Kent State suspension of wrestler is taxpayer-funded discrimination


Last week, Kent State wrestler Sam Wheeler was suspended for mean-spirited comments about Michael Sam, the football player who recently publicly admitted he is a homosexual, and homosexuals in general. Wheeler, who used the words “queer” and “fag” on his Twitter account, was suspended “indefinitely” from the wrestling team. His Twitter account has also been deleted, though the comments he made can be seen here.

While Wheeler’s comments are needlessly derogatory, the suspension is over-the-top, especially coming from a taxpayer-funded organization.

According to the Kent State Student Athlete Handbook, “student athletes will be held to a higher standard than non-athletes because of their public visibility; student-athletes’ behavior on and off the playing field or court is reviewed more closely by the media.” The handbook also includes a page for student athletes to sign. This page states that action can be taken “against any currently-enrolled student-athlete engaged in behavior that violates University, Department, or team rules.”

However, no evidence exists to show that Wheeler violated “University, Department, or team rules.” I asked Kent State’s press department several questions about the suspension, including one related to rules about the type of statement Wheeler made, but the Director of Athletic Communications (DAC) said in an e-mail that “we are not making any more comments at this time other than the statements we have already put out.” Those two statements can be found on the Kent State website.

Given the lack of evidence regarding violations of rules, one would have to hope that Kent State applies the Wheeler standard across-the-board for student-athletes who say something anti-Catholic, or sexist, or anti-Muslim.

Of course, the University should generally not be suspending students for making inappropriate but non-threatening comments in the first place. IF — and it’s a big “if” — this is standard University policy, it should be changed as quickly as possible. (The DAC declined to comment when I asked if this was standard policy.)

Similarly, what is “acceptable” at Kent State seems like a flexible concept. In 2012, 11 students were arrested in a single Saturday, as well as 22 others. The charges against all 33 people arrested were varied, though all were illegal. Charges included underage drinking, disorderly conduct, driving drunk, and felonious assault.

The University’s very reasonable response was to say through a spokesperson that “each individual student could face disciplinary probation, suspension and/or dismissal” if he or she was “found responsible.”

In a slight bit of historical irony, it was almost exactly one year ago that another Kent State football player was “suspended indefinitely from all team and athletic activities,” according to Kent State’s Athletic Department. The reason? Several illegal activities, including one — a misdemeanor drug charge — the student pled guilty to.

While the Kent State University Student Athlete Handbook does hold athletes to a higher standard of behavior than average students, it appears that Wheeler’s offensive statements were treated similarly to a fellow football player who broke several laws, and treated worse than average students who broke other laws.

Finally, it has been reported that a donor who says he “gives considerably” to the University spoke with the Athletic Director at Kent State about Wheeler’s tweets, before he was suspended. The donor texted one of Wheeler’s online targets that he “[has] their assurance this will be dealt with quickly and swiftly. They will be calling me back soon as it’s resolved.”

Which leads to the question of whether the University’s inappropriate actions against Wheeler stem from donor pressure — and Kent State chose money over proper treatment of a student. Kent State’s DAC declined to comment on this issue as well.

This post is not intended to defend what Sam Wheeler said. This young man has learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of social media — though one wonders how Kent State handles students posting comments and pictures denigrating the human person through inappropriate dress, sexual comments, and evidence of unhealthy drinking — and that word choice is critically important when one is a semi-public figure.

However, the University is overreacting, and its overreaction is causing a student who made some bad comments to be flogged nationally, all the while affecting his athletic career. And it’s happening on the taxpayer dime.

Most importantly, Kent State is forgetting about free speech even as it turns a blind eye to real problems facing college students — such as college debt, abortions, and pre-marital sex. And despite Kent State’s mission statement declaring it encourages “diverse learning environments” through its curriculum, and declaring that one of its core values is “diverse backgrounds, cultures, lifestyles and ideas,” it certainly looks as though diversity only goes one way.

And that’s the real danger here — that the University will make such inappropriate action against a student-athlete a normal occurrence, all the while ignoring bigger problems. All to prevent a few inappropriate Twitter comments.

Originally published at the blog.

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