Pat Summitt was one of the most prolific basketball coaches of all time; her son Tyler, not so much. Last Thursday, Tyler Summitt rather abruptly resigned from his post as the head basketball coach of the women’s team at Louisiana Tech University. In his own words, Summitt resigned for having an “inappropriate relationship.” Since his announcement, the talkative streets have told us that the married coach’s inappropriate relationship was actually a sexual relationship with one of his players and that that relationship has resulting in the young lady’s pregnancy. If true, inappropriate doesn’t even begin to characterize Summitt’s actions. We could easily use terms like disgusting, predatory and despicable. As I talked to people about the latest NCAA scandal, I realized that not many people are clear on the rules/expectations of coaches as it relates to their student-athletes. People know Summitt’s actions sound wrong, but they aren’t sure quite sure how and why.
Are Summitt’s actions illegal?
It’s likely that Summitt hasn’t committed a crime or acted illegally in the common sense of the word. That conclusion, of course, is based on a number of assumptions. First, is the assumption that the student-athlete with whom he allegedly has an affair with is at least 18-years of age. If she wasn’t at the time of their encounter(s) then Summitt could be facing child sex abuse or statutory rape charges. Another assumption is that Summitt did not overtly force himself on the student-athlete. If I’m wrong about that then Summitt could face sexual assault charges. And finally, I’m operating under the assumption that Summitt didn’t subject the student-athlete to any overt, unwanted advances, jokes, comments, etc. that would have amounted to sexual harassment. If I’m wrong about that one, then Summitt (and perhaps Louisiana Tech) could have a law suit on their hands. So, if all of my assumptions are correct, then it’s unlikely that Summitt will be accused of any illegality.
If nothing illegal went down, why do we all feel it’s so wrong?
Just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t morally reprehensible, and (even when you toss the extra-marital affair aspect of this case aside) Summitt’s actions were morally reprehensible. Ordinarily, two able-minded, willing adults are free to engage in sexual relationships of their choosing. A sexual relationship between a coach (or other administrator) and a student-athlete; however, is no ordinary relationship. Coaches occupy a position of power over student-athletes. They have the power to control and influence players’ scholarships, playing time, practice schedules, self-esteem and even public perception. Student-athletes are often at the mercy of their coaches. The dynamic between a coach and student-athlete is similar to the dynamic between a boss and an employee. All sexual interactions are questionable because the student-athlete (or employee) stands to lose so much if they are not willing to comply with the coach’s (or boss’s) wishes. This builds an unspoken and unfair pressure and leaves no room for a relationship built on mutual consent. The coach will always have an upper hand in an unhealthy way.
Are you sure? What about if the student-athlete really consents to or even makes the first move in the relationship?
Like I said before, there is no genuine mutual consent in a sexual relationship between a coach and his/her student-athlete. In its guidance to member schools, Staying in Bounds, the NCAA characterizes such relationships as “unacceptable acts of sexual abuse” and encourages schools to apply its zero tolerance policy for such relationships. Coaches who engage in sexual relationships with their student-athletes take advantage of their authority and the trust that student-athletes and their parents have placed in him/her. According to the NCAA, proof of the unacceptable, nonconsenual nature of the relationships is the fact that coaches work hard to keep the interactions a secret and often engage in secret grooming (slow, subtle seduction) prior to making any advances. In other words, normal, open relationships cannot exist between a coach and his/her student-athlete. It’s wrong and the coaches know it is; Summitt’s swift departure merely echoes that.
Unfortunately, Summitt isn’t the first, nor will he be the last, coach to step out of bounds and into a sexual relationship with one of his student-athletes. But the sting of what he did doesn’t hurt any less. While he’s brought shame to a name that was synonymous with basketball and collegiate excellence; he’s also forever changed the life of a young woman whose parents sent her to school to get an education and to play basketball under Summitt’s supposedly mature, trustworthy eye. He’s created a wedge between teammates who complained of his overt favoritism, and he’s made families and athletes across the country second-guess the trust they put in their college administrators. His apology doesn’t begin to make up for the damage that he’s done. We can only hope that schools and parents use this as a lesson to teach their staff and student-athletes about the boundaries between coaches and student-athletes and that those boundaries should be maintained for a reason.
What are your thoughts on Summitt’s behavior and the affect its had on women’s sports? Let us know what you think at GladiatHers.com or on our Facebook page. And be sure to keep up with us on Twitter and Instagram.