Alabama coach needs more than sensitivity training

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An Alabama teacher and coach accused First Lady Michelle Obama of being overweight.

Last week, 49ers safety Chris Culliver was lampooned for his disembodied apology after claiming his homophobic rant during a radio interview on Super Bowl media day had no connection to the values he holds in his heart.

And yet, somehow an Alabama high school teacher and coach has made the same non-apology for another rant -- only this anti-gay diatribe was in front of students and included a disrespectful reference to the First Lady as "fat butt Michelle Obama."

Bob Grisham, who is a psychology teacher and football coach Lauderdale County High School in Rogersville, Ala., has been suspended for 10 days without pay and must attend sensitivity training. He explained his one minute and 24 second rant by telling the local newspaper, "I misspoke in a debate-type situation. I have no hatred toward anyone or any group. People that know my heart, they know that."

You have to admit, it was a far superior non-apology to the more transparent, "I'm sorry if anyone was offended."

What puts Grisham's comments in a different universe from Culliver's? He expressed his venom in an educational setting, in the role of a teacher. So let's take a look at some of the values this coach is passing along.

Forget showing respect for authority, or women, or women in positions of authority. The First Lady, an attorney by trade, has made nutrition her signature effort, and installed a vegetable garden at the White House. And yet she can be openly ridiculed because of her body. That's a horrible message to send to the girls assigned to Grisham's psychology class.

And as a psychology teacher, Grisham should be aware that adolescent girls often wrestle with their body image. And, at its worst, that struggle can devolve into eating disorders. His remarks only reinforce the notion that, yes, you are being judged on your size young ladies.

That would be bad enough. But Grisham is also sending the message to young men that it's fine to see women as a compilation of their parts and dismiss a woman's accomplishments because of ankles -- a critique Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to endure – or some other physical characteristic.

Women in power are not there to be your eye candy, even if those dismissive comments are cloaked in the context of health.

Students follow the lead of their teacher, just like one of the students did when he echoed Grisham's remarks on Obama by comparing her to an animal, which evokes America's ugly history of racial discrimination. Despite that, Grisham doesn't back away from his opinions in the tape, but tells the students he'd say the same to the principal.

But Grisham, who led the football team to a 12-2 record this season, didn't just offend on the basis of race and gender, he also takes a swipe at sexual identity.

Sometimes I hear young people talk about how difficult the decision was to tell friends and parents they are gay, and I think to myself it must be getting easier given the changing attitudes. Gays are now accepted in the military and legally allowed to marry in an increasing number of states. But if Grisham's opinions were expressed in front of a student who is having that internal dialog, it undermines that social progress.

More seriously, the state of Alabama has often ranked near the bottom nationally when it comes to student performance. That number has gone up, but Grisham doesn't represent Alabama coaches and educators well. The school district made the right move when it removed him from his psychology position.

The school district is still mulling further discipline against Grisham. But what is most troubling, perhaps, is had it not been for a student with a recording device on her cell phone, Grisham would be teaching and coaching those same values.

And that matters more than any number of wins on the football field.

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