Mac grad sues college over dismissal from football team

By Jamie Macpherson

In the Macalester handbook, it states, “The College values the right to free speech and the open exchange of ideas.” This fall, a lawsuit filed in late June will challenge Macalester’s dedication to upholding this mission. Jacob Bond ’09, who majored in Math, is suing Macalester for what he calls a failure to uphold his right to free speech, as well as failing to accommodate his Asperger’s syndrome, an autism-like disorder. He is seeking more than $50,000 for each claim.

Jim Hoppe and President Rosenberg were unable to comment, citing the pending litigation. Dean of Students Laurie Hamre, however, issued an official statement:

“Macalester is disappointed that [Bond] has decided to file a lawsuit. His complaints have been investigated twice. . Both investigations found that no evidence that [Bond] was dismissed from the football team or that his free speech had been violated.”

According to Bond, three years ago, before the start of school, Macalester’s football team was practicing when suddenly the opening notes of the Star Spangled Banner sounded across the field. The coaches promptly halted practice, instructing their players to remove their helmets out of respect for the flag. Offensive lineman Bond refused, standing with his back to the flag, his helmet firmly still on his head.

This is not unheard of in collegiate athletics, but Bond’s story has a twist to it: his gesture was not during a game. The National Anthem was being played for a high school soccer game in the field adjacent to where Bond and his teammates were practicing.

“I didn’t-and still don’t-believe it was worth taking away practice time to listen to the national anthem.” Bond explained.

He went on to explain that this was also not a one-time protest; he had kept his helmet on during every playing of the national anthem in what he called a protest of the Iraq war.

This time however, the complaint stated Assistant Coach Patrick Babcock, (who now teaches in Illinois and could not be reached to comment), came over and shouted at Bond to remove his helmet. When Bond stood his ground, Babcock allegedly screamed at him, “Why do you always have to be different?”

There are varying stories as to what happened the morning after the practice, but by all accounts, by the next afternoon, Bond was no longer part of the team.

“The morning after the incident with Coach Babcock, I was getting breakfast in the campus center, and Coach Caruso spotted me,” Bond said. Bond said that Caruso asked him to come over to his office when he had a chance. When Bond arrived, Caruso allegedly asked all the other coaches to leave the room before sitting down to talk to Bond.

“He asked me what I thought my level of care for the team was,” Bond said. “After what I had experienced the night before, I wasn’t really sure how much I wanted to be on the team and I told this to Coach Caruso. He then told me it would be best if I left the team and that the stuff from my locker would be delivered to me by one of the assistant coaches because he didn’t want me in the locker room.”

Caruso, now the head football coach at the University of St. Thomas, in several media sources (as well as the actual suit) maintains he never told Bond that he had to leave the team. Caruso told the Star Tribune that he suggested that Bond think about leaving the team, and Bond left on his own accord. In the lawsuit Bond claims that Caruso changed his story after a formal complaint was filed and “claimed that somehow because of the plaintiff’s disability he wasn’t able to remember that he removed himself from the team.” (Caruso declined e-mail and phone call requests from The Mac Weekly to be interviewed for this article.)

“That was really insulting,” said Judy Schermer, Bond’s attorney. “His whole life, his mom was teaching him ‘you can lead a normal life,’ and here’s [Macalester] saying ‘we didn’t do anything wrong, you took yourself off the team, and because of your disability you don’t even remember it.” Schemer explained that memory loss is not a component of Asperger’s, a disease whose primary characteristics occasionally include the exhibition of unsocial behavior.

“It shows prejudice for Caruso to say so,” she said.

Bond’s legal complaint can be divided into two sections.

Free speech

First, Bond’s lawyer states that his dismissal was a blatant violation of his first amendment rights. Bond said his decision not to remove his helmet was a personal statement protesting the war in Iraq. At no time was he trying to galvanize others into participating in his protest.

“He was punished for free speech,” Schermer said. She argued that by choosing to attend a college or university, a contract is formed between the administration and its students-as long as students don’t put themselves or others at risk, the academic institution will protect the students’ civil liberties.

“[Bond’s] gesture didn’t incur any riots, didn’t endanger anyone’s safety,” she said. “The school should keep its promise.”

The coaching staff viewed the gesture differently. According to the complaint, when Bond’s mother, Trudy, asked Caruso why her son had been removed from the team, he explained the incident by saying that Bond’s refusal to remove his helmet “is something we will not tolerate.”

Caruso also told the Star Tribune that there had been tensions with Bond previously, due to tardiness. Bond admitted he struggled to get up in time for practices, though he said with the exception to Babcock, he believed he had a decent relationship with his teammates and the football coaching staff.

Several Macalester alumni have expressed their disappointment over the college’s actions. Sports writer and author Dave Zirin ’96, who Macalester invited onto campus last year to promote his book “A Peoples History of Sports,” wrote on his blog, “The Edge of Sports” that this incident has made him reconsider his view of Macalester.

“From an institution for intelligent outcasts to a quiet preserve of privilege,” he said, “my dear alma matter has journeyed from Mac to McSchool. It’s certainly not the only college to sand off its edges in a post 9-11 world, but I would have expected more from the Macalester that I knew. That remarkable place no longer seems to exist.”

For his essay, Zirin interviewed Macalester history professor Peter Racleff.

“This incident on the football practice field and its handling by the college administration was one more milepost in Macalester College’s institutional trek in this twenty-first century from mildly left-of-center to solidly right-of-center,” Zirin quoted Rachleff as saying.

Discrimination

The other half of Bond’s lawsuit has to do with the college’s handling of his Asberger’s. In the complaint, Bond described Macalester’s actions as “willful and intentional discrimination,” as well as being in direct violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

“All [Macalester] had to do is what every other coach had done on every other team he played on,” Schermer told the Star Tribune. She pointed out that Bond had played football for six consecutive years, including his first year at Macalester, all of which passed without incident. It is also worth noting that after his dismissal from the team, Bond went on to graduate on time from Macalester in Mathematics without further disciplinary incident.

“You would hope that the student, whether it’s in the classroom or the playing field, should get the accommodations he needs,” Schermer said. “What’s unfortunate is that they stopped [in the classroom.]”

A month after the claim had been filed, Macalester filed a countermotion for the case to be dismissed, though they have not yet released a statement specifying their reasons for the motion. A hearing will take place Oct. 20 in the Minneapolis Federal Court building before Judge Ann D. Montgomery. Although the complaint was filed in state court, t
he college petitioned to move to U.S. District court. Schermer said this was standard procedure for defendant lawyers hoping to get cases dismissed by conservative judges. Macalester’s law firm, Faegre & Benson, was contacted but declined to comment.

For Bond’s part, he said he’s just looking for recognition and an apology for the misconduct that he says occurred in 2006.

“Really, I just want the Macalester community to be aware of the way the athletic department operates,” Bond said. “I want the public to realize the administration has allowed Macalester to stray from its course.