Outsports: The re-education of coach Russell Turner

Since the UC-Irvine basketball coach called a player ‘queen’ in the NCAA tournament, Russell Turner has educated himself and become a better person.

 

It wasn’t until the morning after his greatest triumph as a basketball coach that Russell Turner realized he had made possibly the costliest mistake of his coaching career.

Turner had just guided the UC-Irvine men’s basketball team to its most successful season in the school’s history. At 31-6 the Anteaters had recorded the most season wins ever for the team. They had earned an NCAA Division I tournament berth for only the second time, and they notched the school’s first tournament win, a 70-64 upset of 4th-seeded Kansas State.

When they lost to the Oregon Ducks two days later, the season had already been a wild success. Turner had positioned himself at the top of big-time coaching searches. After the Anteater’s season, and the string of successful seasons he had put together, Turner knew the trajectory of his coaching career was up, up, up.

“I slept well that night,” Turner remembers.

When he woke up the next morning, he was expecting to be heralded as a hero, returning to campus to celebrate the most successful season of the school’s high-profile team.

Instead, Monday was one of the lowest points of his career. While he had lined up job interviews for coaching gigs in power conferences, he was left answering questions about his use of one word — “queen” — that left the public making accusations of misogyny and homophobia, with high-profile people like Martina Navratilova calling for him to be fired.

By the time he went to bed that Monday night, 24 hours after being on the top of the world, Turner was facing criticism from the Twitterverse, the media and even his wife. He was left wondering if he’d be fired by the end of the week. But most of all, he was left with one big question:

What the hell just happened?

‘Like watching a car accident in slow motion’

Sitting down with Turner in his office at the UC-Irvine campus in late July for his first interview since the tournament, I quickly got a sense of Turner as a person. He’s confident and successful, yet grounded, human, introspective. On a sprawling Southern California campus with beautiful new buildings of glass and brick, Turner’s office feels more like that of a new faculty member with his new PhD, not that of the school’s highest-profile and highest-paid coach.

“My office is the equipment room right now,” he says chuckling about the stacks of boxes lined up against one wall.

The laughs don’t last long. We’re there to talk about the biggest blunder of his career, one that may have, in the minds of many, erased nine years of success at Irvine. Turner lays down the ground rules for the interview clearly: There’s nothing we can’t talk about.

For a man who prides himself on what he says and how he says it, he’s become painfully aware of a blindspot he let take control of the national narrative over the last few months about who he is as a person and a coach.

“When you coach you want to have positive impact, and you want to win, and you want to do great things for your team and for your school. And what I did in this situation is the opposite of that…”

He pauses, stares into blank space, his lip quivering as it would dozens of times during our conversation.

“So that’s hard. It’s hard for me to talk about.”

It all started hours after his team’s big tournament upset of Kansas State in March. They had 48 hours to prepare for an Oregon team that had gotten red-hot and swept through the Pac-12 tournament. As Turner was watching the Ducks’ game film, he noticed colorful color commentator Bill Walton referring to Oregon point guard Louis King as “Louis the King.” It sparked an idea in Turner.

“He said it enough times that it irritated me,” Turner says of Walton’s quip. “So I figured, this is great, I’ll say it enough times to my team to irritate them. A way to sharpen their focus on Oregon’s best player.”

At their next practice, Turner talked about Louis the King…

Louis the King…

Louis the King…

Louis the King….

He said it so many times that he got into the heads of his players just like he wanted. It worked.

At some point during that practice, one of the people in earshot said, “Eh, Louis the Queen.”

Again, Turner loved it. While he was using “Louis the King” to irritate his players during practice, he figured he could call King “queen” during the game to get into the head of the opposing team’s star player.

By Turner’s account, it worked. While the Ducks beat the Anteaters that Sunday night in San Jose to advance to the Sweet 16, Turner could tell his yelling to his team to “cover Queen” bothered King.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-UC Irvine vs Oregon
Turner was vocal during his team’s 2nd round game against the Oregon Ducks.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Turner bragged about it in his postgame press conference.

“I was saying ‘double-team queen’ to see if I could irritate him,” he told the press gathered after the game. “And I did. And I kept talking to my team about what we wanted to do. We were calling him ‘queen’ because I knew it might irritate him.”

As he was answering the question, Turner noticed one of the reporter’ face contort. As the words were coming out of his mouth, Turner wondered if he was saying something problematic. On the spot he fabricated this explanation and blurted it out:

“Because of how important he is to their team, the queen in chess. It was a play on his name of King, and it bothered him.”

Despite his moment of concern, Turner figured that would be the end of it. He didn’t give it another thought. He’d sleep well that night in San Jose, then the team and UC-Irvine staff would get on a plane the next morning, head south, and he’d start taking interviews for head coaching jobs at high-profile schools.

“When I left the press conference I felt proud,” he remembers. “I didn’t feel like there was any problem. It didn’t seem to me that there was an issue.”

The next morning, as he headed to the plane, one of the school’s media relations staffers handed the beaming coach her phone. On it was a USA Today story saying Turner called an opposing player “queen” [Turner says the original headline claimed he called King “a queen;” The story’s current headline does not include the word “a”].

