Here’s a tale from Tuesday night that will seem not to have anything in the slightest to do with the Oregon State/LaVonda Wagner fiasco. But, in a roundabout way, it really does.
A friend of mine is out of town for a couple of days, and I dropped by her house to check on her cat. Just minutes after I’d walked in, the cat came through the cat door … with a baby rabbit in her mouth.
I yelled … the cat dropped the rabbit … I put the cat in the bathroom … I turned around to find the bunny … and saw it was over in a corner. I approached fearing the worst: that upon closer inspection, it would have mortal wounds. It did not, though. In fact, it was just fine _ and proceeded to dash away quickly and hide.
Then I spent about the next 20 minutes or so (um, it might have been longer) trying to locate the bunny in the house. It was a very small animal, and you know, they are quite good at hiding. I was down on the floor, looking under furniture. I searched behind the washer/dryer. I checked inside a closet (thinking perhaps it had squeezed under the door.) But it was as if the bunny had vanished into thin air.
So I opted for a kind of deal with the devil, letting the cat out of the bathroom and assuming she would pretty quickly sniff out the rabbit but I’d still be able to prevent any carnage. However, she seemed as clueless about the rabbit’s whereabouts as I was, but far less concerned. It was as if she thought, “Easy come, easy go.”
She at one point kind of half-heartedly stared under the couch _ even though I informed her that was the one place I felt absolutely sure the rabbit was not _ then totally lost interest and headed into the kitchen to eat from her full dish of food, something that was easy to find and wouldn’t run away.
I went back to looking for the rabbit, and finally saw it, hiding expertly behind the TV. I swear I’d looked there three times and hadn’t seen it before. So … I put the cat back in the bathroom (“Oh, not this crap again!” I could almost hear her thinking) and found an empty shoe box.
And then I quickly caught the bunny, right?
Not exactly. The bunny didn’t know that I had its best interests at heart, despite my constant reassurances, “Hey, it’s OK! I’m not going to hurt you! I’m trying to help!” The bunny, as I mentioned, was very fast. And I was being quite careful trying to catch it so as not to hurt it. Plus, my reflexes aren’t exactly like those of Martina Navratilova at the net in her prime.
Suffice to say the drama went on quite a bit longer and involved moving furniture and more absurd pleas to the bunny before, finally, I successfully got it in the box and took it outside. I found what looked like a safe place with plenty of vegetation for bunny-hiding, and the little critter scurried away into it.
Now, perhaps I only saved it for a brief while. My friend’s cat, or another cat, or some other calamity might still keep the bunny from ever reaching adulthood. But I refuse to see my efforts as being in vain. I did the best I could.
However, it very clearly brought to the forefront of my mind the dynamic of power, something that always has and always will push buttons for me. I had the power to intervene and prevent the cat from her objective of cold-blooded bunny murder/consumption. But before I did that, it was the cat who had all the power in her “relationship” with the bunny.
And the rabbit had no power at all, really. It could run and hide, but that’s about it.
Now, if you’re still with me, you might be saying, “Really, oh great rabbit savior, you’re still going to turn this into something about Oregon State?”
Yes, I am. Because at the heart of the problems the school is facing with its women’s basketball program is the issue of power: its use and misuse.
I won’t rehash all the details here; check out the Portland Oregonian and the Corvallis Gazette-Times. Most women’s hoops followers have monitored this unfortunate situation enough to know it was just a matter of waiting for the school’s administration to explore all its legal options before it fired Wagner. There had been enough of a player/staff mutiny and ensuing negative publicity about how Wagner treated people that there was no way for her to remain with the program.
Still, Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis said that Wagner was being fired “without cause,” and thus would be owed the $1.2 million remaining on her contract. It certainly seems the university did not want a legal battle with Wagner, and so opted instead to essentially eat her contract.
You can imagine how this is going over in the state of Oregon. Let’s face it: We all know there are still people whose reaction to anything involving women’s basketball is 100 percent negative. A story like this will really get their blood boiling, and they’ll sum it up as such: “Look at Oregon State being forced to waste more money to pay someone NOT to coach a program that is a waste of money to begin with!”
But even those more reasonable people who know that the program itself is worthwhile have to cringe at what’s happened. Athletic departments in many places are strapped for cash, and Oregon State is no different. The idea of having to pay a million-plus dollars to someone who is no longer involved with the program puts Oregon State even deeper into the hole it’s been unsuccessfully trying to climb out of for a long, long time.
Oregon State’s women’s hoops program hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1996. The school has no relevance in the sport. Just trying to win there would have been hard enough for Wagner without all the other problems that arose, apparently, from her style of coaching and treatment of players/staff.
To my knowledge, Wagner hasn’t given a full account to the media in Oregon of her “side” of this story, and it would be surprising if she ever really does. Will De Carolis ever fully explain why the problems with the program had to reach the equivalent of “DEFCON 1” before there was real action by the athletic department? (Other than the previous extension of her contract that put the school on the hook for this buyout and, in retrospect, makes the department look particularly out of touch.)
Admittedly, nobody in the Oregon State mess is the lack-of-power equivalent of my aforementioned bunny in peril. Players do have options when they are struggling with aspects of a program/coach. Still, it’s been my experience that the power structure is stacked very high against them.
In the coming days, I’ll share more thoughts on this – not just pertaining to Oregon State, but to women’s college basketball in general. How coaches sometimes struggle with how to really use their power effectively, and how those in athletic-department supervisory roles too often don’t address that until there’s a revolt. And then it’s usually too late to salvage much.