Sunday, May 31, 2020

When 'This is not who we are' is a disingenuous cheer

After a three-month investigation into allegations about hazing, Jon Hale reported in the Louisville Courier-Journal that the University of Kentucky had fired the coaching staff of its cheerleading team. The team had won 24 national championships from the Universal Cheerleaders Association.

The investigation focused on a team retreat where alumni allegedly supplied alcohol to the student cheerleaders and nudity was coaxed as part of regular hazing rituals.

"The investigation found no evidence of sexual assault or sexual misconduct during these trips," according to a release written by Jay Blanton, a University of Kentucky spokesperson. Blanton's release also mentioned that two of the fired coaches had potential conflicts of interest because they employed cheerleaders to work at their gymnastics business and an adviser "hired students and coaches to work at his home."

Eli Capilouto, the president of University of Kentucky, seems to have taken decisive action in firing the coaches and issuing a statement condemning the fact that such behavior was condoned and that they did not act to protect the best interests of the cheerleaders.

Capilouto's relatively swift move to address the actions revealed by the three-month investigation, to acknowledge wrongdoing, and to commit to an effort to prevent such actions from being taken again seems the right thing to do. But his words at a news conference sound a bit disingenuous: "This is not who we are at the University of Kentucky. This is not what we do."

"This is not who we are" is a phrase commonly used these days when reflecting on how the behavior of a group with which one is aligned went astray. It's become de rigueur for politicians on both sides of the aisle to invoke it as a means of simultaneously encouraging a group to be better and to distance themselves from the bad behavior.

But the words in many cases - and certainly in the case of this University of Kentucky incident - don't ring true. In the report, some acknowledged not reporting inappropriate behavior that happened years before because they wanted "to believe it did not happen." One of the "sexually explicit" incidents in the report allegedly dated back to the late 1970s.

In other words, these ongoing incidents represented exactly who they were. They might not reflect who they want to be, but the allegations in the report suggest that this is who they are.

Those words - "this is not who we are" - too often and too easily draw a response of: "Clearly, it is who you are."

The honest response when faced with such egregious behavior among your group would be to say: "This is not who we want to be." And the right thing would be to follow that up with: "So this is what we are going to do to ensure that such behavior is never condoned among us again."

After such behavior is acknowledged and addressed, it will take some time to determine who the people within the organization truly are. If all goes well, that's when "this is not who we are" can honestly be cheered proudly. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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