The Monday Perspective on a Thursday? Yes, this couldn’t wait till Monday after Front Office Sports published a lengthy and pointed article on the culture under PJ Fleck at the University of Minnesota.
In the wake of the hazing allegations and subsequent firing of long-time head coach Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern, the timing of this article makes it worth reading and maintaining awareness of what is going on within the walls of the football program. It is incredibly easy to bury your head in the sand regarding your favorite collegiate program and pretend that the ruthlessness and nastiness seen throughout the sport only occur elsewhere. In cases like this particular article, it is natural to immediately reject these allegations, assign negative intent to the source, and pretend there’s nothing to see here.
Also, sometimes there is nothing to see here.
I want to support a program that is both competitive, one that is run with some level of integrity and cares about the well-being of the student-athlete and those surrounding the program. If there are serious and systemic issues within the program, I would very much like them to come to light. Fix those problems, take your medicine, and move on.
We should not tolerate situations that are systemically harmful to individuals for the sake of winning football or basketball games. Coaches who turn a blind eye to situations that are unhealthy or unacceptable in today’s culture should not be allowed to continue to lead & mold young men or women. If allegations that are true and show a lack of leadership should ever come to light regarding a program at the University of Minnesota, I will fully support swift and appropriate action to remedy it.
Reading yesterday’s Front Office Sports piece, I have several problems with these particular allegations. I believe they are noteworthy from the standpoint of being made aware of situations and having someone to hold the football program accountable when necessary. But here are some of the issues I have that lead me to believe that the anecdotal incidents brought to light do not indicate a toxic culture or systemic problems of player safety.
The many specious and anecdotal arguments made throughout this piece, very poorly articulate the substance it is trying to prove. By bringing up issues that have long since been disproven and trying to connect dots with dotted lines, it loses credibility. A few noticeable elements from this article that stood out to me as I read it.
I’ll start with the very loose dotted line drawn that quickly alerted me to the notion that this piece was going to rely more heavily on weak correlations to produce a negative opinion, rather than solid facts.
Dan Nichol, Minnesota’s head football strength and conditioning coach who followed Fleck over from Western Michigan and interned at Iowa under disgraced strength coach Chris Doyle, gathered the team together after Fleck was hired, one of the former players said. The instruction was simple: Clap whenever Fleck entered the locker room.
This is a prime example of pointing out a fact (regardless of how obscure) that sounds bad and then letting it linger for you to make a connection that may or may not even be relevant.
Dan Nichol did indeed work under Chris Doyle as an intern. He does not list it in his bio, but he finished his playing career in 2001 and took his first job in 2005. We can safely assume that Nichol was an intern under Doyle sometime from 2002-2004. This is a fact. But the opportunity to tie these two men together for this article feels completely disingenuous.
The timing of bringing Nichol into the FOS allegations is in the portion of the article that speaks to how PJ Fleck indoctrinates players into his culture. Forcing players to clap when he enters the room, players must be “elite,” players need to memorize quite many acronyms, etc. So my question then becomes, why is the author explicitly trying to tie Nichol and Doyle together when Doyle was disgraced & fired from the Iowa program over significant racial allegations? It feels intentional to point Nichol in a negative light when it may be completely irrelevant in this case. The racial allegations levied against Doyle have absolutely nothing to do with how Nichol runs his strength program or how he works to further the culture as directed by Fleck.
Moving further into the article, we learn of a player who medically retired after collapsing in practice. Once again, this sounds pretty significant and could be damning. Still, again this is a scary story that’s being slightly twisted, allowing you to make your own judgment (that they are trying to lead you to directly).
A player with an undetected heart condition went down during one of the workouts run by Fleck, and was forced to medically retire as a result, the first player said. FOS confirmed the incident with another source with the promise to not reveal the player’s name for privacy reasons.
“Luckily, he’s OK now,” the first player said. “But they kind of ran him out of there.”
First of all, this was an undetected heart condition. Undetected is the keyword here. This player went down during team workouts, and this undetected problem surfaced, eventually forcing him to retire from football. Truly a scary moment for this young man, his teammates, his family, and presumably the coaching staff.
But we get to make our own assumptions here. Nothing is stated that this player was singled out, that the heart condition was known in any way, or that this workout was particularly grueling. But adding in the dangerous result of the workout for that particular player is not an example of it being caused by PJ Fleck or even that particular workout.
Circling back here to how I began this post. I do not want a coaching staff that runs kids until their hearts give out or even pushes that envelope. But articles like this that feel like they are leading you to a conclusion that they cannot prove but giving parts of true stories and then allowing you to conclude them with missing or twisted information are just not intellectually honest. An association of events is not at all proof of causation.
