College athletes, even the most mature students, can find themselves in situations where their experiences simply fail to prepare them to properly protect themselves and recognize the risks they run by associating with certain people, being in certain places, and talking to certain people. Former Vanderbilt University football player Jaborian “Tip” McKenzie may well have experienced all three.
Tip McKenzie made the pages of ArrestNation.com along with three other Vanderbilt football players when they were arrested and charged with numerous counts of Aggravated Rape and Sexual Battery following a June 23rd assault on a female student in a university dormitory. One additional Vanderbilt player, Chris Boyd pled guilty to a reduced charge of trying to cover up the rape of the student. Boyd escaped a felony conviction and jail time as long as he testifies against his former teammates. Reporters for The Tennessean, Brian Haas and Tony Gonzalez have covered the details of the investigation at tennessean.com
In this case, everyone’s first thoughts and concern are properly focused on the victim who was dumped on the floor of a Vanderbilt dorm after being raped and may never fully recover from what was done to her. But once again, fans and even the casual spectator are wondering why, with so much at stake, young men with so many advantages continue to find themselves connected with such brutal crimes. Violence against women on college campuses appears to continue with few signs of stopping. Student athletes are not the most likely offenders though the publicity surrounding such crimes makes it likely the public may believe such to be the case. Date rape, student on student assaults, and campus visitors all combine to contribute the lion’s share of such attacks. Indeed, in spite of the outrageous nature of the instant case, it is not the brutality of the crime that has caused it to gain national prominence. That credit must go to what the accused, a coach, and a university did following McKenzie’s removal from Vanderbilt.
After posting a $50,000 bond to get out of jail this summer, McKenzie transferred to Alcorn State in time to play against Mississippi State in September.. Since his appearance in that game, Alcorn State has removed him from the team in response to an outcry from students who learned of the charges against McKenzie. When exposed, the school administration was forced to backtrack and in a statement, Alcorn State President, M. Christopher Brown II said: “In an effort to provide educational opportunities to a southwest Mississippi student, Alcorn State University made an error in judgment.” In judging this admission, however, the statement of Alcorn State Head Coach Jay Hopson must be considered. Hopson was quoted in the USA Today with a different view saying he believes the freshman is “100% innocent of the charges,” and that he cleared McKenzie’s arrival with the school’s athletic director and president. USA Today story link.
Hopson didn’t stop there. He went on to say, “[i]f I ever find anything or if I can get any proof that he is guilty, he will be suspended from our football team.” “From everything I’ve gotten, from every resource, this kid is 100 percent innocent.” According to the article, Hopson said McKenzie enrolled at the school a couple of weeks ago. He went on to say: “We’ll just let the process take care of itself.” “And let the whole world figure out that this kid, from everything that I know, that this kid did absolutely nothing. So like I said, if somebody can tell me or show me where he did something, then I may sing a different song. But right now, from everything I know, everything that’s been shown to me through numerous phone calls and talking to many people involved in this case, I can’t find anything that says this kid is guilty.”
By signing and suiting up a player in the midst of a serious criminal investigation, Coach Hopson and Alcorn State seem to have not only played a role in compromising the reputation of their school and team, but the legal rights of a inexperienced student-athlete. Moreover, Coach Hopson may now become the most valuable witness against Tip McKenzie, depending on what McKenzie may have told Hopson before and during the transfer.
Based on news reports, even while facing criminal charges, McKenzie chose to talk about the facts of his case with Coach Hopson, either thinking it would be a privileged conversation, or because of his hope that he could continue to play football by talking his way onto the team. Unfortunately, neither of those reasons will protect McKensie. By talking to the coach he has now turned Coach Hopson into a witness who may very well end up testifying against him and make it likely that Hopson will spend a good deal of time away from the field of play, talking to Nashville detectives or the Davidson County District Attorney. Moreover, while the coach was clearly trying to help McKenzie, he may have severely damaged any defense to the charges by engaging McKenzie in non-privileged communications about his case.
The Attorney-Client Privilege is a fundamental protection for anyone accused of a crime, including a student athlete. The privilege encourages clients to disclose to their attorneys everything that they know about the case, secure in the knowledge that any disclosures will be protected from discovery at trial. Depending on what McKenzie told his coach, he may very well have effectively waived his right against self-incrimination. McKenzie may still not be compelled to testify against himself, but Coach Hopson, can be forced to testify to everything that McKenzie told him, making even small discrepancies between the accounts provided by McKenzie or other witnesses to the police and the Coach, critically important. While there are similar privileges recognized by the law such as between a doctor and patient, husband and wife or priest and penitent, there is no such privilege between a coach and an athlete. Even assuming the Coach’s motives were pure, legally, the Coach has placed himself in a place where he can only hurt McKenzie. Intentional or not, this is a shame because the Coach should have known better than to talk to McKenzie about his case or undertake his own investigation.
Maybe those involved in the business of winning in sports should give a thought about winning integrity. Coach Hopson should have been sensitive to the appearance of impropriety in bringing a student-athlete onto his team that faced such serious allegations. Though it might be otherwise, it certainly looks like the Coach simply saw an opportunity to get an athlete that he would not be able to get any other way and he took it. McKenzie’s efforts to simply move on, make a mockery of the charges and communicates to the public a lack of care. And President Brown’s statement, avoids the central issue, failing to acknowledge his involvement in the decision to bring McKenzie to Alcorn State. We hope that the young woman will heal and be able to overcome her ordeal. But we also hope that Alcorn State has learned that acting consistently with the ethics and standards they claim to honor would have prevented the University from disrespecting the victim, while avoiding the unnecessary interference with the criminal process that must yet be concluded.