LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The University of Louisville has fired longtime tennis coach Rex Ecarma, and everyone wants to know why. After reading through the university’s 21-page investigation summary of Ecarma, and his 702-page personnel file, the best explanation I can give is that in 2019, Ecarma had not adapted to the times.
There’s no big "smoking gun." That’s probably why U of L will pay him through 2023, the remainder of his contract. But there’s also ample reason for concern, and for athletic director Vince Tyra’s ultimate decision to go in another direction.
If you’re a former college athlete reading the list of grievances that I can only assume came from Ecarma’s most recent team at U of L in its report compiled by the university integrity and compliance office and its employee relations department, you probably find yourself shaking your head. It’s a readily identifiable list of mind games and eye-rolling junk that athletes for decades have put up with and grumbled about but eventually moved past, a lot of it annoying, some of it insulting or demeaning and just about all of it needless.
In fact, two sources close to the program told WDRB that former players met with the current team to try to convince players to tighten up and push through their frustrations.
Ecarma’s problem was that he apparently gave them plenty of reason to be frustrated.
You can’t make jokes about ethnicity or nationality in 2019, even if you’re a minority coach yourself. Tolerance for that is at zero, and it should be. (Ecarma either denies making many of the alleged statements, or told interviewers that he couldn’t recall making them.) You can’t blow off a player who requires gluten-free meals or a kosher diet in 2019, even if coaches a decade ago would’ve laughed at the notion. You can’t make players carry your personal luggage, as Ecarma is alleged to have done. It’s demeaning. And silly. You do that stuff, you’re asking for players to rise up against you.
The most serious red flag against Ecarma in the report, and the one which provided ample grounds for the university’s decision to part ways with him, is a section which determined, “Coach Ecarma disregarded the health and well-being of the student athletes. Coach Ecarma pressured them to play through injuries, pressured and questioned the decisions of the sports medicine trainers about the student athletes’ injuries.”
Players reported that Ecarma bullied new assistant athletic trainer Aurelio Puga into clearing them for competition when they shouldn’t have been playing. One player reported that Ecarma told him to get a cortisone shot for a sore foot and to keep playing. Another said he was told to take painkillers and keep playing through an injury. The investigation reported one text message exchange between Puga and the athletic department’s head trainer.
“We also reviewed a text that the new athletic trainer sent to the head athletic trainer about a student athlete’s injury,” the report says. “The text stated, ‘He was able to finish the match but in my opinion he should’ve been pulled.’ We asked the season athletic trainer about the student athlete’s injury, his text to the head athletic trainer, and his communication with Coach Ecarma and the athlete. The new trainer told us that he spoke with the coach on the sideline during the match and told him, ‘I don’t know if this player can finish. He pressured me to allow him [the athlete] to finish the match.’ The seasonal trainer said that he told the coach the student athlete could continue the match, but also talked with the athlete separately, standing away from the coach, to let him know that he does not have to finish the match. The seasonal trainer said, ‘It was hard to watch him play.’”
This matter of who has the final say in whether players compete, the medical staff or the coaches, is nothing new in college sports. But in 2019, the medical voices have to have the final say, and if they forfeit that authority to coaches, both the trainers and the coaches need to be set straight.
This whole discussion is strange to me, because, in reading Ecarma’s lengthy personnel file, he can be seen 20 years ago arguing for why his program needed to have athletic trainers, and complaining to administrators about long periods when his team had little or no access to trainers at all. He fought for the trainers he wound up being allegedly at odds with. Ecarma denied in a university interview that he attempted to influence trainers or had a hand in whether athletes competed while injured.
Indicative of many of the issues brought up in the report is this allegation: “We asked Coach Ecarma if he referred to [a player] as sh*t in public at an away match against Georgia Tech. He replied, ‘I don’t recall saying that. That was a bitter loss for us since that basically ended our hope for the NCAA tournament.’ The interviewers were provided a video of the ending of the Georgia Tech match that showed an individual alleged to be Coach Ecarma throwing his hat on the ground and kicking it.”
The university, if it believes this kind of behavior to be unacceptable, knows full well it happens from coaches of most sports (not all) at most schools. Some with the profanity, some without. A review of nationally televised games with a lip-reader of average ability might well enlighten them. As well, when it writes performance incentives into the contracts of its coaches that reward them for the achievements of athletes, it invites this kind of thing.
Still, none of that excuses it, and the university is right to confront this kind of behavior.
