LSU bungles Chatman saga

Updated: March 9, 2007, 3:41 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

This is the time of year we're supposed to be focusing on seniors making big shots at the end of their careers, about freshmen who "aren't playing like freshmen anymore," about survive and advance, bubble teams, who's going where, Bracketology … and all that March Madness stuff.

Pokey Chatman
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesPokey Chatman unexpectedly resigned Wednesday after nearly 18 years at LSU as a player and coach.

But the top story right now is coach Pokey Chatman's departure from LSU and the possible "cloud" that puts over women's basketball at the worst time. I'll acknowledge that it pretty much blotted out the sun for me during the Big 12 tournament semifinals Thursday.

Many hours later, I was still grappling with how to write about this. Thunder claps around 3:30 a.m. might have roused some folks from sleep, but I was still wide awake, staring at the computer screen.

In 11 years of writing about women's hoops for ESPN.com, I've strived to never come off like I know something that I don't. So I'll say right up front, I don't know for sure what's going on with Chatman. I know what's being reported by people close to the situation. I also know what rumors have swirled concerning Chatman for a few years, but in this business you hear lots of those. Most are extremely hard to substantiate.

In the coming days and weeks, more exact details seem likely to surface about Chatman's alleged conduct. If Chatman has had inappropriate relationships with a player or players, that is inexcusable and she absolutely must be held 100 percent accountable for it.

But there are many things that have been boiling in my mind, and it's probably the same with other women's basketball followers. Foremost is concern for the LSU players. They just had the high of beating Tennessee but then the low of falling to Vanderbilt in the SEC title game. Now they are going through real hell.

They've lost their head coach. There are all kinds of speculation about her, which then links to being about them and the program they represent. They're not supposed to talk to the media, and we will seem like a bunch of monsters to them. They will feel embarrassed and confused and besieged … and somehow they're supposed to play in the NCAA Tournament in the midst of this. Think how miserable this March is likely going to be for them.

That, ultimately, is what it comes back to: the kids. We adults should feel parental and protective toward them. And angry any time they are let down and betrayed by the very people who are supposed to be their guardians and guides.

These past two seasons have included the most unpleasant and difficult stories I've ever written about in my career -- from the ongoing saga at Penn State (the lawsuit was settled, but the issue is not over) to problems at one of my local schools, Kansas State, to this latest mess at LSU.

None of these are about players being on drugs or beating up someone or driving drunk or stealing stereos or carrying weapons. Such police-blotter stuff is sadly familiar in other sports. Instead, all of the aforementioned women's hoops situations involve -- or allegedly involve -- how coaches treat or relate to players.

The collegiate women's basketball coaching profession is filled with a lot of terrific people. But guess what? You folks better be the ones who step forward, confront, talk about and deal with such issues. Ignoring them or hoping they'll just blow over or continuing to "cover" for each other really just hurts everybody.

There's got to be more emphasis on real problem-solving rather than just damage control. Even though this sport is not anywhere near the mainstream media radar the way many other sports are, it's never again going to be invisible.

There are media who follow it very closely, others who at least keep in touch and those who will parachute in whenever there's a whiff of scandal. Plus, there is the Internet: message boards, blogs, chats, etc.

What on earth was anyone in a leadership role at LSU thinking when Chatman's initial, cryptic release went out Wednesday? Are they living on the same planet as the rest of us? How could they have believed that would fly? Did they really think either the media or fans would say, "Look, Pokey's announcing she's leaving her alma mater for 'other opportunities' but won't say why or answer questions about it. Oh, well, I guess we shouldn't ask."

It's not possible to earn a more resounding "F" than LSU has on dealing with this situation. Particularly the mind-boggling quote from athletic director Skip Bertman to the New Orleans Times Picayune about Chatman: "The girl did what she did, and LSU had no control over that."

He called his head coach "the girl" and seems to suggest the school that employs her bears no responsibility for anything she does. Bertman has since denied the quote when asked about it by Baton Rouge television station WAFB.

An added twist to all this -- as if it needs anything more -- is that LSU associate athletic director Judy Southard is the chair of the Division I women's basketball selection committee this year. Wow, what timing. She probably thought her biggest media headache this month was going to be about the bracket.

To that end, there might be media -- or more accurately, pseudo-media -- who pounce on this topic and use it to grind their well-worn axes of hatred and derision toward women's sports. It's important to recognize all that for the absolute garbage that it is.

There are more specific issues to write about in the days ahead regarding this situation as it relates to all of women's basketball. Plus, there will be plenty of dialogue among the sport's observers. I've said before and will say again, it might be painful and difficult, but it's necessary.

And it really doesn't have to block all the great parts of March Madness. But … this season, it's probably going to coexist with that.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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