone to view the case in dismissive, impersonal terms: Famous quarterback versus anonymous women.

Bodeau’s speaking out was a reminder that it won’t be morally lethargic institutions, with their teams of human-resources attorneys poring over the policies, who bring change.

It will be courageous women, refusing to stay in their lanes.

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