The Elephant in the Room

Why did it take four years for the University of Michigan to expose the sexual misconduct of Brendan Gibbons?

Students and faculty undoubtedly saw a familiar face gracing the front page of the school newspaper upon picking up copies from one of dozens of stands scattered across the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus.

The Jan. 29, 2014 edition featured the same story that had lit up the Facebook news feeds of thousands of students and alumni the night before.

The man pictured was Brendan Gibbons, shrouded in Schembechler maize and blue. A former kicker for the Wolverines, Gibbons had been “permanently separated” from the University as of Dec. 20, 2013. The revelations in the Michigan Daily report, attributing his expulsion to sexual misconduct, were damning.

This disciplinary reaction, coming more than four years after the Nov. 22, 2009 incident, raises troubling questions about the University’s lackadaisical response to allegations of a sexual assault that were well-documented.

With zero media coverage, word of Gibbons’ sexual assault traveled through informal channels, morphing into a widely circulated rumor, made far-fetched by the utter lack of news coverage and suggestion of a cover-up.

Yet documents show that numerous officials affiliated with the University, including president Mary Sue Coleman, were made aware of the incident as far back as 2011 (if not before) and failed to discipline Gibbons.

In the days following the Nov. 22, 2009 incident, the female victim came to her resident advisor, to campus police and to the Sexual Assault Prevention Center (SAPAC) with details of the event, a police report confirms.

The report was filed by the Ann Arbor Police Department hours after the incident. She also went to the University hospital, where a rape examination showed vaginal tearing.

In December 2009, the campus police performed a “wellness check” on the victim.

You would think the arrest of the football team’s placekicker would be relayed to then-coach Rich Rodriguez who could take action, but Gibbons played his entire freshman season as if nothing had happened.

Two years later, during a Nov. 17, 2011 Board of Regents meeting, former faculty member Douglas L. Smith (whose FOIA request made the police report public) issued public comments about the Gibbons incident, as reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle.

The minutes from the Nov. 17 meeting confirm University president Mary Sue Coleman was present.

Smith specifically addressed Coleman in his comments, where he remarked that, “You don’t need to travel to Penn State to find a University Administration who [sic] has failed to protect the alleged victims of sexual assaults, particularly if they involve football or basketball players.”

Smith also raised questions about the Gibbons incident at an Ann Arbor City Council meeting that took place on Feb. 23, 2011.

It was not until August 2013 that news of the sexual assault and administration’s knowledge began to circulate on social media after Smith published a summary on his personal website — with no help from the all-powerful Michigan Daily.

The online publication Jezebel picked up on the story, but it failed to garner any more traction at the time.

Almost four years later, Nov. 20, 2013, would mark the first time the University formally acknowledged that Gibbons “engaged in unwanted or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, committed without valid consent, and that conduct was so severe as to create a hostile, offensive, or abusive environment.”

The football team’s response?

Three days later, Gibbons took the field against Iowa despite a document from the Office of Student Conflict Resolution revealing that there was “a preponderance of evidence” that he engaged in sexual misconduct.

Even after benching Gibbons, the University only obfuscated the truth.

Football coach Brady Hoke attributed Gibbons’ mysterious disappearance in the Nov. 30 season finale against Ohio State to a muscle injury.

Hoke continued the charade, making comments on Dec. 23, after the kicker’s expulsion, insisting family issues were responsible for his healthy scratch in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Fittingly, the game would play out to be a thorough de-clawing of the Wolverines.

With all these facts, why the victim declined to file charges against Gibbons in the first place remains unclear.

What is clear is an institutional failure of monumental proportions. President Mary Sue Coleman, the Board of Regents and members of the Athletic Department neglected the despicable violation of an 18-year-old girl to save face.

The adults in the room chose to protect the perpetrator. The campus police and Michigan Daily, in their incompetence, stood complicit.

These facts are beyond dispute.

It’s speculated that the University’s adoption of a new sexual misconduct policy in August 2013 (as required by the Department of Education) was the chief catalyst behind the better-late-than-never internal investigation that booted Gibbons from Ann Arbor.

Of course, that begs the question whether any action would have been taken at all sans the new policy. You can probably guess where I’m placing my bet.

Disclaimer: The author is a graduate of the University of Michigan and former columnist for the Michigan Daily.