Early in my coaching stop at USC, a co-worker in the athletics department called me over. “Hey, congratulations. You came in third. And you even got a first place vote.” When my brow furrowed, she realized I had no idea what she was talking about.
“Every year,” she explained, “the females in the department conduct an anonymous secret ballot on which male coach they’d want to be stranded with on a desert island.” You came in third this year and even got a first place vote.” I was doubly surprised. First, because I’d been with the Trojans for three years and had never heard of such a poll and second, because I came in third – with a first on somebody’s ballot. Nothing like a little boost to the ego – but I simply smiled, thanked her for the “good” news and went back to my office. There certainly was no feeling of being offended, although I did realize there might have been someone who would have taken offense. Please believe me when I say I would have felt the same way if I’d found out about the ladies’ poll – and she told me that I hadn’t received a single nomination.
A month or so later our athletics department held a mandatory sexual harassment seminar. All personnel members filed into the meeting room. I happened to be seated next to John Robinson, our legendary football coach. Being a wise guy (not to generalize, but something that comes easy – or at least easier – to somebody from New Jersey), I began the meeting by asking the female presenter, a retired military officer, “Is harass was one word or two?” Maybe because of the mischievous look in my eye, maybe because of the muffled laughter coming from many of my colleagues, maybe because she would have rather kept to her script, she only gave me a stern look. To let her know it was just a funny line, I apologized to the group – each of whom knew my comment was meant as a bit of levity. Truthfully, the little joke was regarding the word, not the topic – which is I realize is anything but. JR turned to me and, barely audible, said, “You are crazy.”
The woman was about 45 minutes into her presentation, which included video examples of what was and what was not considered sexual harassment, when I raised my hand. She shot me a glance – with somewhat of a jaundiced eye – and asked if I had a question. The people present wondered if I would be foolish enough to joke at this time.
I began, “Here’s a fictitious situation I’d like to ask you. If the men in the department conducted a secret survey, asking the male colleagues to rank first, second and third which female department employee they’d like to be stranded with on an desert island, would that be considered sexual harassment – even if the women never found out about it?”
The lady almost jumped with excitement (or relief) and exclaimed, “Yes! That is an perfect example of sexual harassment.” As she continued, I was glancing around the room. The females were sinking lower and lower in the seats, some absolutely glaring at me, a couple others shooting me a shocked look. Was I really going to expose their little scheme? The speaker finally ended her comments, praising me for giving such a vivid illustration.
“Uh, OK, thanks. I just wondered about that situation.” The women sat up straighter, yet some continued with the evil eye.
My point was not to belittle a serious issue we all know occurs in the workplace – and most everywhere else. It’s my belief that 99% of the people who sexually harass others are fully aware of their actions - and that there is no place for such behavior. However, I truly believe the PC police have become a tad overly sensitive on this subject.
The school district in which I worked after returning to public school education (following 30 years in the world of college basketball) was (and remains) such a place. Allow me to share a brief story.
During one of my freshman algebra classes, with an administrator in attendance to (allegedly) evaluate me, I asked the kids if anybody had an answer to a certain problem. No hands went up. I said, “Oh, c’mon, somebody has got to know this one.”
A shy, bright, little girl seated a couple rows from me, sheepishly raised her hand and said, “Is it x=15?”
I walked over to her and touched her on the elbow, saying, “One.” Then, touched her forearm a couple inches lower and said, “Two.” A couple inches lower, “Three” and, finally, touched her wrist, saying, “Four.” I looked her in the eye, smiled and said, “Thank you, Emily. I know can always count on you.” The class laughed and we moved on. In about 10 minutes, the bell rang and the students were off to their next class.
Shortly after the kids left, the administrator came up to me and made a remark that I’m absolutely certain was meant to be a vital learning experience for me. “Jack, I completely understand why you did it but, in the future, you might want to reconsider touching your students.”
I just looked at the administrator. My response was, “You just sat and observed me teaching and that is your first comment? Nothing about whether or not I was connecting with the kids, or if my explanation of the material was effective, or if they seemed interested?” I actually did consider the next line and said it anyway:
“Do they actually pay you to do this?”