Mountaineers are Hoping for Change
I thought long and hard about whether I would weigh in on the current controversy brewing in Morgantown. By now, fans have heard about the firestorm created by a heartfelt tweet from sophomore safety Kerry Martin. As a result, I won’t dig too far into those details. Suffice it to say, Martin’s tweet airs several grievances about Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning that warrant further investigation, something the Mountaineers are actively doing. And based on comments from Shane Lyons’ office, Head Coach Neal Brown’s response, and Koenning’s own response, the Mountaineers are hoping for change.
The Basis for Change
Before figuring out what, if any, change may need to occur, we have to first look at the accusations levied by Martin. In his tweet, Martin raises several issues. First, Martin tells us that Koenning called him “retarded” for using the wrong technique on a play. Second, Martin tells us that Koenning talks often about religion and politics in his position group meetings. Koenning allegedly shares openly that he wishes Trump would “build the wall and keep Hispanics out.”
Third, Martin tells us that he (Martin) recently converted religions, and Koenning has consistently offered Martin books on Christianity. Koenning, according to Martin, pulled Martin in his office on several occasions to discuss religion, Christianity in particular. Finally, Martin tells us that Koenning told Martin and others that if people “did not want to get tear-gassed” that those people “shouldn’t be outside protesting.”
The “R” Word
Martin’s allegations raise several significant issues if true. While some still use the word, the majority of people understand that the word “retarded” ought to be retired from common parlance altogether. Prior generations used the word so routinely that it has drawn a direct relationship between someone who is different, often delayed, solely because of genetics and someone who does something foolish. While we all, honestly, ought to find such parallels utterly offensive, Martin makes it obvious why he feels offended. Martin confessed that his family includes some people with special needs. He takes it personally, as should we all.
Unwelcome Social Commentary
Koenning’s social policy talk is just that: it is talk. Surely, a player can simply ignore that, right? A person should listen to opposing views as the endeavor to grow, right? To an extent, yes, we can all learn and grow from one another. But there are limits. Telling a position group that includes a Hispanic player that he wants a “wall to keep the Hispanics out”? I think we can all agree that this does little to engender the trust of the family Coach Brown seeks to build, even if we disagree on the merits of Koenning’s comments.
What about a coach talking to his team about racial injustice in America? He defends the use of police force against those protesting the use of police force. Koenning does not just say rioters and looters should be “tear-gassed.” He says that even protestors ought to expect being tear-gassed. At least, that is how Martin and his teammates interpreted Koenning’s comments. Let us get this out of the way right now. Of the 75 scholarship players on the Mountaineers’ presumptive 2020 roster, 59 of them (or just shy of 80%) are non-white. Does it engender the type of trust one would expect for a member of the coaching staff to take positions like Koenning’s and saying them in the team environment?
The Other “R” Word
Koenning’s actions also raise issues on religious freedom. I understand that some want to frame the issue as an assault on Koenning’s own religious freedom. However, a public institution, and the people who represent it, cannot create an environment that openly favors one set of beliefs over another. Should a coach responsible for the playing time and development of young athletes really use his position to give uninvited religious instruction? Fair questions abound for the players. If I talk back, will I get extra laps? If I question his beliefs, will I get less playing time? Those present real concerns, even if Koenning means well by his players.
“Shut Up and Play”
One refrain we’ve all heard often is that players should “shut up and play.” The thoughts remain lazy, tired, and extremely subjective. A liberal might say a player with conservative values—Tim Tebow, for example—should just “shut up and play,” instead of talking about his religious views when given air time. A conservation group might say a player promoting social change—Colin Kaepernick, for example—should just “shut up and play.” Both are wrong. People are people. Dante Stills said it best in his tweet on the subject: “Some people don’t understand WE ARE HUMAN and have feelings just like everyone else.”
This noise has dominated the social media fallout from Martin’s tweet. “Shut up and play,” to be clear, is a weak response. It overlooks the fact that Koenning, simply, didn’t “shut up and coach.” It also overlooks the power balance in the team dynamic. A coach should command his team. How he does that is a matter of style, but it really boils down to one thing: does a coach have his team’s respect and trust? If not, he can have all the style and knowledge in the world. It will do nothing for the team.
To his credit, Martin said this quite specifically: “No, Coach Vic is not a bad person, and he does mean well in many aspects.” Martin does not, by his tweet, take Koenning all the way to the mat and demand his removal. He simply says that the locker room and team culture needs a change.
Maybe It’s Time to Listen to Players
To be clear, Morgantown is not the only college town with a locker room problem. Players across the country have demanded change at dozens of institutions, including several high-profile Power 5 schools. In many of those places, fan reaction has been similar: “shut up and play.” But I have a novel idea. Maybe it’s time to listen to our players. As Stills said, they are humans. They have ideas, feelings, and thoughts. They have new platforms that prior generations did not.
Some very much fear the idea of change because it antagonizes comfort. Comfort, however, is the enemy of success. Our players in Morgantown and our players across the nation speak loudly. They are telling us, in no uncertain terms, that racial inequality and injustice still exist. They add that the badges and symbolic reminders of it still stand and fly to this day. We should find no comfort in that.
Some react and say, “that’s just the old school mentality.” They add, “when I was a player, we wouldn’t dream of going public with the locker room talk.” They add, “prayer was always in the locker room.” In other words, they tout tradition for tradition’s sake. Bruce Lee once said that “tradition makes the mind a slave—you are no longer an individual, but merely a product.” Indeed, tradition for tradition’s sake is dangerous. Ironically enough, most religious texts, including the Bible and the Qur’an, contain ample warnings about the dangers of tradition. Young players have different ideas about the world, and they have different means to express it. And maybe it’s time to listen.
“Enough is Enough”
Martin’s tweet ended as auspiciously as it began: “Enough is enough.” The phrase “shut up and play,” ought to be retired as swiftly as the word “retarded.” We should listen to our players. And we should strive to understand their words and positions. Otherwise, we must admit that we are reducing them solely to their numbers, their statistics, and their athletic heroism. Beyond that, we would be admitting that they are less than human, that their ideas, words, thoughts, feelings, and respect have no value. Assuming we are not willing to admit these things—I certainly am not—then we ought to join Martin and say “enough is enough.” Power wielded properly, does not excuse by any stretch the wielder’s ability to degrade and demean the fears, thoughts, and sensitivities of those he shepherds.
For what it’s worth, Koenning’s own statement shows that he is willing to listen. Koenning started acknowledging and respecting “Kerry Martin’s right to share that some of my words and actions impacted him.” He tells us that “this is an opportunity … to listen, learn, and improve.” He promises that “we will get through this together and be stronger as a team for it.” If Koenning is willing to listen, learn, and improve, then perhaps we should all be so willing.
While we listen, we might also take a few more of Bruce Lee’s words to heart. “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.” This is how we effectuate change. And for that—the act of knowing, applying, willing, and doing—we should all, honestly, thank Martin for his courage. Coach Brown already has. So has Shane Lyons. So, too, should those remaining reluctant fans. Either way, Martin’s conclusion is simple but correct, “enough is enough.”