Comedian Jeff Foxworthy once said that, “Southerners are as smart as anybody else in this country. Our only problem is we just can’t keep the most ignorant amongst us off the television.”
Having spent my entire life living in the state of Kentucky, I have found this to be true time and time again. Kentucky is filled with many educated, kind, hard-working, and forward-thinking people. However, it always seems that for every one-step forward we take as a state, someone comes along to take us two-steps back.
Yet, for the past couple of months Governor Beshear’s Coronavirus plan has been praised by US News & World Report, CNN, NPR, and countless other media outlets across the country. For once, the country looked upon Kentucky as, dare I say, progressive? I should have known that we would not be able to tolerate the limelight for very long, as this past week produced two stories making national headlines for all the wrong reasons. One involving a disgusting display of protest that included a hanging effigy of Governor Beshear, and the other an eye-raising headline of alcohol, hazing, and nudity involving the University of Kentucky’s cheerleading team. One step forward, two steps back.
Last Monday started out like any other work day when around mid-day my phone lit up with a headline, “Kentucky dismisses all 4 cheerleading coaches following 3-month investigation.” OK, you have my attention. What could possibly have been done to result in letting go of an entire coaching staff? Especially one that has produced EIGHTEEN of the schools 24 national championships.
As I began to read, I couldn’t believe my eyes: Cheerleaders tossed topless and bottomless into Lake Cumberland at a team retreat, alumni bringing boats full of alcohol to the same retreat, and accusations of hazing at a cheerleading camp in Tennessee with lewd chants and outfits with no underwear. All of which the coaching staff either knew about, or SHOULD have known about.
Now, if you replaced Lake Cumberland and Tennessee with Panama City Beach and Cancun, I think this is a completely different story. I’m not naïve enough to think that these are sorts of things that college students don’t do. I mean I was in college once too, back when cell phones had antennas on them. Had all of this occurred with members of the team on Spring Break, it’s still a bad look, but I think most people would chalk it up to “college kids being college kids.” The problem with these events is that they took place under the supposed supervision of the coaching staff at an official team event. In the illustrious words of our governor, “you can’t be doing that.”
I don’t know much about Jomo Thompson. In fact, I had no idea who he was until this news came out. But I do know one thing, he should have known better. When you are a coach of any sport, at any level, you are more than someone who is there to train young people in that sport. You are supposed to also be training them for life. You are supposed to be an example of someone your athletes look up to, to learn right from wrong. You are preparing them for the real world. Coach Thompson failed at this in Lake Cumberland, miserably.
He allowed former cheerleading alumni to bring boats full of alcohol to these retreats. He then allowed his team to go out on these boats. What exactly did he think was going to happen? The blatant disregard for his team’s behavior is mind-boggling. He had to know what was happening, and if he didn’t, well he shouldn’t be left in charge of a group of college students. There were 54 cheerleaders on the 2019-2020 roster. That means there were 108 parents who entrusted the safety and well-being of their children, THEIR WORLD, to Coach Thompson and his staff. I highly doubt when families sent their kids to cheer for UK that the agenda for summer practices was laid out as: 9am-Gymnastics, 10am-Practice Routine, 11am-Booze Cruise.
But this story is far from over. A few days later, over 500 former UK cheerleading alumni issued a statement in which they criticized the University’s response, and said they still supported Coach Thompson and the staff. The man certainly was an outstanding cheerleading coach. It was always a bigger news story when UK didn’t when a national championship as opposed to when they did. All of those UK cheer teams had tremendous success, and I understand the affinity they feel for their now departed coaches.
But at the same time, what did they expect the University to do? This was investigated for three months. Every single cheerleader was interviewed. If there was any indication that the stories coming out of their report weren’t true, they would have found it. And hazing is one of those things that universities can take no chances with. IF there was hazing, that is the end of discussion as to whether or not Jomo deserved to continue to be the head coach.
