Wall of Silence: How CMU athletics has failed in wake of star football player’s suspension

By John Irwin

Eleven days after Thomas Rawls was reinstated to the football team following his arrest and suspension, the star Central Michigan running back made it clear just how valuable he is to the Chippewas.

Rawls had a career-best 229 yards rushing on 40 carries on Saturday, scoring twice in CMU’s 28-10 Homecoming win over Ohio. There is now little question that he and wide receiver Titus Davis, returning to the team after a leg injury, are the team’s catalysts. As they go, so goes CMU football. That much is clear six games deep into the season.

Thomas Rawls
Thomas Rawls

Much less clear, however, are the circumstances surrounding Rawls’ Sept. 14 arrest, what the coaching staff and athletics department knew about the incident leading to it, and when they knew it.

Nearly a month later, questions still linger, and the athletics department and the university have done little to answer them. Indeed, they have actively sought to keep information from the public.

The obfuscation and obstruction CMU Insider has faced from administration and athletics in recent weeks as it has pursued answers to those questions suggests that CMU continues to place transparency low on its list of priorities, as it has for years. And it looks like that will not change anytime soon.

Where there should be clarity coming from the university, there is instead a wall of silence.

The incident

Let’s first establish what we do know about Rawls’ arrest.

He was arrested by Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Police on Sept. 14 on charges stemming from a May 16 arrest warrant. Video surveillance shows Rawls and two friends entering an eatery at Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort around 3 a.m. on April 18. The video shows they noticed an abandoned purse. Rawls handed the purse to one of the other men, who placed it in a bag before they left the casino. The arrest warrant states Rawls used a stolen credit card from the purse to buy sub sandwiches at the casino before the group bought $33.77 in gasoline with a stolen debit card.

The day before his arrest, Sept. 13, the Chippewas — fresh off a 38-17 upset win over Purdue — were gearing up to face Syracuse at home. Hours before game time, news broke the team would play without Rawls, a key player in their first two wins, due to “an issue that came to (CMU’s) attention” the previous day. To this day, no reason has been given for why Rawls missed that game, though it was initially reported that Rawls’ absence was not disciplinary in nature. Reporters were told at the post-game press conference by the department to not ask about Rawls or else risk having the presser end prematurely.

One day later on Sept. 14, Rawls was indefinitely suspended from the football team after being arrested. He was charged with three felonies: Larceny, possession of stolen credit cards and stealing credit cards, each punishable by up to four years in prison. Again without Rawls, CMU went on to lose another game, this time on the road at Kansas, 24-10.

He was reinstated to the team on Sept. 23 after entering a plea deal that morning, agreeing to plead guilty to one count of attempted larceny in a building, a high-court misdemeanor. His sentencing is set for Oct. 21, four days before CMU will be on the road to play Buffalo. He will not face jail time.

Dan Enos
Dan Enos

One day following his reinstatement, Rawls and head coach Dan Enos spoke to the media about the arrest and suspension for the first time. Rawls apologized to his teammates and fans for the incident and vowed to come back strongly on the field.

“I embarrassed myself and this program,” Rawls said, according to CM Life. “Nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. It is all about how you move forward from it.”

Reaction to Rawls’ reinstatement on social media was largely negative. Many students and fans argued that a player of lesser importance would have remained suspended and that Rawls was only brought back to give a coach and a team desperate for a winning season a chance to compete.

Enos, with a record of 22-33 and one winning season under his belt so far at CMU, brushed off those critics.

“If you have a problem and make a mistake, as I’ve always said, there are consequences and you deal with those consequences,” he said, according to The Morning Sun. “Then we have to move forward. We have to be very consistent with how we do things. If everyone made a mistake and you just kicked everyone off the team, there’d be a lot of teams and not just football teams that wouldn’t have a lot of people left.”

