The men’s crew Spring Fling shirt scandal may have appeared to come to an end on May 3, when University President Anthony Monaco overturned the rowers’ suspensions to allow them to compete in the New England Championships two days later.
Not so fast.
The team’s season ended this past weekend at the ECAC Championships, and now, two conflicting stories — the administration’s and the rowers’ — have emerged.
The rowers had been suspended from New Englands by their coaches after wearing matching shirts to Spring Fling on April 28 that read “Check out our cox,” a pun on the crew term “coxswain,” above an image of four rowers and a coxswain in a boat. After Spring Fling, an anonymous bias incident report was filed by a student, who claimed — according to members of the team who heard the report from their coaches — that the shirts were offensive toward women and promoted a culture of rape and sexual aggression.
In Monaco’s letter overturning the suspension, he did not mention the bias incident, but rather suggested the rowers had been suspended because “the large majority of the team had broken team policy and disobeyed explicit instructions by Coach [Jay] Britt by producing, purchasing, and wearing as a group unauthorized tee-shirts at Spring Fling.”
“I share the coaches’ concern for the importance of adherence to team policy, which was clearly violated,” Monaco wrote, explaining that he had decided to overturn the suspension because of “the university’s commitment to an environment that supports free expression.”
However, according to senior Chris Park — one of four members of the men’s varsity and novice crews to have his captaincy taken away in response to the incident — and classmate All-NESCAC rower Michael Bai, the team was never told about any policy regarding the making, approval or wearing of shirts to Spring Fling.
“I was never made aware of an official authorization process in the crew program regarding the design, production, and use of shirts for events such as Spring Fling,” Bai said. “We know of our obligation to represent our team and Tufts University with pride, and we are very careful to abide by these guidelines, but the use of shirts for an event like Spring Fling does not conflict with that obligation.”
“If there is anything that comes to my mind, it’s the ‘policy’ — or rather, a verbally communicated custom — that whenever we are making uniforms or team gear with the Tufts crest, logo, or Tufts name, that we have it approved by the coaches,” Park said. “This was clearly not the case with the Spring Fling shirts. Not only was there no explicit mentioning of Tufts on the actual shirts, but also it wasn’t worn at a rowing-related event. Therefore, it is clearly and technically not within the purview of the ‘policy’ — if one existed pertaining to situations like this in the first place — and clearly within the guarantee of free speech whether or not we are a member of a public or a private institution.”
Park noted that, while the rowers did receive an email from their coaches that addressed Spring Fling, the coaches never mentioned anything about shirts, as President Monaco’s letter suggested.
“Coaches did tell us a few days before the Spring Fling something along the lines of, ‘Remember that we represent Tufts wherever we go, so be smart at Spring Fling,’ and I don’t disagree with that. I don’t think any of us do,” Park said. “It’s just that through Monaco’s letter, they’ve specifically indicted each and every one of us with a technicality, of an official policy violation, which I wholeheartedly refute.”
Several members of the administration echoed Monaco’s belief that the rowers had been suspended because they defied team policy. That is the impression that Dean of Student Affairs Bruce Reitman got when Director of Rowing Gary Caldwell came to the Dean’s Office before handing out the suspension.
“Coach Caldwell shared his plan for the coaches to take action against several team members for violation of team policies,” Reitman told the Daily in an email.
Reitman explained that Caldwell was completely aware that, even if he did not punish the team, the university was not going to take any action against him, the team or any of his rowers.
“The Dean’s Offices stated that no university judicial action would result from the shirt incident,” Reitman said.
Although Reitman made clear to the Daily that the suspension was solely the decision of the coaches, an anonymous reader email posted on May 1 on the popular website Barstool Sports mentioned that an unspecified Tufts dean had stated that the image on the team’s shirts “was too phallic and promoted aggression and rape.” This helped perpetuate the notion that the suspension was somehow an administrative action, which according to Reitman is totally false.
“I am not aware of any Tufts official who made such a statement. Our office did not see the shirt to be a cause for judicial action,” Reitman said. “The Bias Incident Reporting System is a mechanism through which students can make reports of their own perception of incidents that, to them, constitute incidents of bias. Thus, the inclusion of any reported incident does not constitute an opinion by university officials about the seriousness or validity of the report.”
Tufts Director of Public Relations Kimberly Thurler believed that the policy the team violated was verbal, not written.
“My understanding is that the men’s crew team had clear verbal instructions that any apparel that the team as a group created, purchased or wore had to be approved in advance by the coaching staff,” Thurler told the Daily in an email. “I do not believe that this was a written instruction.”
And yet, according to Park, when the coaches explained the rationale of the suspension to the team, they never mentioned anything about violation of team policy.
“The funny thing is that the whole violation of official policy part, that only came out through Monaco’s letter,” Park said. “That itself was not announced to us, even in our meetings. In our meetings, the justification for the suspension was, ‘You guys embarrassed the team.’ That was it.”
So why did Monaco, Reitman and Thurler all believe the rowers had gone against team policy? Britt has not responded to an email from the Daily, and Caldwell refused to comment when asked to explain himself. In addition, the rowers themselves are not sure what the coaches told the administration.
“We never had a chance to participate in a discussion about the incident, and the team wasn’t given an opportunity to defend themselves in front of the coaches or the administration,” Bai explained. “We couldn’t appeal the final decision.”
To Park, there seems to be only one plausible explanation.
“How else would the administration be in a position to know what really happened, other than by talking to the coaches?” he said. “[The rowers] were kept in the black throughout this whole incident. We weren’t updated as to what was exactly happening in the talks that the director apparently had with the deans, and we were just being handed a single news update at the end of the day every single day from Sunday night until Thursday. So we can only guess.”
“I do not know for sure because I was not involved in the decision making process — none of the athletes were,” he continued. “But it had to be coming from [the coaches]. I don’t see how else the administration would have assumed something like that.”
Park explained that, on the day after Spring Fling, Caldwell was shown the bias incident report by one of the deans, who presumably saw it because all bias reports are released to the administration. (Select reports are made public on the Tufts Webcenter; the report filed about the crew team’s shirts has not yet been posted there.)
From that perspective, the team understands why the coaches might have been upset.
“That part, I agree,” Park said. “We had the potential of embarrassing the team because somebody reported us in a bias incident. It might be offensive to some people. On that we agreed.”
What he does not understand, however, is why the coaches have yet to explain the administration’s belief that the rowers defied the coaches’ instructions.
“They never had a sit-down with us, even after Monaco overturned the suspension and the incident sort of passed by,” he said. “There was no debriefing of all athletes of the same nature as when we were first brought into the locker room at 6 a.m. on Monday and Tuesday mornings for being announced our punishments for the bias incident. I believe such formal discussion afterwards would have been the more appropriate way to bring a closure to the entire incident and clear up any confusion about ‘policies.’”
There has also been no formal discussion within the team about reinstating the captains whose positions were taken away.
The coaches may be ready to move past the incident, but Park, for one, wants an explanation.
“Coach [Caldwell] told us after the event that it is important to maintain focus despite unfortunate incidents like this and to ‘move forward,’” he said. “But I believe, with regards to this incident, it would be problematic to only move forward without resolving any of the latent issues that have caused the trouble in the first place. I believe this whole incident could have been better dealt with if it were a more comprehensive process where all sides of the issue were heard before someone said ‘let’s move forward.’”