Turner was pissed. He felt his intentions were being misrepresented, and he said the school should contact USA Today to change the headline.

The staffer told Turner that he and the school would need to make a statement. She was afraid the story could become a problem for everyone, and they needed to get ahead of it. Turner called Dana Altman, the head men’s basketball coach at Oregon, to ask if his use of the word “queen” had troubled the Ducks team. Altman said he hadn’t thought much of it.

Turner asked that they get on the plane and talk more about it once they arrived in Southern California. He figured it was just one story that would die quickly.

Catching fire

By the time they landed an hour later, the story had exploded. Administrators, staff, coaches — everyone associated with the team was getting text messages and social media messages about the brewing tempest. More stories were popping up. Social media and the news media were grabbing hold of the story. Requests for comment were coming in.

“By the time we landed, it had gotten a lot of momentum,” Turner remembers. “Once we were back they said, ‘this is a problem, you don’t understand how big of a problem it is.’”

The people around him were right. Turner was still largely oblivious to the accusations of misogyny and homophobia that were being levied against him for using the name “queen” to irritate a male player on the opposing team. One little word and a brief comment at a press conference were threatening to turn the school’s huge athletic triumph into a public relations nightmare.

Someone had already written a sample apology statement for Turner, who still didn’t believe he had done something wrong. To him, he had previously used his voice during hundreds of games to help his team and no one had ever said a thing. No, he hadn’t called an opposing player “queen” before, but he just didn’t see the big deal.

For Turner in those first few hours, this brewing controversy was something concocted in the Twitterverse by people who didn’t know him and didn’t know the kind of man he was. Anger began to stir in him.

He took the pre-written apology and rewrote it. If he was going to issue a statement, he wanted to make sure it was coming from him.

He focused the public apology on the Oregon basketball team and his own coaching and leadership. He acknowledged what he did was “inappropriate and insensitive,” and he invoked his belief in “inclusivity and diversity.”

Yet the statement didn’t address in any way misogyny, sexism, homophobia or the LGBTQ community.

The apology landed with a clank. Criticism — which included a column by me for Outsports — focused on Turner’s failure to acknowledge the issues his use of the term “queen” raised.

After the apology, “it got a lot worse before it got better,” Turner says. “I didn’t have any idea what to do.” He called a couple local sports reporters he’d known for a few years, looking for advice from anyone who would give it. They told him: Don’t fight it, don’t get angry and don’t make it worse.

Maybe the toughest reaction of the entire ordeal came when he got home later that day. His wife, Liz, a critical care physician, met Turner that evening with anger and disappointment. Looking for support from his family, it was tough to come by.

“My wife was pissed,” Turner says. His eyes well with tears as he relives one of the most painful chapters of the episode. “Just, ‘how could you be so stupid?’” By then Turner was starting to realize: “It was a good question.”

Turner remembers his wife asking how he couldn’t have seen the issues of misogyny and homophobia that calling a male opponent “queen” would raise. Having spent a decade in the San Francisco Bay Area between Stanford and the Golden State Warriors, diversity issues were not foreign to him. His blindspot on this was a shock to her system.

Most of all, she was now watching the reputation of her husband — whom she knew to be a good, loving man who cared about people — be completely destroyed by a bad choice of words and a cocky response at a press conference.

“The impressions I created of [being misogynistic and homophobic] were difficult for her to deal with. The idea that we would be labeled this way were incredibly difficult for her.”

Then came the phone call from his mom.

“You called a kid a ‘queer’?” She asked. He told his mom that the word was “queen,” but that people had taken it as homophobic. Still, his mother wasn’t letting him off the hook.

“They were frustrated with me,” Turner says.

When he went to bed that night, just 24 hours after being on top of the world, he was feeling a flood of emotions, all of them isolating.

“As a coach you’re used to being criticized for decisions you make. I have good thick skin on that. But on this I had no thick skin. I felt ashamed for what I’d created and for the negativity I brought to my team.”

He had, frankly, been pissed at the people who didn’t know him. He felt they were misrepresenting who he is as a person.

Yet that day — talking with his family and colleagues— he came to realize that he had, in fact, made a big mistake, that it was all his doing, and he was going to have to work hard to get himself out from under it.

The re-education of Russell Turner

For anyone it’s often hardest to figure out what you don’t even know you don’t know. As his eyes opened, Turner realized early on that understanding that concept was an important first step for him.

He had women he loved in his life. He was completely accepting of gay people. Heck, he had a transgender person in his extended family whom he totally accepted and loved. If he heard a player on his team use sexist language or use a gay slur, he would never allow it.

“It wouldn’t even be close.”

It was easy for him to understand why he shouldn’t use the word “faggot” or call someone “a queer.” He had those words locked up in a safe in his brain, never to be uttered. But the word “queen” hadn’t been on his radar, regardless of how it was used.

“I had no ‘be careful’ with that one idea in my brain,” he says. “Now the word ‘queen’ appears in my vision twice a day. I see it everywhere.”

On the morning of our interview in late July, he had just traveled from Charlotte, N.C., which he was quick to note is nicknamed “The Queen City.”