Whether Rawls should have been allowed back on the team so soon is up for debate. Critics are right when they suggest it’s difficult to imagine a second-string punter, for instance, getting off so easy, relatively speaking. But this is apparently Rawls’ first major offense, and Enos’ assertion that he deserves a second chance holds sway.

Questions abound

Having that type of debate in public is a good thing for the university and the football program. These public dialogues are a way to keep the university honest.

It’s a shame, then, that the university and department have apparently chosen to take an obstructionist approach to disseminating information in the wake of Rawls’ suspension. Public dialogue cannot properly be had if questions surrounding the football team’s handling of the incident are not answered thoroughly. And so far, many of the tough questions have not been fully answered.

Dave Heeke
Dave Heeke

For instance, CMU Athletics Director Dave Heeke told CM Life on Sept. 23, the day Rawls was reinstated, that the department had been “hearing some rumors” regarding Rawls for an unspecified amount of time. Heeke said CMU Police Chief Bill Yeagley was the one who brought Rawls’ arrest warrant to the team’s attention. Heeke told CM Life the department was not aware of the arrest warrant before Sept. 5.

Which all begs several questions.

The department and coaching staff were made aware of Rawls’ warrant on Sept. 5, nine full days before police arrested him, so why did they not act until after he was arrested? Why not be proactive and act immediately? Does internal policy prevent the department from acting until after an arrest is made, or did the department and coaching staff simply sweep this under the rug until Rawls was arrested, hoping that they could use him at the running back for as many games as possible before that happened?

What were those “rumors” Heeke alluded to, and when did the coaching staff and the department first hear them? What did they do to investigate those rumors?

How was the department supposedly unaware of the incident until CMU Police brought the warrant to Heeke’s attention? After all, the incident took place in April and his warrant was issued in May, almost two full months before Rawls officially joined the team on July 2 after transferring from the University of Michigan. How did the coaching staff and the department fail to realize that their prized transfer had a warrant out for his arrest for several weeks before he even joined the team, let alone that they didn’t know until September?

What the athletics department has not fully addressed to CMU Insider is what transpired the weekend of the arrest. Was Rawls allowed to visit the casino that night? Was he in Mount Pleasant on an official team visit? If so, why and how did no one on the coaching staff supposedly know of the incident?

Students deserve to have these and more questions answered. After all, we are talking about a high-profile issue involving an athletics department with estimated expenditures of $25.6 million this academic year. That money largely comes from those students’ tuition dollars and taxpayer dollars. As part of a public university, the department must be forthcoming about answering those questions.

Students must know if the department and coaching staff acted responsibly in response to the incident. They need to know if the policies and procedures in place were effective, and if they were not, there must be a discussion as to how to fix them.

None of that can happen if students do not have the information they need and deserve.

CMU Insider has attempted to get acquire that information over the last several weeks but has been met with both near-silence from the athletics department and with numerous denials of a legal request for information from the administration.

Insider filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the university on Sept. 17 requesting copies of emails between Heeke, Enos and Ben Presnell, football’s coordinator of recruiting and player personnel regarding Rawls between May 16 (the date the arrest warrant was issued) and Sept. 17. (View a PDF of the FOIA request here.)

The request was filed in order for Insider to paint as clear of a picture of the entire situation as possible.

The request was denied a week later. A full transcript of the general counsel office’s Sept. 24 denial is below.

Mr. Irwin,

The University received your request on September 17, by e-mail, for which the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires a response not later than tomorrow, September 25.

The University is denying your request, for the following reason. The records you seek concern a student, Thomas Rawls. Under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), such records are considered the education records of Mr. Rawls.  FERPA prohibits the disclosure of education records without a student’s consent (20 USC 1232g). Further, section 13(2) of the FOIA states that a “public body shall exempt from disclosure information that, if released, would prevent the public body from complying with ….the family educational rights and privacy act..” (emphasis added). 15 MCL 243(2). Therefore, the university may not release these records.  A Notice of Right to Seek Review is attached.

