Thursday, December 15, 2005

More Gophers Gone Wild

As many of you may recall, it was in November that KMSP-TV, the Fox affiliate in the Twin Cities, aired an "investigative report" showing underage members of the Minnesota Gopher men's hockey team drinking at a bar near campus. Blarney's Pub and Grill in Dinkytown has been the subject of conversation in the hockey world ever since, as folks were left to wonder what, if anything, the Gopher coaches would do about the situation. Head coach Don Lucia and athletic director Joel Maturi issued joint statements condemning the behavior, and at the time they said the situation would be handled internally. Word was that no suspensions were handed out to any of the players, which included Kris Chucko, Jeff Frazee, Evan Kaufman, and others, many of whom were underage at the time of KMSP catching them on camera in the bar.

Still, at the time, I made it clear on my radio show that the coaches and university should be allowed to do what they feel is right. While you and I might have felt that suspensions were warranted, we didn't have all the information. We don't know what was talked about behind closed doors, and we don't know what the players were told about what would happen in the event of future transgressions.

In the meantime, Gopher fans were outraged. They felt that KMSP used this story as nothing but a pure ratings grab. Their stance was given credibility by a few factors:

1. November is a key month in TV news. It's "sweeps month". And in November, the numbers can have a great impact on the ad rates for early 2006. It's traditionally considered one of the most pivotal months in television.

2. KMSP spent much of the first day of the story's run promoting the fact that they had video evidence of Gopher hockey players violating team rules. Their promotional announcements were prevalent during the Vikings game that afternoon in the Twin Cities.

3. KMSP took a story that was worthy of about three minutes of airtime and made it into a three-day series, with each day receiving a lot of promotion on their station, as well as through radio advertising.

While I defend the right of a TV station to participate in a blatant ratings grab, using college hockey players in that ratings grab is near the line of good taste in journalism.

Now comes more information from KMSP. This time around, it's information that might make for a compelling story, and it's information that might leave Lucia no choice but to levy suspensions on at least some players.

Now KMSP is alleging that Gopher players brought recruits into the same bar. And those recruits, under 18 in some cases, were allowed into the bar without even a discouraging word from the bar's bouncer.

Among the interesting points made in the KMSP story:

What does the University of Minnesota policy say about this ? Drinking alcohol during recruiting visits, regardless of age, is against U rules. Before a visiting athlete comes to campus, he or she has to sign a form saying he/she won't drink. Each visiting athlete is assigned an official host. A current team member who must sign a form saying he'll use appropriate judgment in entertaining the recruit.

Some might remember a similar situation developing recently with Gopher football recruiting visits, as it was uncovered that current players were taking football recruits out to strip clubs and bars. The U tightened and reaffirmed its policy after that happened, and now, as KMSP points out, recruits and their hosts have to agree to behave themselves during campus visits. This seems petty, but it's the U's way of covering their own tails. After all, it's impossible for the coach and the AD to track these recruits through their entire campus visit. At some point, the onus is on the players, all of whom are adults, to be responsible and handle themselves respectably.

KMSP's report also mentions that the bar owner has been accused of giving free drinks to players, and he has been on the list to receive free tickets to hockey games and other events. This stuff is difficult to prove, and the bar's owner, Mike Mulrooney, has denied this practice. He acknowledged that underage people may be getting into his bar, but he denies giving special treatment to athletes. The report also states that it isn't just athletes who get in underage at the bar:

The FOX 9 Investigators spoke with 8 former bar workers. The picture we come away with is a bar where underage drinkers are loose like kids in a candy store. A bar owner more concerned with making money than following the law and more concerned about packing customers in than about the customers themselves. And sources say that applied to all customers, not just athletes.

Gopher haters are now outraged. First, it was players drinking underage in the bar. It's hard to talk negatively about that, since most people accept that this goes on everywhere that there is a college campus. Now, it's recruits getting into the bar. Gopher haters think this is the sign of a program spiraling out of control, a program on the verge of NCAA trouble.

In reading the stories posted on KMSP's website, I get a different impression. I don't see a program spiraling out of control, though I fully acknowledge that there may be a need to discipline some of the players over this. That's still up to Lucia and Maturi. What I'm seeing is a bar owner who is out of control. A bar owner who doesn't care about the rules. Doesn't care about the law - at least when it comes to underage drinking. Doesn't care that his bar has developed a reputation for serving underage patrons until they are passed out.

And I don't think that Mulrooney cares about what happens to these hockey players...whatever that would end up being. That's evidenced by this paragraph from KMSP's report:

In a written statement to the Fox 9 Investigators last month, he said "the issue of identifying individuals with false identification is one all liquor establishments are faced with." Mulrooney sent a second statement to us yesterday (Tuesday, Dec 13) saying our sources "aren't credible, adding, "it is difficult to ensure that our efforts to prevent underage drinking are 100 percent effective."

In other words, even though the KMSP cameras caught Mulrooney's bouncers letting players in without ID checks, it's the fault of the players for using those dag-nabbin' fake IDs to get in.


To me, Lucia and Maturi have few options. While I'm not going to tell them how to run their program, I do think that it's time to ban players from setting foot in Blarney's. You might not be able to stop Mulrooney from buying tickets and attending hockey games, but you can tell your players to stay away. There is precedent for this in higher levels of sport. In October, after defensive back Ken Hamlin was seriously injured in a bar fight, Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren banned his players from going into the area of Seattle where Hamlin was injured. If a pro coach can get through to his players with such an ultimatum, a college coach as reputable as Lucia should have no problem.

While this step may have been taken in light of the November reports, the program now needs to make a public example out of the establishment and the owner. Mulrooney's statement to KMSP where he tries to absolve himself of reponsibility is ludicrous, and the U shouldn't allow him to publicly throw his buddies under the bus to save his own hide.

Suspensions, in this case, are probably excessive. After all, we don't know how long this has been going on, and we don't know how many players have gotten away with it in the past. If the staff makes clear to the players that even setting foot in Blarney's will result in a suspension in the future, they have to trust that the players will get the point.

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