The UVA football hazing suit: A change in culture?

virginia footballYou thought the worst part of the UVA football experience was what you saw on the field. Now the headlines about the program have the word “hazing” in them.

It’s all allegations right now, spelled out in a lawsuit filed by former wide receiver Aidan Howard, a three-star recruit from Pennsylvania who enrolled at UVA in the summer, and was gone by mid-August, detailing mistreatment by teammates and assistant coaches that included bullying for a learning disability and an incident in which he was forced to fight a teammate that ended with him suffering a broken orbital bone.

The suit was just filed yesterday, and you have to assume that we’re months, at least, away from any resolution, and with reports that the university has initiated its own investigation into the matter, you also have to assume that we’re not going to hear anything exculpatory from the program in the coming weeks and months.

The key person not named in the suit is first-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who nonetheless is in the crosshairs just by the nature of the job of being the head coach, and also for the tone for the program that he has set publicly.

Mendenhall and his staff talk a lot about changing the culture of the UVA football program, and it’s about more than just winning football games that is being talked about there.

Case in point: the Cavs were coming off a bye week two weeks ago, and the human-interest stories that came out of that had Mendenhall inviting players to his home in Albemarle County for some good, old-fashioned fun involving horseback riding.

Another story from the spring football period had Mendenhall leading his team in a series of burpees – 170, all told, according to one media report – after a fight broke out in a practice, to get the point across that the focus in practice isn’t on fighting teammates, but on working with them to help everybody get better.

Good stuff, both stories: the guy cares about his guys, wants them to have fun, wants them to get better.

Which brings us to trying to square what we know about the efforts to change the culture with the allegations in the Howard lawsuit. Two assistants on Mendenhall’s staff, Marques Hagans, a former UVA player who had a couple of cups of coffee in the NFL, and Famika Anae, the son of offensive coordinator Robert Anae, are singled out in the suit, Hagans for allegedly fostering the bullying directed at Howard, and Anae for allegedly witnessing and failing to stop the fight that ended with Howard injured.

That’s actually putting what Howard says happened very mildly. The suit describes teammates bullying Howard after it was learned that he has a learning disability as being “stupid,” “dumb,” “slow,” “retarded,” and that the fight that ensued was the culmination of the bullying, and was also witnessed by dozens of his teammates.

The suit also alleges that Howard saw upperclassmen on the team routinely engaging in hazing directed at younger teammates “including conduct which imitated and mimicked sexual acts,” and that other first-year players were forced “to participate in fights and wrestling matches while naked or partially naked, an act referred to at UVA as ‘ramming.’ ”

It’s important to recognize that these aren’t the determined facts of the case. A lawsuit gives us one side of a story, and the other sides are to come, at the least months from now, and with a Title IX investigation reportedly now ongoing, it may be years before we know the full story.

That’s lawyer talk, of course. In the real world that we all live in, there is a court of public opinion that will render a verdict in hyperspeed time.

To wit, there’s another game on Saturday, with rival North Carolina coming to Charlottesville. You can almost bet that the first question for Mendenhall in the postgame press conference will be some version of, Can you comment on the suit?

And of course he can’t, but that won’t stop the questions, which demand answers that can’t and thus won’t be forthcoming, for some time.

Two players named in the suit, wide receivers Doni Dowling and David Eldridge, ostensibly play on Saturday, and assuming they remain injury-free, the rest of the season. Which is only fair, given the concept of due process, and the fact that what we have here is a civil suit, not any kind of formal criminal charge.

But for Dowling, Eldridge and the coaches, Hagans and Famika Anae, what does it say about the change in culture that Mendenhall is trying to forge if it does end up at the end of the Title IX investigation that they were culpable?

Does keeping the players on the field, and the coaches on the headsets, not risk sending the message that UVA football is more focused on winning games than on doing the right thing?

Flip side of that, of course, is you take them off the field, they end up being exonerated, and they don’t get that missed time back.

There’s really no right answer here, ultimately.

Me, personally, I’d much rather be writing about the stupid games.

Column by Chris Graham