Beholden to One Man

P.J. Fleck and the Toxic Workplaces of College Football

This morning, I want to pull apart one of the threads in my interview with Daniel Libit at The Intercollegiate. If you haven’t had the chance to listen, and can spare an hour to do so, I hope you will. Daniel and I spoke for almost two hours and he somehow edited it down to a little over an hour and still had the whole thing remain comprehensible, so I thank him for that. I also want to thank Daniel for being the first journalist to interview me regarding my demotion at the University of Minnesota and why I believe it was directly tied to concerns I was raising over a four-year period regarding the football program there.

Finally, I want to thank Daniel as he pushed me throughout the interview to clarify a central point I’ve been trying to make about exploitation within college football and specifically at the University of Minnesota. The point is exploitation can occur in two different ways—violation of NCAA rules but also within a generally toxic workplace culture. My own experience is that when I tried to raise concerns regarding the former, I was much more likely to be listened to. However, when I tried to raise concerns regarding the toxic workplace culture surrounding the University of Minnesota football team under Coach P.J. Fleck, my concerns fell on deaf ears. Let me explain why I think this was the case and why both problems are unlikely to be solved by anything besides a new independent entity like a College Football Players Association. In this newsletter, for those who care, I’m also going to link for the first time to responses to my reporting of player abuse that I received from University of Minnesota Athletics Director Mark Coyle and Director of Athletic Compliance Jeremiah Carter while I was still a professor at the University of Minnesota.

I first reported my concerns surrounding the coaching staff at the end of 2017. I already understood that I would be on the safest ground if I stuck to reporting what I thought were clear NCAA rules violations. I reported my concerns in a way that they eventually made their way to Director of Athletic Compliance Jeremiah Carter and others in the General Counsel’s Office at the University of Minnesota. I was interviewed by many people in this office and corresponded in depth with Mr. Carter. He was particularly concerned with data that I obtained through a student-athlete which showed that the football team was over the allowable in-season “countable” 20 hours of athletically-related activities. However, when the player who gave me the data was unwilling to come forward and discuss the matter with Mr. Carter in person, for fear of retaliation, the matter was dropped and so it was ruled that there was no NCAA rules violation. This is a huge problem with the reporting system regarding NCAA rules. Although Mr. Carter assured me that the student would be granted anonymity, neither the student nor I believed this could truly be assured and so the investigation was dropped.

I made my next report in the summer of 2019. This time, I decided to try a different tactic. Instead of reporting on NCAA rules violations, I decided to report on what I saw as a toxic workplace environment. What do I mean by this and how did I do it? I think the best way to define it is a workplace environment where everyone feels beholden to a single individual as opposed to the institution and that this then allows the individual to exercise enormous power beyond that of a normal boss. I decided the best way to do this was to do a “data dump” of sorts. I wrote of everything I knew through anonymous narratives of 21 student-athletes who had played for Coach Fleck on the football team and who had told me various things that I found concerning. The report ended up totaling almost 4,400 words and was full of specific allegations which I hoped might prompt some sort of action. I eventually received two responses to this report—one from Director of Athletics Mark Coyle and one from Director of Athletic Compliance Jeremiah Carter. At the links, you can view their letters to me.

As a postscript to my interview with Daniel Libit, Paul Rovnak, one of ten Associate Athletic Directors at the University of Minnesota, alludes to these letters saying “Mr. Stahl persists with allegations that run counter to the facts as previously addressed by Athletic Director Coyle and as reviewed by Compliance Director Jeremiah Carter.” But to what extent did these letters actually address my report? I’ll give Mr. Carter credit for actually reading my report, but he limits himself to concerns regarding practice hours and medical retirements—the clear areas of my report under his purview as an NCAA compliance officer. Moreover, his data on medical retirements is now completely out-of-date given that nearly twenty percent of P.J. Fleck’s first recruiting class from 2018 has been so medically incapacitated from practice-related injuries that they will never again play football.

As for Mark Coyle, I’m nearly positive that he didn’t read my report given that, in his letter, he failed to address a single specific fact from the report itself. So what did Mark Coyle ignore? I can’t reveal too much about the report as I don’t want to compromise student anonymity but I think I can speak to three general areas (beyond NCAA violations) that I thought showed an out-of-control toxic workplace environment headed by Coach Fleck. First, Coach Fleck created around him a culture which was intolerant of free speech. Second, Coach Fleck created around him a culture in which student-athletes felt they could trust no one—even so-called “independent” medical personnel. Third, Coach Fleck created around him a culture in which everyone—players, coaches and staff—felt overworked to the point of exhaustion. I’ll take each of these areas separately and flesh them out with specific evidence from my report detached from specific students so as to maintain student anonymity:

  1. As to free speech concerns, I told Mark Coyle that I was enormously concerned about a speech code that was enforced among everyone within Coach Fleck’s orbit. For instance, many players and others in the football complex told me that when someone asked you how you felt, that the only acceptable answer was “elite.” So, players talked to me about how hard it would be to be injured and have to still go around screaming about how “elite” they felt when they were in earshot of the coaching staff. Additionally, I told Mark Coyle in my report how a Black player was run off the team by Coach Fleck for refusing to say he was “elite” all the time and for tweeting in what Coach Fleck told him was a “divisive” manner regarding the Black experience in the United States. Having seen the tweets myself, such an accusation is laughable. This overall lack of free speech rights was summed up by a former student of mine when he told me that he thought it made everyone on the team “brainwashed.”

  2. I told Mark Coyle in my report that student-athletes told me point-blank that “they didn’t trust anyone” within the practice facility. This culture of mistrust extended to medical personnel. It is easy to see why when you look at my story of Grant Norton’s time with the team where he went to see a therapist about what he was going through only to have that supposedly independent therapist go and tell Coach Fleck of what he said during the meeting.

  3. Finally, Coach Fleck created a culture of overwork among everyone in his orbit. Student-athletes said that every hour of their day seemed scheduled for in some way—whether or not the hours were “countable” within NCAA guidelines. One student told me that “he had no time for leisure at all.” Another player characterized sleep as his only leisure activity. Players who seemed destined to always be on the practice squad, and/or who were not on scholarship, told me that they felt like their bodies didn’t matter to coaches and that they were essentially tackling dummies for starters. Coaches were subjected to this culture of overwork as well. A player told me that he witnessed an assistant coach break down crying because he never saw his family given that he was always at work. I think this is one of the reasons why Coach Fleck sees such a high turnover in his coaching staff (9 coaches in 3 years). This might also be why nearly half of Coach Fleck’s first full recruiting class from 2018 has now left the program.

These three elements of a clear toxic workplace culture, with all the specifics I mentioned, were outlined for Mark Coyle in my report. You’ll see from his letter to me above that none of this was addressed specifically. So, this means one of two things. Either he didn’t read the report and so couldn’t respond to its specifics or he did read it and none of what I just mentioned bothered him. I guess either is possible and, to be honest, I’m not sure which is worse. If it’s the former, Mark Coyle didn’t do his due diligence as Athletic Director. If it’s the latter, it means that basically no one is willing to reign in Coach Fleck’s out-of-control toxic workplace culture and that NCAA regulations do absolutely nothing to stop this dynamic from taking root either. In the end, this means that players must take power into their own hands with a College Football Players Association if their workplace is ever going to change. And yes, it is a workplace first and foremost. Players need to realize this as well if things are ever going to change. Your football team is not a family where the head coach is the father and you are children. He is your boss, plain and simple, and you are men, not boys. You deserve to be treated as such.

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