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Illini basketball

Welcome to Illinois. You’re fired.

The University of Illinois is lying to you,  the public toward whom federal law requires transparency; or it chose to pay Mike Thomas $2.5 million to not do the job he was good at doing.

Those are your choices. There are no alternatives.

After reading the report from Franczek Radelet, I’ve concluded the answer is #2. The University of Illinois just likes firing people, which should be obvious at this point.

Monday, 10:53 am.

On the Memorial Stadium elevator, I rode with one guy. He’s the DIA staffer responsible for feeding all the media who showed for the regularly scheduled Bill Cubit presser, and the WAY more than usual number of people who came to hear Barbara Wilson not answer questions about Mike Thomas’s firing.

Just the two of us, but the freight elevator was packed because of all the stainless steel, a seven-foot-tall mobile steam-table and a condiments gurney. Pulled chicken, salsa, sour cream, chopped romaine, diced tomatoes, flour tortillas, grated Queso blanco, refried beans, Spanish rice.

“Do you think you’re in danger of getting fired?” I asked the civil servant.

“Why.” he responded. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“I agree,” I told him. “But that doesn’t seem to matter anymore.”

Richard Herman , Joseph White, Heidi Hurd, Stan Ikenberry, Mike Hogan, Bob Easter, Phyllis Wise, Stephen Salaita, Paul Pless, Ilesanmi Adesida, Bruce Smith, Barb Wilson, Timothy Killeen.

The names don’t matter. The lack of continuity matters. Stability matters. `Who’s running the University of Illinois? If you blink, you’ll miss it. No one’s job is safe here.

If governor Bruce Rauner follows the example of Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, job insecurity should only increase.

THE PRESSER

Barbara Wilson was not a complete disaster as a communicator/ax wielder. Like a lot of information gatekeepers, she has a degree in journalism and a PhD cum career in “communication” which may someday be conclusively defined. (Her specialty is social and psychological effects of media on children.)

I asked her a deceptively softballish question. It sounded hardballish.  “What would you say to reassure the community, overall, that the university administration is not in complete disarray.”

She nailed the answer. See it in this video at the seven minute mark.

If you’re at work, I’ll give you the gist of it. She said the university is the classrooms, the labs, the studios. It’s not Swanlund (the administrative offices building). Major PR win for the interim chancellor in that response.

She was somewhat responsive, and somewhat combative, toward WCIA reporter Anna Carrera, in a back-and-forth about the millions of dollars U of I will be billed by Franczek Radelet (at the 4:30 mark, above).

I hesitate to describe Wilson as condescending toward Carrera. On the other hand, Wilson certainly condescended to News-Gazette reporter Matt Daniels, who asked the simplest and perhaps most important question of the conference (14:35, above).

“I think you’ve read the reports, you know what the distractions are” she non-responded to his root question, what are the distractions? In essence, why was Mike Thomas fired if he did nothing wrong?

“I think you know” she said of a 1200 page report, publicized two hours earlier.

(In her defense, Wilson was frustrated by a reporter’s smartphone, which forced her to read her prepared statement while her own voice looped back at her from the lectern. That’s the kind of unexpected annoyance that can completely rattle an otherwise composed, prepared speaker. I would certainly argue that her entire presentation, and her mood, was affected by this single annoyance.)

As it turns out, the football report is really 58 pages long, with a whole lotta supporting materials, redacted where interesting, totaling 664 pages. The word “distractions” appears twice, because it’s part of a document regarding concussion management, and that document is published twice in the report. The second iteration comes in the women’s basketball half of the report, which found no improprieties.

Nowhere does the report suggest that Mike Thomas did something unscrupulous, unprofessional, or bad. Not once.

Thus, we can conclude that Wilson was telling the truth, and perhaps not even fudging or evading. Mike Thomas did a great job, just like she said. And then he was fired.

Franczek Radelet’s assessment of DIA leadership starts at the end of page 39, and finishes at the bottom of page 42. That portion is pasted below.

In essence, DIA oversight of football trainer concerns/revolving door/malfeasance was insufficient. The prominent names are Paul Schmidt and Jason Lener.

Schmidt had titular oversight of everything sports medicine-related, because his title was “Head of Sports Medicine.” Lener had the day-to-day responsibility for overseeing the football program, including player health and welfare.

