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Keeping Score: Martin’s mammoth mistake

  • Amherst College coach Jon Thompson, right, watches from the sidelines during a men’s lacrosse game against Bowdoin on March 9, 2019. The team was put on probation for the 2021 season and coach Jon Thompson was fired last month, after an incident involving members of the team. CHRIS WRIGHT/CLARUS STUDIOS INC./AMHERST COLLEGE

Published: 4/24/2020 4:40:07 PM
Modified: 4/25/2020 12:18:14 PM

Good morning!

You mix poor judgment, bad reporting and an overzealous school president and presto, a mountain has grown from a molehill at Amherst College.

In the early morning hours of March 8, after the lacrosse team had lost to Tufts, 25-15, three players were sprawled in the Jenkins Hall commons area ready to call it a night.

According to co-editors Olivia Gieger and Natalie De Rosa of The Amherst Student, Dylan Finazzo of Bohemia, N.Y., (one of the team’s five captains), Matt Solberg, a high school All-American from East Grand Rapids, Mich., and Rod Castro of Bryn Mawr, Pa., all said “Good night (n-word)” to each other.

They said it loudly enough for a black teammate to hear from inside his dorm room, and as Gieger and De Rosa reported, “He was understandably upset, and came out to the common room and a physical altercation ensued.”

Their account helped clarify the original “breaking news” story by Shawna Chen (“editor-in-chief emerita”) who wrote in her lede: “Three people — all members of men’s lacrosse — chanted the n-word outside of a black lacrosse player’s suite on March 7. Provoked, the black lacrosse player punched one of the teammates chanting the n-word.”

The story was picked up by local and regional media, lacrosse periodicals, and internet websites. BET.com splashed the headline: “Outrage After Amherst Lacrosse Players Chant N-Word Outside of Black Player’s Suite. The black player fought back.”

Among the responses the story garnered in BET.com’s comments section was by @nonprofithoe, who posted: “Amherst College lacrosse is deeply entrenched in white supremacist ideology. Maybe even directly tied to the KKK in western Mass.”

One player who read the text was stunned silent that what happened could be so grossly mischaracterized.

Prestigious schools aren’t immune to ugly incidents, sexual assault allegations of Dartmouth professors, academic misconduct at Cornell, student protests turning violent at Middlebury. But this incident was largely self-inflicted and fanned by Amherst College President Dr. Carolyn “Biddy” Martin.

The day after Chen’s account in The Student, Martin wrote a message to faculty, students and staff condemning the use of a racial slur, adding that she was working with lacrosse coach Jon Thompson to invoke proper disciplinary measures. “Should these measures fail to make a difference,” warned Martin, “the College will need to take further steps.”

The 37-year-old Thompson similarly condemned the racist language, calling it “revolting.” Thompson was 125-47 in nine-plus seasons at Amherst. Last year his staff was named Northeast Coaching Staff of the Year by the Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association, and in 2018 Thompson was named Coach of the Year by the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC).

He benched Finazzo, Solberg and Castro for what turned out to be Amherst’s final game of the season, a 16-9 win against Endicott College. He told the team that from now on he’d be choosing the captains, and that he was endorsing mandatory sensitivity training and random dorm assignments.

This is where the story might end, except Martin was vexed by “the failure of those involved to own up to their behavior and the failure of teammates to identify who was at fault.”

Rolling out an inventory of misdeeds by lax rats that would make Darth Vader blush, Martin nuked the program and fired Coach Thompson. She put the team on probation and banned captain’s practices and other “team bonding activities” until Nov. 1. The Purple Laxmen also would not be allowed to compete in next year’s NCAA tournament, though it’s doubtful it would qualify anyway. Eight players have already entered the NCAA transfer portal, including underclassmen Chase Yager and Dylan Peabody.

A team being punished for the actions of a few isn’t without precedent. Four years ago, Harvard suspended the men’s soccer season after learning that players had produced “scouting reports” of the women’s team based on their looks. The program imploded, winning five games in three seasons, and coach Peter Lehrer was fired in November after the Crimson finished 0-14-1.

Tuition plus room and board is nearly $75K a year at Amherst, which does not give scholarships, but the lacrosse parents got their money’s worth in Thompson who had guided the team to seven consecutive NCAA tournaments, including last year’s Div. III title game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia where it lost to Cabrini (Pa.) University, 16-12.

Prior to arriving in Amherst, the Maine native had coached at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He grew up in nearby Freeport, attended Brown and remains Top 10 in all-time goals there. He holds bachelors and masters’ degrees in sports psychology, and is working on his Ph.D at Springfield College. His wife, Susanna, is Head of Amherst Montessori School where their daughters Aida and Carolina are both enrolled.

