A Piece of My Mind

In early January a University of Washington basketball player, Venoy Overton, was accused of sexual assault.  Two months later, in early March, the King County prosecutor determined that Overton would be charged with providing alcohol to two 16 year old girls and there would be no sexual assault charge.

I tell you this as background. I want to comment on the response of Lorenzo Romar, the team’s coach. What was he to do with his player?  Even if Overton had not committed a crime, his behavior was morally corrupt and contrary to his team’s standards and his coach’s expectations.  Romar could not, and did not want to, let this pass without consequences to Overton as a member of the basketball team.

Although he took “within the team” disciplinary actions, Romar primarily disciplined Overton by suspending him for the duration of the league playoffs, which turned out to be three crucially important games.  Not surprisingly many felt the player should have been dismissed rather than suspended. Some said “Romar should have told Overton ‘You’re done as a Husky,’”  “Romar came up short,” “The coach needed to do a better job of protecting [the program’s] image,”  “Romar is a failure as a coach.”

The decision about disciplining Overton was the responsibility of the coach.  It was a difficult decision that took a toll on Romar.  “You could see the stress on Romar’s face over the last two months.  Romar described it as  ‘…my toughest year since I’ve been a coach here…’ ” 

What caused Romar so much anguish?  I’m sure some of his turmoil came from simply deciding on the appropriate discipline.  Stress also came from knowing his decision would be scrutinized and criticized.  “Overton put Romar in an unmanageable position.  There are only wrong ways to handle this dilemma.”

But my guess is that more stress came from trying to decide what was best for the player, what would be most helpful to him.  Assuming Overton was repentant, I think Romar’s dilemma was primarily, “How can I use this situation to make this player a better man while, at the same time, helping him understand the seriousness of what he had done?”  

Why didn’t Romar just kick Overton off the team?  His decision was not about winning or losing basketball games.   The coach had previously demonstrated his willingness to discipline players, no matter the win/loss consequences.  Instead, his decision to keep Overton on the team came partly out of his coach-as-parent role.  Good coaches are, in varying degrees, father figures to their players.  Although Romar the coach/parent chose to work with Overton rather than cutting him off, he must have struggled with how does one do that and not diminish or appear to diminish the gravity of the wrong committed.  No wonder this year felt like his “toughest since I’ve been here.”

But there was something else that shaped Romar’s response.  I do not think this “other thing” lessened the coach’s turmoil, I think it intensified it.

This “other thing” is Romar’s trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  That his faith shapes his life and coaching is commonly known and publically acknowledged. One writer said ”As a Christian with a strong religious backbone Romar must’ve been sick after hearing what Overton had been accused of, [but] this is a man who also believes in forgiveness because of his religion.”

But for Romar it was only partly about forgiveness; I think the responsibility for forgiveness fell more to the 16 year olds involved.  Instead, I suspect the coach’s inner struggle was more about how to extend God’s love to Overton and yet honor God’s desire for righteousness and justice. What had greater weight here, God’s demand for justice or his gift of grace?  What would be best for his player, law or grace?  Which would better teach Overton the truths he needed to learn?  Would Romar’s critics understand or even care about his desire to be a model of redemptive grace and love?  Would his desire to be gracious be seen as being merely spineless?

How was Romar to obey Jesus’ command to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven”?What would be the “good deed” that “men” would see?  A cutting off or a second chance?  Justice served or mercy granted?

I am sure God’s commands like “love one another as I have loved you”, “forgive as you have been forgiven” and others like these are all meant to make life better.  I am equally sure they are not meant to make life easier.