Chris Waller: How NOT to Confront a Scandal

“Never turn a one day story into a two day story.”

The above quote is rather infamous in college football circles. It was popularized by John U. Bacon in his multi-book series covering the internal workings of Michigan football as the program dealt with back-to-back dysfunctional coaching stints by Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. John U. Bacon didn’t coin the proverb himself, but inserted it as a rule of thumb of how college administrators should conduct themselves when facing a growing controversy.

The controversy in question was a 2014 football game where over the course of a six and a half minute window, Michigan fielded a player (Shane Morris) who was clearly too injured to continue play. Ultimately culminating in an already injured player then suffering a concussion, and despite said concussion, the player once again returned to the game. The play sequence can be found here on YouTube, and if you choose to watch it, I suggest doing so with the audio turned on. The significance of the footage is that as early as the 24 second mark, the television commentator was noting how reckless Michigan was conducting itself by not removing Morris from the game. Yet the sequence of events would continue for another six minutes.

The footage enraged virtually the entire football community as they interpreted the series of events as an NCAA student-athlete being put in harm’s way due to the sheer incompetence of his coach. If Michigan had merely acknowledged their mistake, provided transparency, and detailed how it was going to change its rules/procedures to ensure this never happened again, the Shane Morris incident would have hardly registered as a sports scandal.

Instead, Michigan committed one of the greatest public relations gaffes in modern NCAA sports history by conducting itself as if no scandal had occurred. As far as Michigan senior administrators were concerned, if they didn’t act as if this was a major scandal, it wouldn’t be interpreted as one by the general public. The tactic backfired spectacularly as the indifference expressed by University leadership only further enraged the college football fanbase.

All college football fans wanted was an acknowledgement that Michigan’s actions were wrong by fielding an injured player, that their concerns were justified, and better steps would be taken to ensure player safety was being taken seriously. What should have been a minor sports story ultimately became a national news story covered by the primetime news networks which rarely feature sports coverage in their world news/domestic political affairs lineup. The entire reason for the scandal blowing up in the way that it did was the dismissive attitude from Michigan leadership only had the effect of making college football fans/media want to scream louder and louder until Michigan Athletics finally got the message.

Now how does a concussion involving a Michigan football player in 2014 have anything to do with UCLA Gymnastics mismanaging an allegation of racism from within its program in 2021/2022?

Norah Flatley

The reason why I invoke Michigan football-2014 is that UCLA Gymnastics is currently committing the exact same miscues and displaying the exact same tactics in the hope that it will make the fallout stemming from the Alexis Jeffrey transfer simply go away. For those who are unaware of the growing controversy, a summary of it can be found here on Twitter.

I don’t expect even a majority of football fans, let alone gymnastics fans to know who Shane Morris is. But I do expect every NCAA athletic director, public relations advisor, and coach who oversees a high profile program such as UCLA’s powerhouse gymnastics team to know the name “Shane Morris.” The constant string of miscues as well as the overall tactical mistakes that were made in that time makes it a textbook example of what not to do if you are a leader of an NCAA program currently embroiled in scandal.

When I first learned that UCLA Gymnastics coach Chris Waller was addressing the media on January 20th, I was stunned. Largely because from a purely public relations perspective, it was the absolute worst time for a coach to engage with the media. Without a cohesive plan in place to calm the growing outcry, all Chris Waller was going to accomplish was bring more negative attention on himself.

Margzetta Frazier

Only an hour or so beforehand, Margzetta Frazier had expressed dissatisfaction with her coach on social media. This created two unique problems for the upcoming media session. First, it established that UCLA’s problems had yet to be resolved and by hosting a media session, Chris Waller was only going to dump more fuel on the fire. Secondly, the very existence of Frazier’s Twitter post made it a virtual guarantee that a media member would ask Waller for a reaction to her Tweet. Setting Waller up for failure as such a question would only further embarrass him and highlight his own failure as an effective leader of the team.

The completely predictable outcome occurred exactly as one would expect. In the aftermath of Waller’s media session, the UCLA story only further exploded with more fans talking about it on social media than ever before. As for reactions to the press session itself, an awkward “no comment” response in regards to Margzetta Frazier’s social media post dominated the discourse.

At this point the UCLA Gymnastics controversy can be broken down into two distinct components. The first component was internal as UCLA is alleged to have mishandled an allegation of racism that was raised by at least one member of the team in regards to another member. The second component was external as after details of a growing crisis became public knowledge, UCLA has mishandled its public relations response.

Norah Flatley

We don’t know much in regards to the first component of the scandal as the bulk of the information we have comes from second hand sources of figures who aren’t directly members of the team, but have connections to those who are. But what we do know is that UCLA, and more specifically Chris Waller is absolutely terrible when it comes to crisis management.

Chris Waller is an accomplished Olympic athlete and in time, perhaps he can prove himself to be an accomplished NCAA coach if he is able to continue coaching beyond 2022. But one thing I feel the current situation has proven, Chris Waller is well versed in the realm of gymnastics, but not so much in public relations or crisis management.

If this article has one point that it is trying to convey: Seeing how badly Chris Waller has managed the response to this controversy once it became public knowledge only seems to validate the speculation that long beforehand, he had mismanaged his response to team members when they first brought to his attention that they felt the personal conduct of one of their own to be racist. It is not a stretch to assume that if Chris Waller didn’t have the competency to create an intelligent public response to this controversy, he likely didn’t have the ability to appropriately tackle this issue in a private setting as well.

Margzetta Frazier and Nia Dennis

In 2014 football fans wanted Michigan to acknowledge that University leaders had seen what the fans had seen. That leadership realized a mistake had been made, that steps would be taken to correct it and ensure it would never occur again. But Michigan didn’t do that and the result was a controversy that would have been over in a day had it been addressed properly did not die down or go away. It continued onwards and became a “two day” scandal.

In 2022 gymnastics fans want UCLA leadership to acknowledge that a mistake had been made, reveal the steps being taken to correct it, and accountability for the previous events that had transpired. If that had been UCLA’s initial response, the program would not be embroiled in a growing controversy. By acting with indifference, the outcry from gymnastics fans has only swelled. UCLA is the juggernaut of the college gymnastics community. At one point in 2021, it had generated more interactions on social media than the combined total of the gymnastics programs with the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th most interactions.

No program is more closely watched than UCLA in college gymnastics. And what fans have seen is one of the most inexcusable public relations gaffes a college sports team has experienced in quite some time. It is simply inexcusable for any program to find itself so clearly mirroring the mistakes of 2014 Michigan football which serves as a high profile example and recent memory of what not to do when faced with a crisis. Then add in the most ludicrously ill-timed media availability session at a point when no UCLA Gymnastics official should be addressing the media without a plan in place to resolve the outcry.

UCLA is currently such a dysfunctional mess that Norah Flatley is openly fulminating the UCLA Athletic Director on Twitter while Margzetta Frazier is doing the same in regards to UCLA’s gymnastics coach. To see UCLA leadership act with such indifference and incompetency in a public setting only seems to verify that they behaved in the same way when faced with an internal crisis after an allegation of racism was raised by a team member in regards to one of her teammates.

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