Of particular interest to me were the lines in their statement that said, “To suggest that the advisor and coaches didn’t provide proper oversight is absurd. To so harshly penalize a program-especially one that has led such an exemplary existence for four-plus decades-is unfair!” Newsflash: There was nudity, alcohol, and hazing at an official team activity. That is NOT proper oversight. I spent many years as a teacher and chaperoned many overnight trips. I have a feeling that if the students I was responsible had done these same things, I would have been fired immediately too. Secondly, I have to imagine that this was not the first time Coach Thompson had turned a blind eye to things his team was doing.
From what some of the former cheerleaders have said publicly, sneaking out and doing things behind the coaches back was something they did regularly. If I drive 90 mph around New Circle Road every day to work for 17 years, and then get caught the 18th year, it doesn’t mean I was an “exemplary” driver, it just means I’d never got caught. Coach Thompson finally got caught.
This will stain UK Cheerleading for years to come. These coaches made some very unfortunate decisions that will follow them for the rest of their lives. As a Dad of two young girls, I put them in UK cheerleading outfits every Saturday in the Fall. Thankfully they are not yet old enough to ask questions about why the cheerleading team is on the news, and what ‘hazing’ means. But for many young kids throughout the bluegrass who dream of putting on that blue and white someday, their image of these athletes will be forever tarnished. Coach Thomson should have known better. One step forward, two steps back.
This is the point where my article should have ended. It’s late at night, and I’m ready to go to bed. But now I can’t because some idiots decided that on Sunday afternoon, they would hang an effigy of Gov. Andy Beshear from a tree at the Capitol in Frankfort during the “Patriot Day 2nd Amendment Rally” in Frankfort. Let me be clear, I am all for protesting. It has been an integral part of our country, and is an extremely important right that we have. But what happened in Frankfort was not protesting, it was a disgusting display of hatred. All I can think about as I see the images and watch the videos of these “protests” are how the Governor’s two children, who are 9 and 10 years old, must have felt to see this image of their dad and realizing there are people threatening to kill him. It hurts my heart to think about the conversation the Governor and has wife had to have with them this weekend when they inevitably asked what was happening outside their window.
It seems that some sleuths on the internet have done some research to find out who the man is that hung the effigy. After reading about who he is and his background, I am not surprised by these actions. I will not give this man the recognition of including his name in this article, as I’m sure the publicity is a huge part of what he was hoping to accomplish. Hanging on the effigy was a sign that read “Sic Semper Tyrannis” which is the phrase that John Wilkes Booth shouted after putting a bullet through the head of one of our country’s greatest presidents. Anyone who finds John Wilkes Booth as a role-model clearly has more problems than I can address in an article of 2000 words. But combining this while chanting for the Governor to come out of his home, is deeply shameful behavior that will undoubtedly leave Kentucky with a black eye to everyone in the country today. One step forward, two steps back.
Seeing these actions at the Capitol left me feeling like there is no hope for our state, for our country, and for humanity. It seems like there is literally nothing that can make a large part of our population put aside their hatred for those that they disagree with politically. The fact that there are actually people out there who are DEFENDING these actions is just incomprehensible to me. I guess I am comforted by the fact that both Democrat and Republican leaders have quickly chastised these actions (at least there is something politicians in Frankfort can agree on).
But something truly awesome did come out of all this. Another rally took place in Frankfort on Monday called “Love Conquers Hate.” Throughout the day, Kentuckians flooded the capital with signs of support for the Governor and his family. Kentucky’s First Lady, Britainy Beshear tweeted on Monday evening that “Love always wins over hate. The Kentuckians who stood in front of our home today with signs of encouragement and positivity have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated.”
Unfortunately, most outside of Kentucky won’t hear about this second rally. People gathering to show love and support doesn’t get clicks. But it is representative of why, in my opinion, Kentucky is the greatest place in the world to live. When the people of Kentucky see someone hurting, or in need, we come together to do whatever we can to support them. And while we often have individuals in our state who make poor decisions, you will never find a group of people who care more about each other than in Kentucky. We’re going to get through this together. One step forward. Go Big Blue.
Note from the author: This article is not meant to compare Coach Thompson to the man who lead the protest. I do not believe anything Coach Thomson did was done with the intention to hurt anyone. He made some mistakes, but it is clear he has the love and respect of every person he has ever coached. While both events were a bad look for Kentucky, the effigy and threats were unarguably wrong.