South Dakota State University sent a strong message with its handling of football coach John Stiegelmeier’s DUI.
The message is this: DUIs are no big deal.
Stiegelmeier, in his 22nd year as Jackrabbits coach, was arrested in January when a Brookings police officer found him trying to get his car out of a ditch. Stiegelmeier had trouble keeping his feet, was unsteady and the officer smelled alcohol on the coach’s breath, according to the police report. Stiegelmeier told the officer he’d had too much to drink at home on an empty stomach before he went to get food.
The police report didn’t include Stiegelmeier’s blood-alcohol content and when the coach pleaded no contest to the charge in March, the judge granted a suspended imposition of sentence, sealing all records in the case. He was fined $516, court costs of $84 plus a DUI fee of $50.
The Sioux Falls Argus-Leader reported this week SDSU athletic director Justin Sell penalized Stiegelmeier with an undisclosed fine and community service work. No other details were reported.
Stiegelmeier will not be suspended. He was not placed on administrative leave. He will not miss any games. He will not miss a practice. He will not miss out on a paycheck.
He will not, really, be punished.
It’s a strange way to treat a drinking and driving conviction for one of the most visible figures in South Dakota, who is a state employee and, critically, a person in charge of “a family” (this is how Stiegelmeier refers to his team) of young, impressionable men.
Universities, coaches, media, government agencies, teachers — hell, even liquor companies — preach constantly about the dangers of drunk driving. It has become, thankfully, an ingrained part of American culture. Drinking and driving is bad. It’s unacceptable. Those who do it are often made out to be pariahs because it can have deadly consequences. It’s likely that at some point in Stiegelmeier’s long coaching career, on a Saturday evening after a big victory (perhaps last November after the Jackrabbits beat North Dakota State in Brookings) the coach told his players something along the lines of, “Now go out and celebrate this victory. You deserve it. But don’t do anything stupid and remember — you are representing this university and this football program.” It wouldn’t be a reference to eating too much pizza.
But when SDSU, Sell and Stiegelmeier had a chance to put all that preaching into practice, they punted. They told kids, especially members of their “family,” to believe their words, not their actions.
SDSU also set an odd precedent: What if a Jackrabbit player, an assistant football coach or another sport’s coach or athlete gets a DUI? Is a suspension off the table? Or will the school hand out a suspension under the guise of “each situation is different?”
SDSU has handled Stiegelmeier’s DUI oddly and defensively from the start. It’s pooh-poohed it from the start. It happened in January, but the school didn’t make it public. Instead, the Brookings Register newspaper broke the story in late February and SDSU’s communication lines seemed to be crossed. Stiegelmeier seemed to indicate he would decide his own punishment, but Sell later clarified that and said Sell would mete out the punishment and the coach would add something “above and beyond” that.
Shortly after the DUI became public, Sell and Stiegelmeier balked when asked if the coach’s punishment would be made public. Sell said that would be decided later and Stiegelmeier said it didn’t need to be made public “because we don’t publicize when we punish our players.” That is not true. SDSU issued a press release, for example, when two players were suspended for six games prior to the 2017 season for what the school said was “rule infractions.”
Sell wasn’t forthcoming even in telling the Argus-Leader about Stiegelmeier’s fine and community service penalty. He didn’t disclose the fine nor what constitutes community service. And, remember, Stiegelmeier’s BAC has never been released and is sealed forever from public view.
Recent headlines show other colleges handling DUIs with more urgency. A Louisville assistant coach was immediately placed on administrative leave after getting busted for a DUI earlier this week. Ohio State — yes, dirty Ohio State — suspended a freshman safety for the team’s opener after he was charged with DUI last month. It would seem suspensions for coaches and athletes who get DUIs is the norm.
SDSU’s message since the news broke has been consistent: Stig’s a great guy and he’s really repentant, this isn’t a big deal, no need for anybody to worry about this, it’s a one-time thing.
That’s exactly the opposite the public, and particularly young people, are told about drinking and driving. We’re drilled that all it takes is one time.
The Jackrabbits and their coach are sending a horrible message.