Campana: Has the sports bra controversy been handled correctly? You be the judge

Rowan University women's cross country. Photo courtesy of Rowan Athletics website.

Here we are again. Last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an in-depth article on the sports bra controversy that originated in November 2018, including previously undisclosed internal emails between coaches and administrators.

They revealed emails and voice recordings that showed that members of the Rowan Athletics Department as well as other Rowan University officials might not have taken the controversy seriously at first and were quick to declare it as “fake news.” They also revealed that there’s been “a longstanding conflict between the athletics department’s leaders and female runners, who say that the department’s top brass often responds to their concerns with either anger or dismissiveness,” according to The Chronicle’s article.

To the staff of The Whit, an email dated Nov. 15, 2018 stood out. Senior Vice President for Administrators Robert Zazzali wrote to Athletic Director Dan Gilmore and Vice President of University Relations Joe Cardona that he wanted to discuss how to respond “to inaccurate media reports (aka, the Whit, etc)” and “get his sense of how to proceed with this…or not.”

“We HAVE to address these issues in a substantive, tangible way,” the email stated. “Regarding responding to inaccurate media reports (aka, the Whit, etc.), I would discuss this with Joe to get his sense of how to proceed with this…or not.”

We stand by the articles we published. No one at the university reached out to us to point out inaccuracies in our reporting or interviews besides a fix in a follow-up story we wrote on Feb. 27. Cardona spoke to us in regards to fixing quotes, which was done with cooperation.

In November, we attempted to reach out to coach Jay Accorsi of the football team, coach Derick Adamson of the women’s track and field team and members of both teams. We were told this wasn’t going to happen and that the whole ordeal was going to be swept under the rug. So, that being said, there was nothing more we could do.

In that November article, we provided a brief rundown of Capone’s The Odyssey article, President Ali Houshmand’s response via two Rowan Announcers, as well as an update that included interviews between seniors Michelle Macauley and Jeimi Chamalian of the women’s track and field team.

The Rowan Announcers were signed by the President of our school and approved by Cardona.

Now, I’ve covered Rowan University athletics for four years. I’ve met, interviewed and have had the pleasure of knowing many of the coaches throughout my years here. Most of my interviews take place confined in their offices, but whenever I’ve covered the track and field teams, most have been on the track at the football field. I go there and I talk to Adamson. I talk to the women on the team who, unsurprisingly, are wearing sports bras. And I’m not calling for them to cover up. Because there’s no reason to. They are doing their job. I’m doing mine.

I don’t feel uncomfortable. I’m not distracted. I’m not intimidated.

But I’ve also seen the men practicing. I’ve see them shirtless. And there’s nothing said by the coaches. Or the women’s team members. Because this is a normal way of practicing. It’s comfortable for them.

Just like wearing a sports bra is for the women.

Having an issue about an overlap in practice times is one thing. But having an issue with the women participating in their practice with what is not only normal practice attire for the sport, but completely unrestricted by NCAA guidelines, is different. And the fact that it took a new formal policy to state this, doesn’t look good. At least it’s not another verbal one.

It’s not a secret that sexism is a problem that is dealt with everyday. This issue has reeked since day one of the kind of dismissiveness that women have been fighting for years, and it’s clear that the “boys will be boys” generation might still be lingering. Those days are over. Does this all hint at a larger issue in terms of institutionalized sexism? Let’s deal with what is at-hand first. That is an issue in itself and maybe a topic for a later, larger article.

Since the beginning of this controversy and in regards to the emails provided, any type of criticism towards the department has seemed to have been pushed away, going so far as to practically calling the women that have spoken out liars. Their questions and concerns have been joked about, disregarded and shamed.

In The Chronicle’s article, Cardona said that the emails shown between old high school friends and himself “were unfortunate and did not reflect his views.”

I had the chance to speak with Cardona through a phone interview on Monday regarding the emails and more.

“There wasn’t a conversation, they just emailed me,” Cardona said. “It’s like me emailing you. There wasn’t a conversation… that’s them emailing me.”

“It’s like me emailing you right now,” he continued. “Let’s say I just emailed you right now and it was something outlandish. And you just received the email, should people characterize that as your opinion? I just received the email.”

Towards the end of the interview before getting off the phone, Cardona further clarified the email chain between his high school friends and himself.

“That’s not me,” Cardona said. “As I said before, they sent me that email. That’s not how my views are. Obviously I’ve been on the forefront of managing this whole issue, and, so, I don’t want you to mistaken like ‘Oh, he received an email, so that’s who he is.'”