The report says Thomas removed Schmidt and Lener from their oversight positions, assigning Paul Kowalczyk to Lener’s duties twenty days before Tim Beckman was fired.

Franczek Radelet seems to exonerate Lener, by saying he didn’t think the trainer stuff was a big deal. That’s in bold, below.

Schmidt is the trainer for men’s basketball. The fact that he was the “Head of Sports Medicine” is an anomaly of seniority, rising through the ranks of civil service. It’s unreasonable to expect him to pick fights with hostile/aggressive football personnel, especially because he spends his days in the bowels of Ubben, taping ankles and injecting insulin into Mike Thorne.

Franczek Radelet exonerates Schmidt by saying he reported to Lener.

Here’s the full text of Franczek Radelet’s report re: administrative culpability. Tomorrow, analysis of the Paul Kowalczyk appointment, some troubling aspects of the Beckman investigation, and the real reason Mike Thomas was fired.

4. Administrative Oversight

We also considered the role that DIA administrative personnel played, if any, in allowing the violations of sports medicine protocols under Coach Beckman’s leadership to persist over a three-year period. As explained above, since Coach Beckman’s arrival, physicians, several Head Football Athletic Trainers, and the Director of Sports Medicine have raised concerns on various occasions about Coach Beckman’s injury management to people within DIA responsible for oversight of the Football Program. Combined with Head Football Athletic Trainer turnover, the number of reports of concerns from multiple people, particularly the extent of problems reported by team physicians, calls into question the sufficiency of the administrative oversight of the sports medicine program as it pertains to the Football Program. Details of our findings in this regard are described below, initially focusing on issues that arose during 2012 and 2013 and concluding with an overview of ongoing areas of concern.

2012 Injury Management Concerns. The first signs of potential problems with Coach Beckman’s injury management approach were the quick departures of two successive Head Football Athletic Trainers in March and May of 2012 (Nick Richey and Chris Brown, respectively). Each departure was attributed to personal career considerations, but the two departures in quick succession could have raised a broader concern. As nearly all witnesses explained (athletic trainers, doctors, administrators, and players), continuity within the athletic training staff is important because of the prominence of injuries in football and the need for trust between players and athletic trainers to encourage full disclosure of information. We conclude that, at least, the two Head Football Athletic Trainer departures within Coach Beckman’s first several months at the University were sufficient to lead DIA administrators to pay closer attention to sports medicine related issues and to respond diligently to any future concerns voiced by sports medicine personnel.

The third Head Football Athletic Trainer in 2012, Scott Brooks, reported significant concerns with Coach Beckman’s approach to injury management decisions within his first several months in the position and when he resigned in December 2012. These concerns were shared with Director of Sports Medicine, Paul Schmidt, and Executive Senior Associate Athletics Director, Jason Lener. Brooks reported candidly to Schmidt and generally to Lener, when he resigned, that he was not comfortable with the negative environment and pressure imposed by Coach Beckman. Schmidt confirmed Brooks’ comments, while Lener reported that he knew only of difficulty that Brooks had getting along with other athletic trainers and coaches. This third Head Football Athletic Trainer departure created more reason to increase administrative oversight, yet no team physician, athletic trainer, or administrator (Lener or Schmidt) recalls discussing any of these issues with Athletic Director Mike Thomas.

2013 Injury Management Concerns. The approach of Brooks’ successor as Head Football Athletic Trainer, Toby Harkins, caused team physicians to quickly begin sharing different and more troubling concerns with DIA administrative personnel. The issues included Harkins’ alignment with Coach Beckman, his poor judgment, and his failure to follow team physician directives. In multiple meetings and disciplinary notices, physicians, Schmidt, and Lener sought to address Harkins’ failure to meet one of the fundamental obligations of the lead athletic trainer role: communicating with doctors to facilitate their role as the “final authority” on injury management and clearance-to-play decisions. Despite acknowledging that he was aware of the concerns expressed by sports medicine personnel, Lener still described Harkins as “good at his trade” because Coach Beckman was pleased with his work. Lener also indicated that the concerns about Harkins that he recalls sharing with Athletic Director Mike Thomas were the existence of co-worker difficulties and issues related to Harkins becoming licensed as a trainer in Illinois. Similarly, Thomas reported only knowing about those two issues until our interviews.

