Update: At today’s court hearing, the parties reached an agreement that will allow the senior midshipmen on the soccer team to participate in graduation and events leading up to graduation (the boat for tonight’s senior cruise is being held at the dock to give them time to get from the courthouse to the dock). The midshipmen will not receive their diplomas or licenses at graduation pending the investigation and/or the next court hearing, which is set for July 6.
For the past week, I’ve been receiving texts, IM’s, emails and phone calls about the status of the soccer team. I’ve deliberately not weighed in on the issue and thought it might be helpful to explain why.
There is very little information known about an alleged incident involving the soccer team. What we know for certain is what was released in an email from Superintendent Helis to the midshipmen yesterday:
“The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Transportation has informed me that upperclassmen on the Academy men’s soccer team are under investigation. Accordingly, I am suspending the men’s soccer program pending resolution of the matters under investigation.”
The rumor mill is going crazy due to the lack of information. Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together that seems to be reasonably accepted as accurate:
- There was allegedly an incident on a soccer team bus in September 2016.
- The incident allegedly involved seven first class midshipmen and a plebe.
- Some Academy officials were aware in fall of 2016 that there were allegations of some sort of an incident.
- On June 2, 2017, some of the seven first class midshipmen (possibly all) were given letters telling them that they would not be permitted to graduate while the incident was under investigation.
Here’s what we don’t know:
- The nature of the incident. I’ve heard rumors ranging from minor, non-sexual misconduct to far more serious misconduct that would fall well within the range of the Academy’s definition of sexual assault or sexual harassment. We don’t know.
- When was the full nature of the incident reported? Remember that a plebe in September of 2016 is still in a very new environment and on unsure footing. Reluctance to report or to describe everything that occurred would be natural. Remember too that if the incident had a sexual component, victims of SASH, especially male victims of SASH from other males, are often initially reluctant to report what happened. Was there an initial complaint made with the complainant unwilling to reveal all of the details? Was a complaint delayed due to the factors described above? Since we don’t even know what the nature of the incident was, we obviously don’t have the answers to such questions.
Now let’s put this in perspective. First, the incident is being investigated by the professionals of the Office of Inspector General rather than the usual, untrusted, suspects in the Academy leadership chain of command. Often, the OIG will issue a report at the conclusion of an investigation. Although due to privacy issues, we can only expect to see a redacted report or perhaps even only a summary, there should nevertheless be far more transparency than we are used to seeing from an investigation conducted by the current Academy leadership.
Second, while the suspension of the soccer team and the delayed graduation of midshipmen is of great importance to members of the team and the accused midshipmen, it does not compare to the gravity of the sea year
stand down cancellation that destroyed a core component of the Academy’s curriculum. Termination of a varsity sport does not threaten the careers and future of the entire Regiment of Midshipmen.
Both of the above factors counsel in favor of letting the investigation take its course and seeing what it reveals. All stakeholders should support a proper investigation.** If it turns out that there was misconduct, then that needs to be dealt with in accordance with the Midshipmen Regulations and, if appropriate, the law.
The fact that I am advocating a wait-and-see attitude does not mean that I do not see concerns and questions that need to be addressed. I intend to follow this investigation and will follow up with questions that are not answered. Key questions I have at this point:
- When was this incident reported to the Academy administration and why did it take until two weeks before graduation to take action?
- What is the justification for suspending the soccer team while the investigation is pending? Normally, except where there is evidence of a serious ongoing situation, one waits for the conclusion of an investigation before taking punitive action.
- Will the imposition of a suspension prior to the completion of an investigation discourage future reporting of incidents? Helis has stated that there has been a reluctance on the part of midshipmen to report incidents of SASH. But, if a midshipmen encounters SASH in a sport that he or she participates in, won’t fear that reporting the incident will lead to a suspension of the team discourage reporting (particularly since sports are a key way that midshipmen use to temporarily escape from the regimented life at the Academy)?
- Even when allegations of misconduct on a sports team are proven, normally a suspension of the program is imposed only when the problem is systemic and spans several years. Is there any justification for such a suspension in this case? It doesn’t sound like it; indeed, if the rumors that only first classmen were among the offenders are true, then suspending the team when the offenders will not even be on the team in the fall seems extraordinarily unfair.
- Was the sudden action taken by Helis against the midshipmen and the team due to new information he recently learned; or was it because now that the OIG is investigating, he wants to be perceived as taking bold action?
- What was the legal authority Helis relied upon to deny midshipmen the right to graduate? Were the midshipmen given a hearing and opportunity to address the charges against them before this action was taken?
A note to commenters. I am going to be particularly restrictive about approving comments on this topic. Emotions are running high and the primary purpose of the post is to explain why I’m not posting further about the issue — not to generate additional commentary. Let’s remain focused on the issues that are existential threats to the Academy — restoration of sea year; getting reaccreditation approved; and the current Academy leadership.
** If anyone has information relating to the incident, I urge them to contact the OIG. The contact info is as follows:
DOT-OIG Senior Congressional and Public Affairs Officer
DOT-OIG Congressional and Public Affairs Officer