The FOS piece did obtain a lengthy report put together by the USCAH after some concerns were raised about the Minnesota athletic program. And this gave some potential of adding new information to the accusations that have been made. But again, it falls short with a lack of evidence while leading you to make false assumptions.
After an athletic department medical staff member raised concerns about student-athlete treatment and training practices, the U.S. Council for Athletes’ Health (USCAH) conducted a review. FOS obtained the final report, which was never made public until now.
The 37-page report generated in September 2018 doesn’t single out any of the sports programs within the Minnesota athletic department, but stated “interview data indicates there have been incidents where exercise has been used as punishment for student-athletes.”
“[Athletes] had to run stairs at 6:00 with plates over their head for minor drinking. Run by strength coach but coach directed,” an unnamed staff member told USCAH investigators.
It is worth noting here that this report, generated in September of 2018 and it does not single out any particular sports programs within the athletic department. And the FOS article then begins to share an incident from this report that demonstrates an unusual workout that was being done as punishment (which is a no-no). But we actually have no idea which program this was from. It just as easily could have been the hockey program or the dance team or rowing, etc. But that little piece of information was glossed over before sharing a story that sounds...not great.
Also worth noting is that the report was published in September of 2018. Unsure when the investigation began and interviews were conducted, but Fleck was hired in January of 2017. So the amount of time he would have been there for the meat of this investigation is questionable, though not immaterial.
Much of the rest of the article, particularly when discussing how players may have been rushed to return from injury or the number of players who were injured during practice, are certainly worthy of paying attention to. The missing context is how does this compare to other programs? Does the Gopher program have a noticeably higher incidence of practice injuries or career-ending injuries? Or are their practices well within the standard operating procedure of the rest of college football at this level?
So while I had a number of issues with much of the report, what stood out more than anything were the very direct quotes from Mark Coyle. There were no quotes about how they take allegations seriously and will look into this. They weren’t placating this while they waited to see how much traction it gets. These quotes were very firmly supporting the program and noting that these have been looked into and they do not have any concern.
“P.J. and our program are unique,” Coyle said. “They put themselves out there in new and different ways — but always in a first-class manner — and after nearly seven years, it is clear to me, that is what makes P.J. and our program so successful.”
“Our shared objective at that time was to shape our program into one that would produce results in the classroom and in our community in a way that would support success on the field,” Coyle said in the statement to FOS. “Since his first days as our head coach in 2017, that’s exactly what P.J. and his staff have delivered.
“P.J. has coached thousands of Division I student-athletes in his career, and we see many of those men and their families around our program today. They often reflect on P.J.’s leadership and how it shaped them as football players and as young men. The results we see in our program today speak for themselves.”
These are not blanket statements meant to cover their ass in the event that this gains traction in the coming days.
The fact is, these allegations are the same allegations from two years ago and the timing of this particular article coming days after the Northwestern scandal are worth noting. In fact, I’ll end with this portion of the article.
Toxicity within sports, however, isn’t just a problem in the Big Ten, where — now minus Fitzgerald — Fleck is in the middle of the pack regarding compensation for the conference’s football coaches.
It is odd that this paragraph begins with a statement about toxicity in sports, the Big Ten, beyond the Big Ten and specifically names Pat Fitzgerald; but backs that up immediately noting PJ Fleck’s compensation. Really unsure what one has to do with the other, besides another loose correlation between a name that is rather unpopular at the moment and another that is the target of this article.
There may very well be problems within the Gopher football department. We’ve seen them, in recent years. Fleck did take over a program that had just been through an expulsion of 5 football players due to sexual assault allegations. And this is not a platform to blindly support all things PJ Fleck. The man is not perfect. Frankly, the barrage of player support that has been flooding Twitter since this was published is also not any sort of proof that this is just a hit piece. That conclusion can be reached on it’s own.
This is a violent sport that beats the shit out of the bodies of these young men. There is always going to be a fine line of pushing them to be better and pushing them too far. We should never excuse going to too far or playing the “well, that’s just football” card so we don’t have to face any ugly truths about the program we support.
But this article does not seem to be exposing any of these systemic and ugly truths. The timing of the article appears very targeted, there is a surprising lack of any new “evidence” to support claims that have been made for years and the blatant attempts to paint negativity with dotted lines all lead to one conclusion for me. This article does nothing to demonstrate a toxic culture for the Gopher football program.