We find that, although DIA administration attempted to address problems created by Harkins’ alignment with Coach Beckman during 2013 and eventually removed him as Head Football Athletic Trainer just before the 2013 season began, the level of oversight and attentiveness was insufficient to completely and promptly protect student-athlete welfare.

Ongoing Injury Management Concerns. After Harkins was removed and Naas became the Head Football Athletic Trainer, Naas reported that no one (Schmidt, Lener, or Thomas) checked with him regularly or asked in any meaningful way how things were going as he performed the head athletic trainer role over the next two years. Naas confirmed that, while injury management issues subsided to some degree during this period, Coach Beckman still challenged players who left practice for medical treatment and pressured all injured players to participate in the 2014 spring game (with his comments just prior to spring break). No one overseeing sports medicine or within DIA administration seems to have learned about these concerns until our investigation. We find that the lack of increased administrative review of injury management issues within the Football Program was a managerial oversight and that DIA staff could have done more to learn about the sports medicine function and offer support.*

*In contrast, Faculty Representative Wheeler reported that he made a point of spending more time at football practices during 2014 because the team had not performed well during Coach Beckman’s first two seasons, which Faculty Representative Wheeler thought could lead to increased coach pressure on players generally during the 2014 season.

Moreover, all football players, coaches, athletic trainers, and medical personnel reported uncertainty regarding the complaint process for students concerned about their medical management. Even one of the Faculty Representatives reported uncertainty about the scope of his role and authority to address complaints. This lack of a clear complaint process regarding injury management concerns left one player to bring concerns to the University’s Dean of Students. The Dean of Students accepted the complaint, but was unable to immediately respond due to a lack of clarity in reporting lines and investigative authority. Further, the Dean of Students Office lacks familiarity or expertise in the standards and best practices applicable to the medical care of student-athletes. In sum, no complaint process either within DIA or externally within the University exists specifically for processing student-athlete complaints about medical management.

Mike Thomas’ Oversight of Sports Medicine Issues. Athletic Director Mike Thomas delegated responsibility for sports medicine issues to Lener and described his role with these issues as “setting the tone” for others to follow, focusing on student-athlete welfare, and helping with issues as they were brought to his attention. His management style involves weekly one-onone meetings with Lener as well as weekly meetings with all of his executive senior staff within DIA administration. He encourages the staff to share any issues and reported that they do so regularly. Thomas also makes a point of informally checking in with personnel within DIA administration to offer opportunities for them to seek his advice or share information.

With respect to sports medicine issues within the Football Program, based on all of the information gathered during our investigation, we conclude that Thomas never received any direct report from a player, doctor, athletic trainer, or DIA staff member of concerns regarding inappropriate pressure on student-athletes or interference with sports medicine personnel rendering judgments about injury management. Both Lener and Thomas report that Lener did not share such concerns with Thomas beyond information regarding high turnover and athletic training personnel “not getting along.” Schmidt also reported discussing problems that developed in 2012 and 2013 only with Lener. We find it credible that Lener and Schmidt did not share more with Thomas because (1) Lener did not seem to view the issues raised by athletic trainers and doctors as more than problems between co-workers and (2) Schmidt followed a chain-of-command approach and expected that Lener would pass along information to Thomas as he saw fit.

Upon learning of the issues described above regarding sports medicine difficulties under Coach Beckman’s leadership, Thomas was shocked and disappointed by their scale. He felt that Coach Beckman’s pattern of communication demonstrated a disregard for student-athlete welfare in many respects and was surprised by the scope of his efforts to discourage reporting and push players to play through injuries. When shown evidence of the doctors’ ongoing concerns about Harkins, Thomas described Harkins’ actions as failing to prioritize student-athlete welfare. In addition, senior administrative staff could have gone to greater lengths to keep Thomas informed about those issues. Thomas described the breakdown in communications to him from Lener and Schmidt as unexplainable, especially after the problems persisted for several months after they were informed.

Since learning of these issues, Thomas has taken steps to adjust DIA administrative personnel to avoid recurrence in the future. Oversight of sports medicine has been assigned to Paul Kowalczyk, Senior Associate Athletics Director. Thomas is in the process of eliminating the Director of Sports Medicine role and will replace it with a more senior position that Thomas believes will provide significantly more oversight and protection for student-athletes. Thomas has also implemented additional changes for the sports medicine function with respect to the Football Program that are described in detail below at pages 55 to 58.