Shocked by Thompson’s dismissal, alumni Rick Williams wrote in a group email: “(Biddy Martin’s) excessive response to an unfortunate incident on campus has essentially destroyed the reputation of the lacrosse program and its fine coach.”

Ten players on this year’s team are either black or Latino, including freshman Carter Jones of Baltimore whose mother, Rebecca Murphy, attended three games this season. “The young men that I have met on the lacrosse team are everything you should want Amherst students to be,” Murphy wrote to Martin. “They represent the best of Amherst College NOT the worst, and if you knew them even a little bit you would know that.”

Furthermore, she added, “My son, my black son, loves his teammates, loves Jon Thompson, and until all of this happened, loved Amherst.”

Asked if Martin had responded to the missive, Murphy replied, “by email, something generic in tone.”

Players are fearful that anything they say could result in reprisal. One who stressed anonymity said of Thompson: “J.T. knows how I feel and how the team feels. He values all the right things about what it means to be part of a community. His values, the values he taught us, represent the opposite of what’s being characterized. It’s really disappointing and upsetting to know the actions of a few individuals can lead to such a breakdown.”

The team wrote a counterpoint to Martin’s invective and asked Martin to put it on the school’s website. When she refused, they appealed to The Student which agreed to put it in its opinion section. “There is no excuse or justification for any person outside of the black community to use the n-word regardless of context, relationships, phrasing or lack of ill-intent,” they wrote. “We disavow the actions of our teammates, (but) the narrative surrounding the incident has in many cases become hyperbolized.

“We are more than just lacrosse players. We are first and foremost Amherst students. We think individually; we act individually; we deserve to be judged individually.”

The letter was endorsed by the Black Student Union, a prominent campus group of about 50 strong that announced in large print on its Instagram page: “We won’t tolerate the College scapegoating you for their institutional problems. You are part of the Amherst community, and even if the College abandons you, we won’t.” 

It was undoubtedly a setback for Martin that a minority group wouldn’t share her outrage. The 68-year-old educator was born and raised near Lynchburg, Va., and was the third in the family to be named Carolyn. Grandmother Carolyn was nicknamed Buck, mother Carolyn was nicknamed Boolie, and daughter Carolyn was nicknamed Biddy.

After graduating from William & Mary, Martin earned her masters at Middlebury and Ph.D. in German literature at the University of Wisconsin. She taught at Cornell and moved up the ranks to become provost. In 2008 she was named chancellor at the University of Wisconsin with a starting salary of $437,000, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. 

In 2011 after losing a protracted battle to make Madison’s flagship campus autonomous from the other 25 campuses, Martin resigned to become Amherst’s 19th president. “It's been kind of a bruising fight," her chief antagonist Kevin Reilly told the Wisconsin State Journal. “I can understand someone thinking there are opportunities elsewhere.”

Amherst has dropped five sports since 1989 — men's and women's skiing, men's and women's crew, and wrestling, and in 2016 Martin commissioned the McKinsey Global Institute to determine the efficacy of eliminating athletics altogether.

The study advocated keeping the status quo, but was a jolt to football alumni and others who return every year to watch the Amherst-Williams game. This year’s “Biggest Little Game in America” will be the 135th meeting of the two storied rivals.

Amherst is the 44th wealthiest college in North America according to bestschools.org. Its endowment as of Sept. 13, 2019, was $2.37 billion. During a five-year fundraising campaign that ended in 2013, the school raised $502 million, including anonymous gifts of $100 million and $25 million.

Some of those donations came from alumni who remember when Amherst was a bastion of athletics, frat parties and good old boy networking, many of whom feel Martin is sabotaging the school’s legacy.

How so? In 2013, she sent word to students warning them to “keep an eye out for unwanted sexual advances” by alumni during Homecoming Weekend. She subsequently apologized, saying the memo was meant to be kept in-house.

After fraternities were banned in 1984, the tightest, “next best” social groups became athletic teams, and lacrosse has been characterized as a frat house on cleats. At times players behaved like the teenagers they are, providing Martin with ammo to scapegoat them out of existence.

Meanwhile many in the Amherst lacrosse community have continued to support Thompson. An online petition has garnered over 300 signatures endorsing the position that “Coach Thompson embodies the qualities of tolerance, inclusivity, and unbiased thinking…” and a fund has been set up to help support his family.

Thompson will land on his feet — he’s too good not to — and Martin will continue to condemn sports. It’s become the Amherst way.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.


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