Asking the hard questions

The Chico State women’s basketball team has gotten a lot of attention in the past year—good and bad. The good, of course, includes last season’s Final Four run and All-American honors for Amber Simmons. The bad includes publicized discord that resurfaced in the wake of Simmons’ transfer announcement.

Simmons was the cover-story subject in the CN&R’s Sports Issue last fall (“Unassuming shooting star,” Sept. 28), so she felt comfortable coming here with complaints she hesitated to detail elsewhere. From a 45-minute talk with her and her aunt, plus a half-dozen other interviews, came this week’s cover story (“Fast break-up”).

Certainly, the furor surrounding Chico State’s signature women’s team is newsworthy. “Sometimes to make things better, you have to tear them down,” first-year Coach Molly Goodenbour said, “but we’re building up at the same time.” Whether she’s making things better or tearing down too much provides ample fodder for blogs and discussion.

As much as I love sports, that’s not what concerns me the most about this story.

I’m concerned about the university’s investigation, led by new Vice President of Student Affairs Drew Calandrella, into verbal-abuse allegations against Goodenbour leveled in a father’s letter.

Chico State President Paul Zingg, in an e-mail this week, said he’s “satisfied that Drew conducted an appropriate investigation into this matter several months ago…. Through Drew, the University looked into the matter and found the parent’s charges without substance.” Calandrella and Athletic Director Anita Barker also stand by the investigation.

I’m not in a position to declare the conclusion wrong. Since I attended only one game, didn’t go to practices and wasn’t privy to locker-room talk, I have no direct observations to contradictory accounts.

I wonder, though, if the process lent itself to candor.

The investigation began three days before winter break. Calandrella felt time was of the essence, so he asked Barker to call a team meeting, minus the coaching staff. “I asked Anita to be with me for a second set of ears,” Calandrella said in a phone interview.

“There was some disagreement between players,” he said, “some back and forth.” That contributed to his impression that “I had no reason to believe they weren’t being honest.”

Calandrella then gave the players index cards and asked each to write—anonymously—what she thought Goodenbour was doing wrong and what message she’d like to send to her coach. Ten minutes later, he collected the cards and gave out his business cards, encouraging players to contact him individually.

Two met with him, three e-mailed. “They were largely supportive,” Calandrella said.

But did that first meeting set a tone?

If players feared retaliation, wouldn’t the presence of the woman who hired their coach affect their confidence about confidentiality? For that matter, wouldn’t the en masse approach stifle openness?

Calandrella says his newcomer status meant he “didn’t have a dog in the hunt”—but is that the first impression he conveyed?

And did he really need to clear this up in a matter of days? Couldn’t he have had winter-break practices monitored, then taken more time?

Take it from a journalist: Sometimes how you ask is more important than what you ask.