Sincerely,

Kathy A. Kelly, for

Mary E. Roy

Freedom of Information Officer

FERPA is a 1974 federal law designed to keep colleges and universities from releasing a student’s academic record to the public. Many argue it is often abused by universities to keep information about the inner workings of athletics in the dark. Even the law’s author, former U.S. Sen. James Buckley, has said the way universities apply FERPA to a variety of non-academic issues is suspect, especially since most denied information, including, in our view, the info Insider requested, would cause no harm to the student involved if made public.

“The law needs to be revamped,” Buckley told The Columbus Dispatch in 2010. “Institutions are putting their own meaning into the law.”

CMU Insider requested an interview with the general counsel’s office to discuss the denial but was denied.

“Our office has nothing more to add on this matter and so declines your request to meet/discuss this further,” Kelly wrote in an email on Sept. 25.

George Ross
George Ross

Insider then appealed the denial to CMU President George Ross. Insider argued that FERPA was being applied too broadly in this situation. As we argued, Insider was not pursuing for emails written by Rawls or emails pertaining to anything educational or personal in nature. On those issues, the university can properly deny information from being released. But applying FERPA to emails pertaining to how administrative and coaching officials were handling a a situation involving an incident on public record is a stretch, Insider argued. (Click here to view the letter of appeal.)

On Oct. 3, Insider received a letter signed by Ross that upheld the initial denial. Ross argues in the letter that emails concerning a student fall under computer records that are classified as education records under FERPA. What exactly an education record is or should be remains vague under the law, and Ross seems to argue that since there is little in the way of clarity in federal, state or case law pertaining to that, the university can and will stand by its initial denial. (Click here for a PDF of Ross’ full letter.)

 

Transparency not a priority

It’s frustrating that the university has chosen to go this route. Leaving aside the back-and-forth between Insider and the university over whether FERPA can be fairly applied in this specific instance, it’s clear that transparency and openness are not priorities for the administration and athletics.

Consider all this:

Insider requested an opportunity early last week to speak with Heeke or someone else in the athletics department about the Rawls suspension this week and was denied due to an apparently busy schedule.

Insider sent some of the questions above via email to athletics on Oct. 1 upon request from the department as a way to circumvent the busy schedule. CMU Insider was denied any answers by the time of publication, though, as the department again cited a busy schedule for the delay. The department promised to provide answers at an unspecified later date.

“We will respond to you in the appropriate time and fashion,” Rob Wyman, CMU athletics communications director, told Insider in an email, while noting in an earlier email that the athletics department “always” works to accommodate “established student media.”

Insider was denied an opportunity to speak with the CMU General Counsel office about its FOIA denial, as previously mentioned.

Futhermore, the athletics department has even told journalists what they can and cannot ask during post-game press conferences, as they did following the Syracuse game when the department threatened to shut down the presser should any question be asked about Rawls.

All of the above should come as no surprise, considering the Ross administration has a history of being less-than-transparent on a variety of thorny issues, from its failure to properly disclose the costs of the new CMU website to its failure to properly disclose funding numbers for the recent Events Center renovation to its failure to effectively communicate and build trust during the infamous faculty strike of 2011.

Simply put, the university has failed to operate in a transparent manner, as all public institutions must. It has failed to do so because the administration, from Ross and Heeke down, apparently has little regard for the free flow of information or transparency.

As the cliche goes, sunshine is always the best disinfectant. When faced with a controversy on campus, university leaders should be forthcoming and honest about any and all information pertaining to the issue. Threatening to cut off access to a coach for daring to ask a question about a hot topic is not the way to go, nor is denying a request to speak with students regarding a complicated and vague legal issue.

Because now instead of clarity, CMU students are left with confusion.

If the athletics department and the university are as committed to transparency as they say they are, then they should answer the tough questions instead of letting speculation and frustration run rampant.

To do otherwise would be a slap in the face to the student body.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s