Zero Tolerance for “Zero Tolerance” Policies

Mike Leach the pirate… Screw up once and walk the plank.

On Saturday our own Victory Bell weighed in on the Sekope Kaufusi dismissal asking the question that very few people even seem willing to consider; Is Mike Leach’s zero tolerance policy a good policy? My answer to that is an unequivocal “no”. In fact I think it is completely senseless and totally at odds with his role as a mentor of young men. I was very uncomfortable with this policy the moment I heard about it and my fears were all but confirmed by the previous two dismissals. With this latest incident I can no longer sit back silently and listen to the chorus of people applauding one of the most outlandish and over the top punishments I have ever heard of.

Lets start by addressing what Sekope did. He smoked marijuana, which is against team rules and should be. He was caught and should be punished and I am even in favor of that punishment being severe. An entire season suspension would sit just fine with me. Furthermore, Sekope was not being smart. As a young father, student and leader on the football team marijuana is a bad choice for him. He was also being conspicuous in his use of marijuana. No matter what people want to assume about the Pullman police or a neighbor reporting him, he put himself in a position he cannot blame anyone else for. There is no defense for Sekope’s actions and that is not what this is about.

This is about a coach and his role as a mentor and a molder of young men. In the comments the other day Ptown said that “athletes are employees whether they like it, or not.” This statement perfectly sums up the attitude that leads to a policy as pointless as Mike Leach’s zero tolerance. These athletes are not “employees” and Mike Leach is not their “boss”. He is their coach and there is a HUGE difference. I know it is very popular right now for people to compare this to their jobs and say things like “if I did this I’d be fired too”. Beside the fact that a LOT of people wouldn’t be fired, including many that are trotting out that comparison, it just doesn’t hold a lot of water. I doubt when any of you went out interviewing for your current job that your boss had a sit down WITH YOUR PARENTS about how he was going to manage you. Being a coach has a completely different set of responsibilities as being a boss and nowhere is this more clear then in the living rooms where recruits families are wooed with messages about how their son will be “taken care of” and “part of a family” and “taught lessons about hard work and responsibility” and “treated fairly”. You better believe that a big part of that message has to do with the kind of man they can expect their son to be when the coaches’ time with him is up. Mike Leach is a mentor to kids who will make mistakes, whether he likes it or not.

If I had a son who was being recruited to play college football, while I would be very involved in the decision process, the ultimate choice would be his. But I can tell you this without hesitation; I would strongly discourage my son from playing for Mike Leach. Anyone who holds what Kaufusi was dismissed for in the same regard as beating up women is just completely irrational. Now it’s likely that Mike Leach himself would tell you what Kaufusi did was not as serious as beating up a woman, but that perfectly illustrates how pointless blanket “zero tolerance” policies are. They lump all kinds of transgressions together under one umbrella, and totally release the authority figure from any responsibility to guide the offender through the process of learning to correct their behavior. You know, mentoring. Sure its messy, it’s complicated, it’s frustrating… and if you are a coach of school age kids, it is YOUR JOB. So far Mike Leach has cut ties with three players, two for possessing small amounts of marijuana and one for being involved in an altercation that never even resulted in charges. So far I don’t see a mentor, a molder of young men in Mike Leach. I only see an intolerant, irrational jerk with no patience for the more nuanced and complicated aspects of his responsibility as a coach.

There is a lot more to this story than just whether or not Mike Leach is the enforcer of a terrible policy. How about the fact that he works in an athletic department where a star player on another team who committed the exact same offense as Kaufusi, didn’t even miss a single game? I think Bill Moos may want to re-calibrate the policies regarding drug use so that they approach something within a light year or two of being consistent. Also, Mike Leach may discover that this is not BYU, or Kentucky, or Oklahoma or Texas. This is the West coast and recruits and their parents, whether they smoke pot or not, are going to recoil at such a severe penalty for what’s widely considered a normal part of the college experience.

I know we are still deep in the Mike Leach honeymoon period, his book is the Cougar nation’s new bible and it is completely unheard of to criticize the man for anything. But for me, the honeymoon is over. I knew this rule was stupid when I first heard about it, but it is no longer stupid in theory. It is now stupid in practice. It is one thing to run a “clean program” because you help the young men under your charge grow and learn from their inevitable mistakes. It is another thing entirely to run a clean program because you just kicked out anyone the instant they didn’t obey your rules. From a guy who was run out of his last job on a bunch of trumped up bullshit, I would expect a much better understanding of fairness.

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