As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Coach Bob Ernst was fired from the University of Washington about two weeks ago. In the time since, though part of me still cannot believe it, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how this could have happened, and it what it means. It has hit me quite personally, and there is no escaping the social media fallout: there have been a handful of local media articles without a lot of details; there have been lots of heartfelt pleas and expressions of disappointment and confusion littering my social media feeds from current and former athletes. But even with everything that has popped up over the past several days, both pro- and anti-Bob, no one has decisively been able to explain how all of this fell apart, and how one of the most legendary American rowing coaches of all time was fired mid-season after a forty-two year career in a NCAA DI program. As a former Husky, this matters to me. As someone who hopes to continue to contribute to the development of young rowing athletes in the future, I think this is something that our community can’t afford to ignore.
I should start by clarifying my relationship with Bob. Bob was the the Varsity Men’s Coach when I rowed at the University of Washington from 2002-2006. He was never my coach (I rowed under Eleanor McElvaine all four years), but Bob knew who I was, and was always enthusiastic and supportive when we saw each other around the boathouse. I could always count on him for a hearty, “What’s up Kalmoe?!” if we crossed paths at Conibear. Shortly after I graduated, Bob made the transition to the women’s team. From that point on, he made it his job to always keep tabs on me and my rowing career, and to offer unconditional support while I pursued my dreams on the international stage. Any time he was in Princeton, he did his best to connect with myself and the Husky alumnae here; and likewise we have made it a point to connect with Bob and the Team during their annual winter training camps in Chula Vista at the Olympic Training Center, or during our infrequent visits to Seattle. He has always made sure that Conibear’s doors are always open to us. Bob actively cultivated an excitement and interest in the national team with his current athletes by keeping us all connected, and creating a mutually beneficial line of communication between national team alums and his student athletes. I know for a fact that the Washington alums on the national team receive more regular contact and support from our alma mater than any other group of alums at the training center. Period. And that community and connection is something you can’t replace or replicate with anything else. Bob knew that.
Bob made me think about, and continually connect with, the program and the people who made me fall in love with the sport. He made me want to continue to stay involved and take an active role in making Washington Women’s Rowing the best team in the NCAA. When I would see him at winter camp in December, he would happily give me updates on new plans and ideas, on recruiting strategies and his thoughts on the direction of women’s rowing in the NCAA. His commitment and enthusiasm for building and rebuilding the women’s program with his wealth of experience at Washington was infectious, and it was difficult not to be inspired by his honest and pragmatic approach to developing a winning team in a rapidly changing athletic landscape. Bob encouraged me to consider coming back to Washington after my time on the national team, in order to be a part of it. I couldn’t think of anything that sounded more fun, or more rewarding.
Now, I’m not so sure.
One thing that no one seems to be talking about is that this is not just a surprising turn of events, but it is also the second consecutive Head Women’s Rowing Coach that, after some friction with their athletes, the University of Washington administration has unceremoniously tossed out the back door. Yes, Bob has a heftier resumé than his predecessor, and he may have gone out with more of a bang, so his termination is probably stealing the show. But the issue still stands that this appears to be a trend at Conibear — athlete complaints leading to reckless, unmitigated conflict resolution tactics that are embarrassing and completely out of control. The woman who coached the Washington women before Bob was my coach, Eleanor McElvaine. Eleanor was herself a Husky athlete having won multiple National Championships, who turned to coaching the Husky novice women for thirteen years before moving in to the Head Coach position in 2003. She was every bit the committed lifelong member of the Husky family that Bob has been, having dedicated both her student-athlete experience and her professional career to the program, before her termination in 2007. Eleanor inherited a struggling team in the wake of the retirement of Jan Harville, and so was tasked with the original renovation of the women’s program. Along the way she also encountered dissenting, unhappy athletes who complained to the athletic department, and eventually got her fired. But no one seems to be talking about how that could have possibly led to this.
As incredible as it is that someone like Bob could be dismissed so nonchalantly by a program that is supposed to be setting the standard for meticulously organized patterns of success in collegiate rowing, no one is broadening the scope of this discussion to acknowledge that this isn’t just a one-off, it’s a pattern. A trend. Soon to be an epidemic, if not held in check. Something is going on at Washington that is bigger than what happened to Bob, and this should be incredibly disheartening for alums, and for the idealists out there in the rowing community who want to believe that the very best parts of our sport are thriving, and being instilled in and valued by not just young rowers, but administrators and leadership who are making decisions about the future of the program. Not a single other major player in the NCAA DI women’s rowing field can boast this humiliating statistic: two members of their own family fired within a decade as a result of athlete complaints. Not Cal, not Stanford, not UVA, Brown, Ohio State, Princeton or anyone else. Washington is the only one. Why?
