Why did LSU allow Les Miles to carry on? 'We're protecting our brand'

Dan Wetzel
·6-min read

Fifty-two pages into a school-commissioned, outside law firm report about the pathetic antics of Les Miles, and how exactly LSU kept him as its head football coach in spite of them, comes a quote that should send chills through college athletics everywhere.

It’s from an unnamed “long-time football staff member” discussing how Miles was allowed to sexually harass female student workers, ignore the commands of his bosses, abuse his power as a prominent and winning coach and sexualize the office by making sure that the coeds who work there “have a certain look” … i.e. blonde and attractive.

All of it was shocking to the staff in real time. All of it was tolerated anyway.

“It just baffles me, though, that for so long, this went on and that kinda became the normal, right?” the staffer said, clearly trying to come to grips with their role in it.

“And you just don’t talk about it and you don’t say anything, you just kinda go, ‘Cuz we’re protecting LSU, we’re protecting our brand, we’re protecting our head coach, we’re protecting this, we love LSU so we’re gonna be loyal to LSU so we’re gonna do what we can to help it and try to fix it,’ ” the staffer said. "... I always felt like we always had to be protective, you know? You want to protect LSU.”

That the attitude inside LSU was to dismiss red flags that ranged from concerning to egregious in an effort to “protect” the head coach and the football program is terrifying.

That it still occurred after so many other massive, high-profile sexual assault scandals in athletics followed this precise blueprint should serve as a fire alarm for all of college sports. Essentially, nothing has changed.

If everyone is lucky, Miles’ behavior never went beyond propositioning students and hiring based on looks. That was bad enough. Incredibly it didn’t get him fired by LSU in 2013 (despite his athletic director recommending it). It did cause him to be forced out Tuesday at Kansas, where he was head coach since the 2019 season.

The only thing saving this from being a far more horrific tragedy is that Miles apparently didn’t take it further. What LSU was willing to allow him to do though — operate beyond the scope of acceptable behavior — created an environment that would have made it easy to take further, either by him or any other employee sensing a lax setting.

“Any time protecting the brand, program or coach is the main focus, instead of transparency and accountability, there is a risk that a culture of abuse will flourish and other bad behavior will be ignored,” Angie Povilaitis told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday.

Povilaitis is the former assistant attorney general of Michigan who led the investigation and 2018 prosecution of gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who exploited just such a situation to sexually assault hundreds of girls.

“We have seen it occur in many other high-profile cases, including USA Gymnastics with Larry Nassar and Penn State with Jerry Sandusky,” Povilaitis said.

Much of the LSU report focused on the procedures in place for the reporting and investigation of these kinds of incidents (the school is strong in some ways but needs improvement in others).

None of that matters, though, if there is a culture of silence, or at least tolerance of horrid behavior. The extreme abuser is rarely caught red-handed. They simply thrive amidst doubts and excuses.

BATON ROUGE, LA - NOVEMBER 28:  Head coach Les Miles of the LSU Tigers celebrates after defeating the Texas A&M Aggies 19-7 at Tiger Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Les Miles was celebrated at LSU long after it had come to the university's attention that he'd engaged in inappropriate behavior. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

It’s how a concern about, say, Nassar performing “medical treatments” on gymnasts alone in hotel rooms goes from an argument for convenience to the realization he seized the opportunity to systematically rape them.

And how a 60-year-old coach repeatedly propositioning college students, even after being told to stop, becomes … well, who knows.

“To think that that was almost normal for us and because we had been involved in that so long, until you step back and look at it and go, ‘My God, what did we—what were we doing, you know?’ ” the football staffer said. “... But it was always, like, nobody ever really wanted to ... rock the boat.”

One person who did was Sharon Lewis, LSU’s Associate AD/Football Recruiting and Alumni Relations. Lewis relayed numerous complaints concerning Miles. The investigations “went nowhere” according to Lewis, who stated that Miles and other staffers became “hostile” to her and eventually suffered a “mental breakdown” due to the lack of support. Others noticed.

“Poor Sharon,” the staffer said. “I mean, like I said, she had most of the brunt of it because she was over the girls ... .We were so beat down and caught up in that mess, we didn’t realize how bad we were, you know? That’s what upsets me.”

It should upset everyone. This was a perfect culture for things to turn into a nightmare. We’ve seen it. Repeatedly.

And this isn’t just LSU. It would be naive to conclude this is the only place where such thinking still exists. The power dynamic, the win-at-all-costs mentality, the lack of oversight … it can happen anywhere. It probably is.

“I felt like maybe if the University had done more when the first child had happened, maybe that would have helped clean up a lot of other stuff that maybe wouldn’t have happened further down the line with not just him, with even players and anything like that,” the football staffer said. “Because sometimes if people see somebody getting in trouble ... they’re not as apt to go, ‘Well, I can keep doing that because nobody gets in trouble around here, even the head coach didn’t get in trouble for doing it.’ ”

Les Miles finally got in trouble, fired eight years and two schools too late. Even with the athletic director calling for his dismissal in 2013, he wasn’t dumped by LSU until he stopped winning enough games in 2016. If he’d still been beating Alabama, he’d probably still be there.

The story isn’t just about Les Miles and LSU though. This is a warning flare for everyone, everywhere.

No matter how many of these abusive coach and doctor horror stories emerge, some of the people most capable of stopping it early are, for whatever reason, still focused on protecting brands, not victims.

Changing that should be everyone’s primary focus.

This time it appears it was just Les Miles being a loser and a creep.

This time.

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