When The Odyssey post initially came out, Cardona is shown through an email stating, “I’m tracking this down. I’m pretty sure this is fake news,” per The Chronicle. But, according to him, this was just a quick assumption made on a first-glance early in the morning.

“That was five o’clock in the morning,” Cardona said. “What had happened was, a reporter had emailed me and said ‘Hey, Joe, do you know anything about this?’ And I looked at it real quick and I’m like ‘Yeah I don’t know it looks, you know,’ because when you read that original one [the blog post], you’re like ‘What is this? Is it an article? Is it a blog?’ You know, what is it? So then quickly, I emailed them back and said ‘Hey, okay, let me check into it.’ As it turns out, I didn’t end up getting back to that reporter until five o’clock at night. By the time I looked into it, you know then I realized ‘Wow, okay, this is real. Let me get people together. And we talked about it and all the reporters started calling and they day was just full, full, full of emails to reporters, you have no idea how many.”

Where things take a bit of a twist in The Chronicle article and in the timeline of events, is when members of the team met up with Rowan’s Associate Athletics Director Penny Kempf.

“A few days after Gina Capone published her original blog post, she and Hannah Vendetta, a cross-country runner, met with [Penny] Kempf, the associate athletics director. Both students would later describe the meeting to The Chronicle as a scornful dressing-down,” The Chronicle’s article states.

“Kempf, who was joined by Zazzali, had printed out the blog post and ‘highlighted everything that she found offensive,’ Capone said, demanding that she be uninterrupted as she read it aloud and disputed a litany of facts,” according to The Chronicle’sarticle.

It was a failure to not bring the problem at hand to the Office of Equity & Diversity, even though officials were “aware of a potentially discriminatory or harassing comment by a football player.” According to the emails in The Chronicle’s article, it took an assistant coach to go against the “chain of command” system that is Rowan Athletics in order for this to come to attention.

“Issues that have been concerning to students and coaches have not been addressed,” Theresa A. Drye, vice president for human resources, said in a recent letter, “because relying on the ‘chain of command’ has stifled communication,” The Chronicle’s article states.

The documents provided from the investigation state that “Mr. Gilmore and Ms. Kempf did not inquire further, or report potentially discriminatory or harassing statements to the Office of Equity & Diversity.”

They then go on to say that the reports made by both coaches as well as other people interviewed “should’ve been a red flag for both to conduct further inquiry and to report and/or seek guidance from the Office of Equity & Diversity related to a potential Title IX violation.”

But, according to Cardona, and as mentioned in recent Rowan Announcers, the university is still waiting on a filed report based on the Athletic Department’s culture and compliance and is “being examined under the auspices of Human Resources with the assistance of an outside investigator.”

“One of the things we did as you saw in the letter… we hired a consultant to take a look at the Athletics Department,” Cardona said. “And that consultant is a national expert on athletic programs. And her findings are due later on. To really evaluate our athletics program and compare it to the best practices. So, that report will be able to tell us ‘Hey, where are we average? Where are we meeting the best practices and where do we fall short? That’s all part of that broader, what they call a programmatic review.”

As far as providing more detail into the investigation, Cardona “really can’t dig into the specifics of that.”

This whole debacle is evident in the unwillingness, again, to resolve an issue that could’ve been avoided long before it spread like a wildfire. It is said in the Title IX findings that this could’ve been taken care of sooner. And, in the voice recordings provided by The Chronicle’s article, it appears that other things could’ve been handled a bit differently back in 2015 with Adamson, men’s track and field team coach Dustin Dimit and members of the women’s team.

“The meeting was ostensibly about a minor transportation issue, but it revealed deeper strains in the director’s deteriorating relationship with female athletes,” The Chronicle’s article states about the second audio recording embedded above.

The issue at hand has always been more than sports bras. It’s about respect for student athletes and the coaches, regardless of gender.

Rowan has been providing updates throughout the months-long controversy. Houshmand delivered an update in February on how the university has been handling the issues. You can find that in our article here. According to Cardona, the university has been taking the matter at hand more seriously than reports might be showing.

“As you saw in the [Chronicle] article as well as the university and how we’ve been approaching it, you received an email today that talks about all the steps we’ve taken as a university,” Cardona said. “You’ve received four emails from us that explain all the different steps… you can see how seriously we take this as a university.”

In closing, I’m here to tell you my opinion on the information that has been received and provided. I’m hoping that this ends for the better of everyone involved, no matter what that may entail. I think that one thing is for sure, though:

The truth has a way of coming out eventually, even when it is dismissed as “fake news.”