clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Northwestern coaches defend new athletic director Mike Polisky while some student-athletes push back

New, 43 comments

The department is split over its new leader.

Northwestern head baseball coach Spencer Allen praised new athletic director Mike Polisky in an interview with Inside NU on Monday afternoon but declined to comment on the allegations that Polisky did not take complaints of racial discrimination seriously.

“I don’t have a response to those [allegations] just because I don’t have the details,” said Allen, the first Black head baseball coach in the Big Ten and a member of the conference’s equality coalition.

After first supporting the school’s decision to promote Polisky to athletic director last week, Allen affirmed his original statement with a second tweet on Sunday night.

Allen said he decided to tweet a second time because he saw the negativity circulating around the decision on social media and still believes that Polisky, whom he called a mentor to him since he arrived at NU, is the best person for the job.

“The coaching staff, people within our athletic department and people who have worked with him just genuinely feel like he’s a great individual and a great human being,” he said.

That negative press, which prompted him to tweet, stems from racial discrimination and sexual harassment allegations filed by Northwestern cheerleaders. They alleged that Polisky was responsible for or upheld a number of racist policies, according to former Northwestern cheerleader Erika Carter.

As the Deputy Director of Athletics for External Affairs, Polisky oversaw marketing, which included the cheerleading team. The cheerleaders’ contract said that their hair must be “worn in the assigned manner,” meaning they could not wear ethnic braids and would have to wear a wig if they wanted to keep their hair natural. Carter also said head coach Pamela Bonnevier often referenced having to “clear something with admin,” referring to Polisky.

“He is responsible for marketing, and in that suppression of black identity, they wanted us to be whitewashed,” Carter said. “They wanted to appear to have diversity, but all the while they’re suppressing the identity of black women, causing us mental health issues, emotional issues and just subjecting us to the abuses of the coach, I think by way of Polisky.”

Additionally, Carter said that back in 2017, Polisky and the school told student-athletes that if they kneeled during the national anthem, the university would not be behind them. Cheerleaders also claimed that when approached with these issues, Polisky failed at his duty as a mandated reporter to report allegations of sexual harassment and racial discrimination to the Office of Equity under Title IX and the school’s discrimination and harassment policy.

Given the allegations and Allen’s position as a Black coach, Carter expressed her frustration with his openness in supporting Polisky.

“It really just shows the tone of how often women aren’t believed and how often Black men, in particular, are quick to not support Black women and to counteract our movement,” she said. “It’s not the first time a Black man has done this, so to me, I wasn’t surprised. I’m disappointed though.”

Allen is the only Black coach at Northwestern to publicly comment on Polisky’s hiring so far, however, he was not the only coach to do so. Director of Golf and Player Development Pat Goss, head wrestling coach Matt Storniolo, head women’s golf coach Emily Fletcher, head softball coach Kate Drohan and head lacrosse coach Kelly Amonte Hiller all supported Polisky publicly after he was announced as the new athletic director, either on social media or via press release.

Allen said these coaches’ response represents the majority opinion in the department.

“To me, it’s really hardly a divide,” he said. “A divide would probably mean 50-50. I think my experience and the people that I’m interacting with are really excited about Mike and excited just about the future of Northwestern athletics.”

But despite their coaches’ comments, a number of athletes have responded in opposition to Polisky’s promotion, creating a stark divide within the athletic community. One student-athlete, who requested to remain anonymous, told Inside NU that her whole team opposes the hire and that she has yet to speak with a student-athlete from any team who is outwardly in support of the decision — just those who are against it or are neutral. While some players have come forward on Twitter in support of Polisky like the coaches, the athlete claims the vast majority feel the opposite. A handful of athletes even attended the protest held by Northwestern faculty last Friday in opposition to his promotion.

These players’ primary qualm with Polisky’s hiring is the empty promise of diversity. The student-athlete said she believed the department was trending in the right direction by hiring Maria Sanchez to be the senior associate athletic director and chief diversity and inclusion officer, but she perceives the Polisky hire as a step backward.

“I feel like a lot of people had hoped that who they were going to hire was going to be someone that was representative of things that athletes have been pushing for,” the student-athlete said. “Personally, it’s just disappointing, having an opportunity to do something different, and time and time again, it’s just the same story.”

While Polisky has yet to speak with the media since his promotion, he addressed the department in an email obtained by Inside NU.

“Every one of you chose to join the Northwestern family because you believed this place was special,” he wrote. “A place where world-class education and the chance to compete for championships at the highest level were not mutually exclusive. A place where your experience — in the classroom, the community or competition — every day is building a culture defined by inclusion, integrity, ambition and excellence.”

Some athletes struggled to buy into his message.

“I thought it was full of crap,” another student-athlete told Inside NU. “He’s also someone who’s the head of marketing. To me, it was blatantly him trying to play a role, and it just wasn’t genuine because if he really stood for those things, then his actions would prove it, and his actions have done the opposite. It was also sad to see how many people bought into his words so easily.”

There is undoubtedly a divide within the department over Polisky’s hiring, and the NU administration’s decision has forced people to take sides. The second student-athlete said she believes the divide is between coaches and players because the staff sees Polisky’s ability to bring funding to their program, while the athletes are more focused on his alleged mistreatment of the cheerleaders.

“It feels sad, especially being a woman athlete,” she said. “He’s just someone who has so blatantly, time and time again, shown that he disregards women and does not believe in women. To hear that coaches and administrators in places of power support him is basically saying that they’re equal to him. If you’re supporting a man that disrespects women and that disregards women and their experiences, that makes you a person that disrespects women.”

Sports have shown the ability to unite Northwestern’s campus in some of its most challenging times, but the last week’s news begs the question: Can the school’s athletic department become united again under its current leadership?

Whether it’s on the subject of believing women in sexual harassment cases or suppressing Black identities, many athletes have their minds made up on Polisky while the coaches and staff continue to state their case for why he is the best man for the job.

“It’s something that genuinely makes me reflect on my position within this school,” said the second student-athlete. “I don’t want to be a part of a school that disregards women. I don’t want to be a part of a department that is actively promoting a man that has proved time and time again to not actually uphold the values of the university and supposedly what the athletic department says.”