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Cal Basketball Tuesday Thoughts: Accepting Ignorance

How should you react and respond to a sexual harassment claim involving Cal men's basketball? Hey wait, do we actually have to react and respond to everything?

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My 'job' is to write about and analyze Cal sports. This week, that job is sufficiently difficult that I hesitated to even attempt the task.

No, not because the basketball team lost to Hawaii (I'm presuming that we'll return to actual season retrospectives in a week or so). Because the dominant story at the moment is a topic wrought with challenges that make meaningful analysis difficult. It's pretty easy to sound insensitive or ignorant regarding Yann Hufnagel's alleged sexual harassment because right now, we really don't know very much. Furthermore . . . I don't think we need to know more.

I'm not going to spend any time speculating about the allegations themselves. All we have to go on is a heavily redacted investigation report - a report that has led different parties to reach very different conclusions about culpability. There's little to gain and much to lose in that process.

I'm also not going to speculate about the future of this particular coaching staff, because we have even less information to go by on that topic. I personally think that Cuonzo Martin and his remaining staff are excellent long term coaches if your goal is to win basketball games. Beyond that, I know nothing.

So what can I actually talk about?

How should an internal investigation work?

Without getting into specifics, I have a decent amount of experience with internal employee misconduct investigations. And I want to talk about what little I know. Fan reactions (i.e.: who should I blame?!) to Cal's investigation into Hufnagel's actions have tended to fall into four (often overlapping) categories. Let's talk about three to start:

Reaction 1. Blaming Hufnagel for his actions.

Reaction 2. Blaming Cal's athletic department for their perceived role in the performance of the investigation.

Reaction 3. Blaming Cal's bureaucracy generally, and/or the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD) specifically.

Reaction #1 is relatively self-explanatory. I'm a big believer in 'innocent until proven guilty,' and as a consequence there's a certain feeling that withholding any type of judgment would be prudent. However, let's be clear: by the terms of Cal's policies and procedures, Hufnagel has already been found in violation. He currently claims that the University's determination is flawed. I hope it is not, if only because I would like to think that Cal's internal arm is capable of conducting a strong investigation.

Reaction #2 is understandable, because the athletic department certainly doesn't have a sterling history with communication and timely action. But let's be clear: the athletic department has zero influence over the procedures and timelines of the OPHD. And furthermore, the AD shouldn't have that type of influence. Part of the reason that sexual harassment (amongst various other employee complaints) became such a widespread problem is because managers could use their power and influence to stifle investigations. Public organizations all now have independent offices to investigate alleged policy violations as a consequence.

Reaction #3 has one fair point: It should not take eight months to resolve a complaint. Based on what was included in the investigation report, only three people were interviewed. True, some participants were interviewed more than once. True, the investigator(s) had a certain amount of documentation to review. Still, the timelines are troubling. In my personal opinion, this type of investigation should have been resolved in a month or two at the longest.

Unfortunately, there's a pretty plausible explanation for the eight month investigation time frame: I would hazard to guess that OPHD is pretty terribly overworked and understaffed. OPHD currently only lists 4 staff on their website - I suspect that may be outdated information (and it was pointed out to me that Cal may be contracting out some percentage of their investigations), but I would guess that they struggle to quickly respond to the number of complaints that 31,720 total employees (as of late 2015) would generate. Even if the University weren't dealing with particularly visible sexual harassment cases in the media that would be a challenge. When you add in media issues, the problem only increases.

I have very strong opinions about the ability of public agencies to perform work quickly (short answer: they have been legislated to be slow by consent of the public) but that's neither here nor there at the moment.

Ignoring timeliness, and based on what little information that has been released, I have no reason to currently suspect that this was a poorly conducted investigation, and that there is any reason to question the finding of OPHD investigation and report. (To be fair, I don't necessarily have a reason to assume that it was a well conducted investigation, but I try to assume that people hired to perform a task are capable of doing so until proven otherwise.)

Ultimately, due to a lack of information, we have little choice but to trust that our public servants are adequately performing the job they have been hired to do. If they have failed in that duty, then wronged parties have the right to contest their determination in a court of law. As one of, like, 3 non-lawyers on the CGB masthead, I don't have anything to offer regarding that scenario.

Unmentioned Reaction #4: Casting aspersions on the complainant

Oftentimes referred to as 'victim blaming.' There are those who argue that the pendulum has swung to far, and we now give too much benefit of the doubt to those claiming that they have been wronged, while ignoring the damage that can be done to somebody who is the victim of false allegations. I personally disagree.

While a respondent is certainly well within their rights to challenge  a disciplinary action via lawsuit, and it may be acceptable (and part of the job) for a lawyer to cast doubt on the motives of a complainant in a court room setting, it's pretty distasteful for anybody otherwise unconnected to the incident to make a character judgment of a person solely because they made the difficult (in most cases, life-altering) decision to report behavior they believe to be inappropriate. A little compassion goes a long way.

How should we react?

With caution and prudence. It's fair to grumble about the timeline, and I suppose it's fair to curse Cal's luck that this all came down the week of the NCAA tournament, although I'd argue that one of these issues is significantly more important than the other.

We have to hope that Cal has a strong policy, followed that policy and the procedures it entails, that the investigator(s) did their job fully and competently, and that when they reached their conclusion, they determined an appropriate consequence.

We simply don't have enough evidence for grand pronouncements or finger pointing, and continued speculation will more likely than not lead to statements and arguments that could look pretty wrong later on, if not down right insensitive.

Yes, I do realize the irony of calling for less speculation in another CGB article about this very issue. I realize that it's probably hypocritical to ask for less speculation when this very blog exists as a vehicle for extreme over-analysis of topics that we (myself very much included) are often woefully unqualified to analyze. But saying dumb things about defensive play calls and offensive turnover percentage is pretty harmless, whereas this issue is as serious as serious can be. Sometimes, discretion is the better part of valor.