Know this: If Cuonzo Martin failed to urgently address a glaring red flag in any American workplace — a sexual harassment complaint against a staff member — then he should lose his job as Cal basketball coach. Why wouldn’t he call an immediate meeting with university superiors last May, when he first was contacted by a female reporter who ultimately would accuse assistant Yann Hufnagel of improper advances? Why would Martin tell the woman that he’d talk to Hufnagel, then ask her if it was OK to have Hufnagel call her?
With so much at stake — the reputation of a university vilified for light punishments in such cases, a program on the rise nationally, his own promising future in the profession — why would Martin drop a scorching hot coal in the hands of Hufnagel? Common sense says he should have let the Cal administration take over the case instead of entrusting Hufnagel, a loose cannon who later told a school investigator that he was interested in the reporter for sex and made this startling admission about a regrettable night in his apartment building garage: “With all candor, I was trying to trick her into going upstairs.”
Why, Cuonzo Martin, why?
Hopefully, it wasn’t because Martin hoped the situation would blow over. Hopefully, it wasn’t because Martin thought he was an expert at smoothing over a sensitive problem. That would smack of a cover-up attempt.
And cover-up attempts, even when done with good intentions, can get a high-profile college hoops coach fired.
Far beyond how to recruit blue-chip players or how to devise rigid defensive schemes, the priority of every college coach should be the handling of harassment cases. The sexual assault crisis is explosive enough on campuses that every coach should be well-schooled in what constitutes and defines harassment. In Hufnagel’s case, there is no justification for an employee at a prestigious American university — where standards for behavior should be higher, particularly for a well-known recruiter in a top-25 basketball program — to carry on so recklessly with a reporter who covered the team.
While the woman has said that Hufnagel never touched her and pursued her verbally and via text messages, he did, according to her statement to the university investigator, have to firmly tell him no in the garage as he was trying to “trick her.” That right there is grounds for dismissal from a university that is teaching young people how to live. His lawyer has said that the reporter, whose name and affiliation have been redacted from the official report, was not a Cal student or employee. Thus, Hufnagel will argue in his lawsuit against the university that he was a 33-year-old single man who’d been engaging in playful digital banter over a lengthy period with the woman, who’d playfully engaged in return, and that the context was of two people having fun.
“A flirtation that never went anywhere,” said Mary McNamara, Hufnagel’s Montgomery Street-based attorney.
The problem there: Hufnagel has to know better. He should have known better when she repeatedly asked to meet him for coffee, which pushes the line between being an aggressive reporter and trying to disproportionately pump a single source for information. He didn’t keep the relationship professional. He let it slip into a “flirtation,” and while his lawyer may argue that Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell has carried on a rumored romance with a local TV reporter, Jessica Moran, there are major differences: (1) Moran hasn’t made an accusation against Farrell; (2) Moran resigned this month from her Red Sox-related duties; (3) The Red Sox are a professional franchise, not a team at an institution of higher learning.
Hufnagel’s accuser says she was fired from her job because he cut off information to her about the team. Her claim is dubious. We’re all stonewalled in the sports media business — the owner of the Chicago White Sox/Bulls declared war on me for years — and if she didn’t work around the Hufnagel stonewall and develop other sources, she isn’t very good at her job. It’s hard to believe she was fired from the unnamed media workplace because an assistant coach wouldn’t talk to her anymore. Again, Hufnagel should have seen through all of this. Instead, he tried to have sex with her.
On his Twitter feed, Hufnagel vowed to win the case. “These last two days have been gut-wrenching,” he wrote. “Being ripped away from a team that I love deeply has been, in a word, unbearable. I take these allegations incredibly seriously, but the report is wrong.”
He simply isn’t mature enough to have his job, regardless of his talents as the recruiter who helped land Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. In the end, Hufnagel may bring down the man who hired him. With each passing day in this scandal, the university’s support of Martin seems to wane.
Monday, after Hufnagel was fired, the athletic department released a statement that definitively expressed interest in signing Martin to a long-term contract. Complicating the mess, Martin has been working without a formally signed contract since his hiring two years ago. Said the statement: “The recent connection that has been drawn between the ongoing contract discussions with UC Berkeley’s head men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin and the current situation regarding the notice of intent to terminate Assistant Coach Hufnagel are inaccurate. Coach Martin is the Cal men’s basketball coach. We look forward to finalizing his contract.”
Tuesday, after being questioned about the timeline of when Martin first knew about the problem, the university said it would be reviewing the entire situation while still backing Martin. Said Cal athletic director Mike Williams in a statement, “To dispel any doubts about Coach Martin’s role, the university will be initiating a review of all of the documents and communications related to his actions. We firmly believe the results will support our confidence in Coach Martin.”
By Wednesday, Cal was more specific about its new probe, referring to the second date in the timeline in which the accuser contacted Martin. “The university is reviewing whether anyone had reason to believe that Hufnagel was in violation of the campus’s sexual harassment policy prior to July 5,” said the statement. “Coach Martin is included among this group of people, but is not a target of an investigation.”
Martin didn’t help himself Thursday in Spokane, Wash., where he met the media on the eve of Cal’s NCAA tournament opener against Hawaii. At one point, he referred to the Hufnagel case as “a bump in the road,” saying, “I’m not going to deal with that right now because we’re playing in the NCAA tournament. It’s a university issue right now. Right now, the biggest concern is our basketball team in the NCAA tournament.”
No, his biggest issue is a sexual harassment case that has gone national. Is he concerned about his job?
“I don’t worry about those things, to be totally honest with you,” Martin said. “My job with this team is to win games, graduate young men and develop young men. Anything else is a waste of time.”
Waste of time?
Without leading scorer Tyrone Wallace, who will miss March Madness with a broken bone in his non-shooting hand, Cal could be bounced quickly. President Obama, for one, has picked Hawaii in his bracket. It’s just as well that this team went away quickly.
Suddenly, it’s hard to root for Cal basketball.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.