Jim Sharkey is out as the football coach at Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington. Whether Sharkey’s alleged lewd behavior necessitated his ouster or whether he is the innocent victim of false testimony and the viral power of the internet remains unclear. Ultimately, it does not matter: Truth was not the final arbiter here.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ferris High announced that it would not renew the coaching contract of Sharkey, who last week gained internet notoriety due to an allegation of indecent exposure. On Sunday, March 19, the Spokane Spokesman-Review reported that during a team retreat last August, Sharkey, who has been coaching at Ferris High since 2007, allegedly placed his penis in a hot dog bun and boasted, “You want another hot dog? I’ll show you a hot dog.”
The salacious story, first told by one of Sharkey’s players last August, went viral last week in the wake of the Spokesman-Review’s report. This was irresistible clickbait. Headlines such as this gem from Deadspin, “High School Football Coach Suspended After He Allegedly Put His Dick in a Hot Dog Bun and Showed Players,” put both the Spokane school district and the coach in an untenable predicament.
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A coach and school otherwise unknown outside the 509 area code were suddenly turning up on every website you’d expect (e.g., Uproxx, DailyMail.com) and a few you wouldn’t (Cosmopolitan.com). As school administrators weighed the tenure of a coach who had never been the subject of disciplinary action versus the accounts of three players—two of whom did not come forward until nearly four months after the alleged incident—search engines overheated with keyword groupings of “football coach penis hot dog bun.” Welcome to the information age.
Sharkey, 50, led the Saxons to the 4A Washington state championship in 2010. Last August, he took 43 players to a 1,000-acre ranch for a leadership camp, something he has done for several years. The ranch, located along the Coeur d’Alene River an hour east of Spokane, is owned by Bobby Brett. A well-known figure in Spokane as the owner of minor league baseball and hockey franchises, Brett is also the brother of baseball Hall of Famer George Brett and former major league pitcher Ken Brett.
At the retreat, the Saxon gridders camped out, swam in the river and cleared tree limbs and brush. The players stayed in tents on the banks of the Coeur d’Alene while Sharkey, his fiancée, Bobby Brett and the fourth Brett brother, John, stayed at the ranch house three-quarters of a mile away.
A week or so after the camp, one player came forward and informed a school official about the alleged incident. On August 31, Sharkey and Ferris High Principal Ken Schutz met with Mary Templeton, the Spokane school district’s director of certified personnel. Sharkey waived representation. When confronted with the accusation, he called it “a big lie” that was “absolutely false,” according to notes of the meeting obtained by The Spokesman-Review. When Templeton asked Sharkey why someone would make up such a story, he suggested that a few parents at Ferris “could be trying to get [me] fired.”
Two weeks later, Templeton issued Sharkey a four-page written warning, in which she stated that she was unable to substantiate the allegation that he had inappropriately exposed himself. Sharkey was allowed to coach the Saxons last season.
After the season, two players corroborated the hot dog bun story to school officials. At a January 31 “name clearing” meeting with Templeton, according to her notes that were obtained earlier this month by the Spokesman-Review, Sharkey was apprised that other witnesses had come forward and that other, lesser charges had been levied against him. Sharkey, who also teaches fitness and health leadership at the school, was accused of calling one student a “dipshit” and also of shopping online for U2 concert tickets during class. He laughed in exasperation and copped to those and other minor offenses, notes from the meeting indicate, but reiterated that he was innocent in regard to the hot dog bun incident. “You already investigated that, and I signed a paper,” Sharkey told Templeton. “How many students said I exposed myself?”
“Several,” Templeton said.
“Oh, come on, how many?” Sharkey asked.
“I have three students reporting you did,” Templeton said.
“This is a witch hunt,” he said.
The following day, Templeton placed Sharkey on paid administrative leave. On March 3, the indecent exposure charge was turned over to Shoshone County law enforcement, which is investigating. On Tuesday, the school opted not to renew Sharkey’s football contract, which accounted for $30,655 of his annual salary of $107,209 (he remains on staff as a teacher). Sharkey and his attorney, Bevan Maxey, have yet to return calls from Newsweek seeking comment.
For any parent or faculty member who has been associated with Ferris High for a decade, the Sharkey affair invites a bizarre sense of déjà vu. On November 5, 2008, a female student at Ferris High accused Ferris basketball coach Don van Lierop of rape.
A police investigation was launched, but after only a fortnight, Van Lierop’s accuser confessed she had fabricated a story to exact revenge on the team’s star player. Van Lierop, who had been immediately suspended at the time of the accusation, returned to his coaching and teaching duties. The student, whose name was withheld, was never charged with a crime. "The past two weeks of my life, and the life of my family, can only be described as a person's worst nightmare," Van Lierop said at the time in a press release sent out by his attorney, Kevin Curtis. "Any husband, father, coach, or teacher can only imagine what a person and his family go through when falsely accused of this kind of conduct."
Van Lierop, who retired from coaching the Ferris basketball team just three weeks ago, declined to be interviewed for this story and for a trenchant reason: His lawyer, Curtis, says that he has no desire to see his name pop up in more stories linking him to a sexual assault he never committed.
Whether or not Sharkey or his three accusers are telling the truth matters little outside the campus of Ferris High or the city limits of Spokane. Dozens of stories, including this one, now exist on the internet linking Sharkey to a penis in a hot dog bun. Moreover, search engine optimization (SEO) headlines demand a character limit, and the first casualty of such headlines is often the word allegedly.
Do a Google search of “Jim Sharkey penis hot dog bun,” and you will see that many story links, even from reputable publications such as Sports Illustrated, do not include allegedly in the title. SI.com’s SEO headline reads, “High School Coach Puts Penis in Hot Dog Bun, Is Suspended.” Only once you click on the story, you do see "Allegedly" in the headline, but how many readers even notice the distinction?
“I’ve known Jim a long time,” Bobby Brett recently told The Spokesman-Review. “I know how he interacts with kids. When I heard what was going on, I was shocked and surprised. There were several adults around [during the cookout]. I can’t speak for everybody, but I did not see anything.”
“I do a lot for this school," Sharkey told Templeton in their January 31 meeting, according to the notes. "It is going to be difficult to replace me at this time.
“This is my life—this is all I do.”
Jim Sharkey may be a 50-year-old who watched Porky’s too often in high school and committed a lewd and criminal act. Or he may be the victim of false accusations that spread with the alacrity of a LaVar Ball quote across social media. The police are still investigating, but as far as the Spokane school district and your preferred search engines are concerned, the case is closed.
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