Members of the University of Montana women’s soccer team had concerns about Coach Mark Plakorus — concerns they shared with university officials.
Their complaints should have been taken more seriously. The allegations were troubling enough to warrant an immediate and thorough investigation, and the results of that investigation should have been provided to those who brought the matter to light in order to reassure them that the appropriate steps were being taken to resolve it.
Instead, officials took action only after finding some texts from Plakorus’s university-issued phone to a Las Vegas escort service. And that action included allowing Plakorus to resign quietly, without owning up to the real reason he was fired.
Some players were rightly pained to learn last week that Plakorus was not going to be held accountable for the disturbing pattern of inappropriate behavior he has been accused of over the years, and that he would be free to quietly move on and possibly repeat that behavior in a new setting.
The soccer players and assistant coaches who spoke up about Plakorus deserved better. Those who spoke to the Missoulian noted that they went to officials reluctantly, not wanting to make an already difficult situation even more uncomfortable.
They did the right thing, and the University of Montana should take pains to emphasize this point. It’s an opportunity for the university to send an important message to the entire campus community that such complaints will be heard and sexual harassment will not be tolerated.
Yet initially, the university was set on sticking to a version of events that had Plakorus voluntarily agreeing that “it was time for him to move on,” as Athletic Director Kent Haslam put it. The Missoulian had to prod them into admitting the real reason.
UM President Seth Bodnar deserves all due credit for ensuring that this incident was not kept covered up. The Missoulian contacted Bodnar directly to urge that the university stand by its commitment to transparency, and last week, he showed that he gets why this commitment is so critical.
This came just days after the new president told students one of his top priorities is creating a safe environment for students. To do that, the university needs to be forthright about the real reasons teachers and coaches are abruptly removed from their jobs. Bodnar demonstrated that he understands covering up painful incidents only makes them worse, and that only by facing them head-on, and publicly, can the university show it has learned from the lessons of the past. It was a good first step for the new president. But it needs to be followed by many similar steps if UM truly wants to change its culture and mend its reputation. Anything less is mere lip service.
And that is why the initial handling of this incident is so deeply disappointing. Instead of applauding the more than a dozen soccer team members who spoke up for their role in uncovering Plakorus’s text history, Haslam emphasized that the “climate survey” of the team played no role in the decision not to renew Plakorus’s contract — essentially sending the message that their concerns didn’t matter. Describing these complaints, which came from multiple people over a period of several years, as “circumstantial evidence” only added insult to injury.
To be clear, a group of players reported that their coach was texting them excessively and at inappropriate times. They told the Missoulian that he would regularly touch young women’s legs or play with their hair. They said the 49-year-old Plakorus matched with women their age on the dating app Tinder, and that he would sometimes close the door when they were alone in his office, a violation of university policy.
Fittingly, the Title IX Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action was asked to help look into the matter, and team members were surveyed about their perceptions and experiences regarding sexual harassment and assault. However, the office did not initiate a formal investigation. And now that Plakorus has left, there will be no additional investigation. But that doesn’t mean the university’s work on this matter is done.
After stumbling initially, university officials did take the right steps toward a true resolution of this unhappy incident. The decision not to renew Plakorus’s contract was clearly the right one. They should have been upfront about the reason why Plakorus was fired from the very beginning. They should have followed up with the team to ensure they felt their concerns were acknowledged.
They should not have had to be goaded into doing the right thing, but thanks to the dogged willingness of those who spoke up to keep talking about it, they eventually were.
And that’s a message that bears repeating. When it comes to sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior of any kind, don’t ever allow silence to sweep the truth away. Speak up. And keep speaking up.