Oregon’s new football coach is still upset over a Jan. 16 news report about an early season workout that sent three of his players to the hospital. The report resulted in the suspension of strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde for one month without pay.
Head coach Willie Taggart, whom Oregon hired to replace Mark Helfrich in December, said he is no longer speaking to The Oregonian reporter who broke the story, claiming that the reporter’s characterization of the workouts as “grueling” and “akin to military basic training” were inaccurate, unfair and directly contradicted what Taggart told the reporter before the story was written.
“When you’re not fair and honest, then to me that’s personal,” Taggart said. “When you do something that’s negative and it’s going to be personal, then I won’t have shit to do with you.”
Andrew Greif, whose story broke the news about the players’ hospitalization, defended the piece, noting that multiple sources characterized the workouts as grueling and militaristic. He said UO spokespeople did not question those characterizations when he asked them to confirm the nature of the workouts.
“Though the description of the workouts is understandably subjective, ultimately what has never been in doubt is that three UO players were hospitalized after the first week of offseason workouts and received treatment for several days,” Greif said in an email to the Emerald.
When asked if he will continue to field questions from Greif, Taggart said, “No.”
Meanwhile, a faculty athletics representative who investigated said the story was fair and that coaches made mistakes in the first workout, but that the characterization of the workouts was misinterpreted by the public.
The Emerald spoke at length with Taggart in an interview Monday; Greif answered on Wednesday questions via email.
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Taggart and Greif spoke on the phone about the workout before Greif’s story ran in The Oregonian. Taggart told the Emerald he “felt good” after explaining to Greif what had happened at the workout — the players were allowed to tap out, but some overworked themselves and finished the workout to show they’re not “quitters” — and was surprised by what he read in the published piece.
“‘You’ve got to be shitting me,’ was kind of my reaction,” Taggart said. “I explained exactly what happened and he didn’t report it.”
Taggart said he told Greif on the phone that the workouts were not “grueling” or “military-style,” words he felt made the program seem “malicious.” But Greif said Taggart did not say that to him on the phone.
“If the coach had said that, I would have reported it,” Greif said.
Greif and Taggart spoke again shortly after the story ran, and Taggart expressed his disapproval of the way the story was written. The next day, Greif discussed the story on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” a television show that examines controversial off-the-field issues in the sports world. Taggart took that as “having some other agenda.”
“The story is out there, and then the next day you go on the ‘Outside the Lines’ and just not only stabbed me but turned the damn knife,” Taggart said. “He wanted his five or 10 minutes of fame and he got it.”
The two have spoken only once since, when Greif asked Taggart a few questions about recruiting in a group interview setting at Oregon’s signing day event in Portland. Taggart said he recently ignored a text from Greif asking to talk things over.
— Oregon Football (@oregonfootball) February 2, 2017
Taggart said he thinks it would be “fair and honest” for Greif to print an apology or correction, though he said “it’s not going to change anything.” He said the story — which garnered national attention from ESPN, The Washington Post and others — “wouldn’t have been big if [Greif] didn’t write it the way he did.”
Greif, who has broken numerous stories including the alleged rape of a female student by three Oregon basketball players in 2014, said The Oregonian does not plan to run an apology or correction.
“We reported the story fairly and accurately without any agenda of any kind,” he said.
Tim Gleason, a journalism professor, conducted an investigation of the workout incident at the request of UO President Michael Schill in his capacity as UO’s Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR). The NCAA requires its member institutions to appoint a FAR from the faculty or administration to provide “oversight of the academic integrity of the athletics program” and serve “as an advocate for student-athlete well-being.”
Gleason interviewed coaches, trainers, players, athletic director Rob Mullens and Andrew Murray, the director of performance and sports science.
On Feb. 1, Gleason reported his findings to the UO Senate:
“Staff and student-athletes did not find the nature of the structured workouts to be outside the norms of traditional football strength and conditioning workouts, however the intensity was greater than usual,” he said. “Many players took issue with the press reports’ use of terms such as ‘military-style’ to describe the workouts, saying that the reports were overblown and sensational.”
Gleason said several factors contributed to the hospitalization of the three players: The players had gone six weeks without a formal workout after missing out on a bowl game; they were likely dehydrated, as their workout began at 6 a.m; and the hospitalized players were all heavy offensive linemen, so the body-weight exercises — such as push-ups and planks — took more a toll on them than on lighter players.
Gleason added that the workout was a “teambuilding exercise” such that if one player erred during an exercise, the whole group had to repeat it over again. The group with the three later-hospitalized players erred multiple times and had to restart each time. He said the three players were allowed to tap out, but overexerted themselves in order to impress the new coaching staff.
“I don’t think anybody fully calculated that dynamic of first impression,” Gleason said in an interview with the Emerald. “You take 100-and-some highly competitive football players, put them in this setting, and they’re not going to drop out. There should have been more awareness of that.”
Gleason told the Emerald he did not think Greif’s report was unfair. Rather, he felt the “military-style” characterization was “unfortunate” because people latched onto that term and viewed the workout as “some kind of weeding-out, boot-camp-like effort.”
“It’s not an unfair characterization; it’s just that the way it gets interpreted is regrettable,” Gleason said. “In the shorthand of journalism, it resulted in an impression that may not have been completely accurate.”
Gleason made clear that mistakes were made by athletic department personnel. The workout, he said, was not in conformance with NCAA best practices for first practices after a long layoff. But the public’s perception of the story, he said, came off in a way that implied the intent to harm the players, which he said could not have been further from the truth.
“Taggart and his coaching staff very seriously believe that their job is to take care of student-athletes, so when something like this happens, it kind of hits them in their core set of beliefs,” Gleason said. “So when they read a story that reads to them as saying ‘We don’t care,’ that’s a very, very hurtful story because they do care.”
Note: Greif is a former sports editor for the Emerald and Gleason is a former member of the Emerald board of directors. Neither one is affiliated with the Emerald anymore.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Greif asked Taggart “a question” at the signing day event in Portland, but he asked multiple questions. It also stated that Taggart said it would be “fair and honest” for The Oregonian to print an apology or correction, when in fact he only asked Greif to print an apology or correction.
Gus Morris and Jack Butler contributed reporting to this story.
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