I think because many of the details surrounding the circumstances of Bob’s termination are based primarily on hearsay or spotty reports from athletes, there hasn’t been a definitive decision made about who is to blame for things spiraling so wildly out of control. I think it would be really easy to blame the athletes for what happened, and in large part, that is the way that things have been spun in the media. But based on what I know, I believe that everyone in this equation made mistakes. The athletes failed to use proper channels of communication in order to voice their concerns (VBC Officers, I am calling you out on this — you are elected to these positions by your peers to take on leadership responsibilities for your team. A sit down with your coach(es) and the four of you would have been a good starting point for any meetings you hoped to have before going to the ADs or including the entire team). Bob failed to control his emotions and keep his temper in check when presented with a situation that he did not expect or approve of. And lastly, the administration failed to provide structure and leadership to a group of their student athletes when they were faced with a stressful, scary, unpleasant, flawed-but-well-meaning attempt to make their athletic environment better. And to me, this is by far the biggest and the only inexcusable failure in the group.
As administrators, an athletic department’s only job is to make sure that the department runs smoothly and that staff and athletes have the resources they need to be successful. That’s it. One job. Watch out for your kids and your coaches. This was a point where athletes needed help navigating a tough situation, and instead of providing them with support and guidance through a well-thought-out process of respectful communication and mature conflict resolution, things were allowed to get completely out of control. And not just once, but twice. This was an important opportunity for our athletic administration to lead by example and thereby demonstrate to our student athletes positive “out of the boat” life skills. Now, the only thing they will have learned from all of this is how not to have handled this situation, without a clear understanding of what went wrong and why.
You can say that Bob is tough and that the athletes are coddled if you want; but friction between a coach and their athletes does not excuse an administration from doing their jobs and finding a way to make things work, even when things get tough. We expect our coaches to get the best out of our athletes, and we expect our athletes to give it. But none of it works if they don’t have an athletic department that will step in and do their best to manage things when we hit a little choppy water.
Lastly, I have to add that beyond my frustrations with the athletic leadership at Washington, there is something else about this story that bothers me. It seems there is a second part of the story that no one seems to want to talk about, so I suppose that leaves it up to me: and that is to say that none of this would have happened if Bob had been coaching male athletes. It’s hard for me to say it, and it will undoubtedly draw criticism, but I don’t see another way around it. In a time where women are fighting harder than ever to achieve gender equality, and in particular female athletes are fighting to achieve equal status to their male counterparts, something like this happens…that doesn’t really help our cause. The fact that it happened in a boathouse where the men’s team currently has its shit more-together than any other rowing team in the country (for men or for women) only makes it more awkward. I do support athletes seeking a quality athletic education that they feel is based on hard work, and respect. I do support athletes seeking change if they feel those expectations are not being met. But founding investigations based on complaints of a coach being “too tough” or having athletes be accountable for something as basic as their own body weights… I am very skeptical that administrators would have entertained those complaints coming from male athletes. Ladies, if we say we want to be treated equally, we have to mean it. We can’t ever expect that things are going to change if we can’t make up our minds about what we want to achieve as female athletes. Do we want to be coached by people who will push us past our limits and sometimes say things we don’t want to hear? Do we want to stop holding the world hostage with the threat of disordered eating at the mere mention of bodyweight in an athletic setting? Do we want to stop being framed as fragile, emotionally hysterical communities of smaller, slower, weaker, competitors?
Or do we want to row with the boys?
This isn’t about me saying one athlete did or said the wrong thing and that’s why we’re here. This is about addressing the way that female athletes as a community see themselves, and thereby changing the expectations put on us by ourselves and by others.
I don’t want my coach to talk to me that way because you shouldn’t coach women like that.
I don’t want my weight to be a topic because we shouldn’t talk about women’s bodies.
We can’t keep existing inside these outdated notions of what it means to be a woman in sport. And our athletic leadership shouldn’t keep enabling our female athletes to do so, either.
I don’t think of this entry as pro-Bob, or anti-Bob. It’s not pro- or anti-University of Washington. It is pro-athlete. Pro-learning. Pro-accountability. It is trying to make sense out of something that seems senseless. It’s disappointment in a flawed system. It’s frustration at my own inability to change it. I know there are a lot of people out there who have taken sides and are pro- or anti- lots of things because they are angry, and hurt. But I encourage you to direct that energy in to things that can have a positive and lasting impact on the quality of experience our student athletes are getting at Conibear, and everywhere in the UW athletic department. Think about what that might mean, for you, and then respond. Because as Huskies, that’s what we do: we respond, we don’t react.
My best wishes to the Husky Women in 2016 – who have really only left themselves one option by which to define their legacy: Win. Win everything.
Long Live the Dream,