One particular item I had hoped to see addressed somewhere in the investigation’s findings was an allegation that Ecarma, “would joke around. He said one time ‘whites are better than black people.’” This allegation is reported, and is incendiary. But it is never directly addressed again, as if it is there to add to the weight of allegations, but never completely resolved. I have to wonder whether there was any corroboration for it, since none was presented.
For the record, when asked about numerous other inappropriate comments along the lines of ethnicity, Ecarma addressed not the comments, but his tenure, saying, “I do want to say on record I am a minority. I am an immigrant. I have recruited and graduated players from over 25 countries and 25 cultures and I have tremendous respect, not only respect, but appreciation for all nationalities and cultures.”
That’s all well and good, and even admirable. But as I read through the alleged comments, I kept thinking, “You can’t say that.” Passing a Mexican restaurant and saying about someone of Hispanic background, “His family might be here?” Frankly, that’s just stupid. I’m amazed at the number of people, in 2019, who haven’t gotten that memo.
Players complained that they weren’t given gear on time or as much gear as they were promised during recruiting. I had a couple of former tennis players read this and say to me, and I’m paraphrasing, “Gear? Really? They should’ve seen what we were given back in the day. There was hardly any gear.”
As well, Ecarma's personnel file is full of letters from the community thanking him for various gestures or contributions of time. There’s a letter from the university president asking him to stand with him on the podium for a convocation in 2010. There are letters of congratulations from then-athletic director Tom Jurich for his success on the court and in the community.
In 29 years at U of L, really only two negative pieces were placed into his personnel file before he was suspended with pay in April of this year. One was from someone who wasn’t allowed to use the tennis center when he had a court reserved. The other was for calling a bunch of Notre Dame students yelling at him and his players “retards” during a road match in 2012. Someone from Notre Dame wrote to U of L to complain.
Ecarma apologized for his use of the word, and Notre Dame’s coach apologized for the atmosphere at the match and called it, “inappropriate.” Then-associate athletic director Julie Hermann advised no further action against Ecarma. There was a single secondary NCAA violation in 2002.
That’s pretty much it, in 29 years, until 2019, when a team apparently got tired of some of the things Ecarma was doing, understandably, and the school decided to make a change, though it will pay Ecarma the remainder of his contract, which is, most would agree, more than fair. But for a longtime coach who is in Kentucky’s Tennis Hall of Fame, it comes with a cost in reputation.
In response to his firing, Ecarma said, in a statement, “I’m deeply disappointed by the decision. I’ve been a Louisville Cardinal my entire adult life, as a ball boy, player, and for nearly 30 years as the Head Coach. My teams have been successful and my record, including my personnel file, has been spotless. I was never presented with any allegations, by anyone, against me, despite repeated requests. Mid-inquiry, the University publicly stated there were no NCAA, criminal or Title IX violations but told me little else. At no time did any player, assistant coach, student, fan or anyone make a complaint to me. I cooperated fully in the inquiry. I have always maintained the highest and most rigorous standards for myself. I care deeply for the players I’ve had the honor of coaching and mentoring.”
When the university, in response to open records requests, made the results of its investigation public on Monday, Ecarma’s attorney, Marc Murphy, said in a statement: “Coach Ecarma was terminated without cause on Friday. Today the university released a report, which Coach Ecarma and I had not seen, and to which we were not given an opportunity to respond. Coach Ecarma continues to deny the specific allegations, but will not respond in more detail because, per the university, his termination isn’t effective until August 26.”
In the end, Ecarma’s dismissal should stand as a lesson to coaches. A lot of the stuff you read about in this report, you just can’t do. The things Ecarma is accused of saying and doing in this report, you shouldn’t say or do. There’s no place for it, even if there used to be. And that’s a good thing.
For many of us who know Ecarma, it’s difficult to see such statements as coming from a mean-spirited place. But they have an effect on athletes today, and belie a certain tone-deafness that no coach or manager should have in 2019.
That a coach would be let go for, among other things, "bullying" players is a concept that is fairly modern. Some of the great coaches in history have been bullies. They just knew how to stay on the right side of the line, or had other qualities -- like lots of championships -- that made their bullying acceptable to players.
U of L, in the not-too-distant past, has circled its wagons to protect coaches accused of far more serious offenses than these. But Ecarma’s dismissal, too, signals that those days are no more.
The investigators who compiled the report on Ecarma gave the university some latitude in how to deal with him in its findings, recommending “appropriate disciplinary action up to and including termination.” In the end, Tyra’s decision to let Ecarma go makes a clear statement about what the university expects when it comes to how its athletes are treated moving forward.
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