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‘Apology’ of UC-Irvine coach Russell Turner shows he really doesn’t get it

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Russell Turner clearly doesn’t understand the full impact of what he did. Here are 3 things he can do to fix that.

NCAA Basketball: Wooden Legacy - UC Irvine Anteaters vs Boise State Broncos
Russell Turner still has some splaining to do.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

When Russell Turner lead his UC-Irvine men’s basketball team into an NCAA tournament matchup against the Oregon Ducks, he decided he was going to use sexist and homophobic taunts to rattle opposing player Louis King.

In his post-game presser, Turner bragged that his taunts — calling King a “Queen” — had in fact worked for a while. He admitted to repeating the taunt, at least throughout the first half of the game.

Now that his embarrassing behavior has garnered the attention of UC-Irvine administrators, alumni and the media, Turner has issued an apology that demonstrates no understanding whatsoever of the underlying issues of his behavior.

His statement, in full, released by the UC-Irvine athletics department late Monday:

I would like to address my post-game comments. I recognize my actions were inappropriate and insensitive. I share UC Irvine’s belief that inclusivity and diversity are paramount values, and I apologize for not understanding that my actions during the game suggested otherwise.

I respect Oregon’s men’s basketball program, its student-athletes, and its coaches. Since the conclusion of the game, I have spoken to Louis, his parents, and to Oregon’s head coach Dana Altman. They have graciously accepted my explanation and apology.

I take seriously my responsibility as a campus and community leader, and I regret that my actions during the Oregon game did not meet the standard of leadership I should consistently set. For that, I apologize to the UC Irvine community, including the student-athletes and coaches of our men’s basketball program. When student-athletes on our team make mistakes, I expect them to take responsibility and to learn from their mistakes in order to improve themselves. I will do the same. I accept full responsibility for my ill-considered actions, and I will learn from this situation to be a more thoughtful coach and competitor.

While it’s important that Turner called the direct target of his taunts, he did absolutely nothing to acknowledge the harm words like his cause gay, bisexual, trans and queer boys and young men, some of whom may be on his team or coaching staff, on the Oregon team or staff, or fans who had to endure his nonsense.

“It’s great to see coach Russel apologize,” said openly gay basketball coach Anthony Nicodemo, who was one of the first voices to speak out about the coach’s taunting, “but does he understand why it was wrong? It sets a dangerous precedent to athletes that this type of bullying is okay. I’d love the opportunity to have that discussion with coach Russell.

One response to UC-Irvine’s tweet of Turner’s statement might bring the gravity of the implication of the coach’s language into focus:

No, this is not the “absurd” response of a “snowflake.” People in the LGBTQ community — and in particular in sports — have quietly felt the heartbreaking impact of this kind of language for generations.

The problem with the taunting by a 48-year-old coach of a 19-year-old player isn’t just the age difference or the surface-level unsportsmanlike conduct that deserved a technical foul.

Yes, this taunting is anti-gay

Calling an opposing male player a “queen” — whether the player’s last name is King or Prince or Smith — tells everyone in earshot that being feminine is wrong. Being associated with a woman is weak. And in the minds of closeted young LGBTQ men in the stands, on the bench and dribbling on the court, it tells them they do not belong anywhere in that arena.

Turner’s apology to King was a non-apology to the LGBTQ community and, frankly, a non-apology to the wider UC-Irvine community that long ago decided this kind of language has no place on campus or as part of the Anteater community.

3 steps forward for coach Russell Turner

While some people, like Martina Navratilova, want to see Turner fired, I prescribe a different path forward for coach Turner, UC-Irvine, and any men’s basketball program with any interest in hiring him:

1) Speak with LGBTQ people in and out of sports who can give the coach a true understanding of this kind of behavior. He might start with Anthony Nicodemo, former NBA player Jason Collins, and LGBTQ people on campus.

2) Invite a professional in the space to work with Turner, his staff and other coaching staffs at UC-Irvine to

3) Talk publicly about the impact of his words on the LGBTQ community, and reaffirm his commitment to regularly build a more inclusive environment on his team.

I personally don’t think firing people for mistakes should be the first step. People can make mistakes, and allowing them to make amends can yield incredible results. Failing that, of course, may take more drastic measures.

Hopefully coach Turner will spend the next couple of weeks bettering himself, his coaching staff, and his team, even as he’s in the conversation for more high-profile jobs elsewhere.