Texas Monthly this week threw a Proustian 12,800 words at the sad, strange story of Bev Kearney, and if you manage to read the entire thing, because perhaps you've had a flight canceled or you're pulling a double shift in the parking garage tollbooth, you'll likely follow a winding trajectory in trying to decide what you make of the protagonist. Author Mimi Swartz conducts this extended exercise in ambiguity, which I'll summarize here, crudely.
Kearney pros: Highly successful track and field coach, with six national titles and five Coach of the Year awards in indoor and outdoors. Pioneer at the University of Texas, as the first black woman head coach the university hired, in 1992. Driven, direct, ambitious. Overcame poverty, trauma and constant uprooting as a kid. Overcame nearly fatal car accident to walk again. Became a role model and mentor, especially to black athletes, whether they were in track or other Longhorns sports. Coach to champions and Olympians. Is making life hard for the University of Texas, with a discrimination suit over her forced 2012 resignation for a consensual sexual relationship 10 years earlier with an athlete then in her charge.
Kearney cons: Carried on a sexual relationship with her athlete, Raasin McIntosh, who later represented Liberia* at the 2012 Summer Olympics, and whom Kearney recruited as a 17-year-old. Punished McIntosh emotionally when the then-student tried to leave the relationship. Flashed her wealth and status to entice girls from poor backgrounds to attend Texas, then manipulated them with gifts, trips and access "to incentivize her runners, most of whom were eager for the kinds of status symbols wealthier kids had had since birth," Swartz writes. Created tiered status systems that rewarded more-favored athletes. Petty tyrant whose athletes too often burned out, broke down, made themselves sick. Carried on petty squabbles with rivals, even within her own athletics department. Through winning, presenting herself well in media coverage, speaking in public, etc., brought glory to Texas, before the whole implosion.
Deciphering Kearney is a tangle; I'm not sure Swartz really wanted to try, even after laying out yards of story. Was Kearney discriminated against for being a powerful black woman? Maybe. Did the fact that her relationship was same-sex contribute to her firing? Could be. But should she have gotten shitcanned for carrying on a relationship with an athlete she was coaching? Yes, and preferably at light speed. One rather incredible quote Swartz got from Kearney comes when the former coach confesses that of all the reasons she could've been fired, this is what felled her.
“I think they just wanted me out so bad,” she told me. “It tells you how little they thought about African Americans and how little they thought about women and how little they know about the era we live in.” Pausing in her soliloquy, Kearney eyed me levelly. “I’m not shocked that I got fired,” she said. “I’m shocked that I got fired for this.”
Say what you will about the shameful legacy of segregation at the University of Texas, not to mention the other blue billion reasons there are to dislike Texas. The fact that a coach can become so self-assured in that environment that she thought she'd survive an affair with one of her own student-athletes suggests to me that she Kearney saw herself as above basic laws of physics. (Swartz uses the phrase, "a walking NCAA violation.") It's her surprise that's most surprising.
I am sure Bev Kearney put up with her fair share of bullshit at Texas. But if she had any illusions of surviving an ethical and administrative scandal of that magnitude, completely of her making, then she must have achieved a sense of bulletproof grandeur there. How she accomplished that feat is at least as impressive as those six national titles. She was a self-made woman who reached a point of perceived invincibility inside an old-guard power structure. No wonder she accomplished so much. She must've thought she could do anything.
Photo credit: AP
Failure Is Not an Option [Texas Monthly]