What started out as the best of times for LSU in 2020 has devolved into the worst.
From the high of the football national championship game victory in January over Clemson, the school and its athletic program have been hit by a successive series of lows.
There has been the coronavirus pandemic that led to the $80 million shortfall in the athletic department budget, driven largely by limitations of 25% attendance in Tiger Stadium.
There is the season itself, in which the Tigers stand at 2-3 at the midway point — if LSU has not actually gone past the midway point with games potentially being tougher and tougher to play because of COVID-19 concerns.
There is the lingering cloud of an NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations hovering over the men’s basketball program that looks like it will drag on well into 2021.
And, now, possibly the worst development of all, a USA Today investigative story that suggests LSU as a school and athletic department mishandled and ignored multiple sexual misconduct complaints over the course of several years, including those against numerous Tiger football players (to be clear, the men’s basketball program was not part of the USA Today story).
Let us begin by saying that though we tend to take ourselves and our work quite seriously in my profession, a journalistic investigation is not a legal investigation. Innocent until proven guilty is still the legal standard in our nation. It faces a difficult test when it comes to sexual misconduct, but there can be few more serious allegations and they must be proven. The potential damage to lives of accusers and alleged perpetrators is great.
That said, the sheer number of allegations detailed in the USA Today article are alarming to the point where it seems unrealistic to believe that at least some of them are not true. And if that is the case, LSU has a serious problem on its hands, not just with its football team or its athletic department but the university as a whole. Some of the sexual misconduct complaints detailed in the story involved students who were non-athletes as well.
Late Monday afternoon, LSU Interim President Thomas Galligan said the school has retained a law firm to conduct “an independent, comprehensive review of our Title IX policies and procedures.” That’s commendable, but LSU has clearly had an ongoing issue with student conduct for a while now, from the hazing death of Max Gruver to this. If, as stated earlier, even some of these allegations prove true, someone or some ones have to be held accountable.
One hates to draw parallels too closely to other situations at other schools, but this reminds one of the sexual assault scandal at Baylor that came to a head four years ago. That scandal impacted not only the football program but cost its football coach, its athletic director and its university president their jobs, greatly tarnishing the school’s image.
LSU does not need that to happen here. Transparency has at times not been LSU’s strong suit, but it must be in this case. If there are wrongful or overwrought allegations in the USA Today story, the law firm that LSU hired should bring that to light in its review. If LSU was in the wrong, the school needs to take its lumps, vow to create a culture and atmosphere in which allegations of sexual assault are dealt with in a better and more timely fashion and move on.
There will be those who will fear that these allegations will have a debilitating impact on LSU’s football program, exacerbating the Tigers’ difficulties with winning this season for years to come. Many of the allegations in the story came when Les Miles was LSU’s coach. But some, including allegations against Grant Delpit and Jacob Phillips who were stars on the 2019 team, happened on Ed Orgeron’s watch. Orgeron said in a statement Monday that he and LSU take such allegations seriously, that there exists a "legal and moral obligation to report every allegation to the university's Title IX office." For Orgeron and LSU’s sake, one hopes that is indeed the case.
To those who worry about the fallout for football, I say I have a mother, a wife and two daughters. If any of these things were to have happened to them, I would demand justice. Read about these allegations and personalize them and say you would not feel the same.
So here it is. There are allegations but as yet no substantiation. And a year that has become an "annus horribilis" for LSU, a horrible year, drags on with no end in sight.