On May 14, Cheryl Littlejohn was fired from her position as head coach of the Gophers women’s basketball team. The firing, according to the University, was in response to the findings that Littlejohn was responsible for 12 NCAA violations. These allegations include incidents in which Littlejohn gave money to players, made players practice outside NCAA regulated times and tried to obstruct the investigation of these actions. Though some of these violations may be minor, considering they come on the heels of the men’s basketball scandal the University acted appropriately in dealing with the situation by firing Littlejohn.
As expected, Littlejohn takes the view that the University did not act appropriately and is filing a wrongful termination lawsuit in addition to challenging the University’s allegations. In talking to the press, Littlejohn’s lawyer Blessing Rugara has suggested alternate scenarios as to why her client was fired. One claim is the University actually fired Littlejohn because of the team’s shoddy performance over the last few years. However, according to women’s basketball information director Becky Bohm, Littlejohn was fired purely on the basis of the NCAA violations. The team’s sub-par performance was not a factor in termination. After the men’s basketball scandal, which was financially costly and damaging to the University’s reputation, the University is trying to take a tougher stance against rules violation, as it should.
Littlejohn’s lawyer has also suggested the termination was racially motivated. These claims are partially based on the fact that Doug Woog, the men’s hockey coach, who is white, only received suspension after giving money to a player. However, it is more likely the differing punishments stem from the distinction between a single violation and a larger pattern of violations. Allegations of racism have also arisen because Littlejohn is the third high-ranking black to be terminated in the past two years.
It is clear, however, that former men’s basketball coach Clem Haskins was fired and former Vice President McKinley Boston’s contract wasn’t renewed, not because of their race, but because they violated NCAA rules. It is for these same reasons the University terminated Littlejohn. Tonya Moten Brown, University vice president and chief of staff, best confronted the allegations of racism when she stated, as reported by the Star Tribune, “This is a case about a coach who broke the rules, I do become concerned that using race in light of the facts of this case demeans legitimate issues I believe exist in the black community.” The problems of racial bias is demeaned when anyone from a minority community breaks the law and is punished and then uses race to rationalize the punishment.
Littlejohn knew the rules of the NCAA and should have had the common sense to abide by them. Natea Motley, the player who received money from Littlejohn, also knew Littlejohn’s well-intentioned offer to help financially was a violation of NCAA rules – explaining why she initially declined the money. Littlejohn then went out of her way to get the money to Motley. NCAA rules are in place for a reason and must be followed. The University should not tolerate any sort of violation of the rules and they made the right choice by firing Littlejohn.