The word “queen” can mean a lot of things. In this context — a men’s basketball coach directing that word at an opposing player — many people went right to the use of the word to describe effeminate gay men. Used to “irritate” the opposing player, he didn’t exactly mean it as a compliment.

While Turner had explained it away in the press conference as referencing a queen in chess, he knew that had been a complete fabrication in the heat of the moment.

“I was criticized, and rightfully so, for that explanation.”

At this point he also knew — and his wife’s criticism played a big role in his understanding — that there was much deeper meaning to his actions than he had intended. There was a reason deep down inside his mind that he knew “queen” would get under King’s skin, and it was now incumbent upon him to learn about all the roots of what that was.

Soon after Turner woke up Tuesday morning, he got a message from a school administrator suggesting he stay off-campus that day: There were news cameras waiting for him. While Turner didn’t want to hide, he also heeded the suggestion. A day to himself would help.

Away from school that day, Turner started digging in. The night before he had gotten a text message from former NBA player Jason Collins’ mother, Portia. Turner had coached Jason and his brother, Jarron, for two seasons when the twins were at Stanford, and he had stayed in touch with the family.

“Let’s move in the direction of being better people,” Portia texted Turner. “Words matter.”

Turner was thankful for the text message.

“From her I felt like that was the perfect amount of scolding and a benefit of the doubt,” Turner says. “It was meaningful to hear from her.”

It also opened a door for Turner to reach out to Jason, something he did the next day. Jason Collins famously came out publicly as gay in 2013 while he was still playing in the NBA. Given the public outcry, Turner wasn’t sure how Jason would respond to him. He called his former player nonetheless. He felt it was important to hear from a gay basketball player.

Jason had been watching the episode from afar since first hearing about it from his mother.

“It was almost like watching a car accident in slow motion,” Jason recalls, “but the driver doesn’t realize they’re causing an accident. He was totally oblivious to what he had said, what was going on. I was upset about it.

“But also, I know Russ. I’ve known him for over 20 years. And I know the kind of person he is. And I knew instantly this was just him needing education.”

From their first conversation, Jason felt his former coach would make this as right as he possibly could.

“I could hear it in his voice how sorry he was,” Jason says. “He was extremely sincere in his apology to me. And I told him he had to issue a public apology and his actions had to support what he was saying.”

Jason suggested Turner reach out to Ted Bunch, who through the organization A Call To Men works with various sports leagues and teams to educate men on masculinity, gender language and violence against women. Turner called him and had an illuminating conversation.

That day Turner also emailed Davidian Bishop, director of UC-Irvine’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center.

“By then I realized this was an LGBTQ issue,” Turner recounts, “and there would be students impacted by the publicity this was receiving. I wanted to talk with him and get his perspective and advice. And he was great.”

That began a long series of on-campus listening and educational opportunities for Turner that he embraced. He was now like a student thirsting for knowledge.

In the coming days and weeks he would sit down with the Dean of students at UC-Irvine — Rameen Talesh — who had been fielding some “very angry” complaints from students. He also talked with Interim Vice-Chancellor Edgar Dormitorio; Vice-Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Doug Haynes; and Mike Knox, the Director of New Student and Leadership Programs. Dormitorio pointed Turner to a couple on-campus groups that had been particularly upset with Turner’s comments, and the coach met with them.

Turner brought his basketball team to UC-Irvine’s Take Back The Night, an evening of a candlelight march and a series of talks by survivors of sexual violence. Given the misogyny inherent in his “queen” behavior, Turner felt it was important for himself and the men on his team to hear what women were saying about sexual violence and the role sports and male athletes play in that.

He also engaged openly gay basketball coach Anthony Nicodemo in a one-on-one phone conversation to get his perspective. Nicodemo says when he first saw the headlines in March, he had been “pissed off wondering what this guy was doing.”

Nicodemo and Turner had an important conversation, coach-to-coach.

“Sometimes as coaches we get caught up on the idea of the gamesmanship,” Nicodemo says, “and sometimes we have to think before the gamesmanship goes in the wrong direction. I think that’s what happened here. I don’t think he said it with the intention of possibly hurting people this way, but that’s what ended up happening.”

NCAA Basketball: Wooden Legacy - UC Irvine Anteaters vs Boise State Broncos
As a coach, Russell Turner is used to do a lot of talking. Over the last few months he’s bene doing a lot more listening.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

By Wednesday of that week, just 48 hours after the initial USA Today article, Turner returned to campus for a pre-planned meeting involving the athletics director and all of the school’s coaches.

Turner headed to the meeting expecting to be just one of the many in attendance that day. But when athletic director Paula Smith asked Turner if he had anything he wanted to say to the group, Turner said he “was determined to not hide from what I’d done and what I had created.”

He talked to the coaches and administrators about how badly he felt for how poorly he had represented the school, and for how he had hurt people with what he’d said. He knew there were women and LGBTQ people in the room for whom his actions had likely hit home particularly hard. He promised the people in the room he would get better, and while he said the episode will forever live with him, he told them he thought “the negativity for the school will peter out.”

Not to diminish the importance of the issue his actions had raised, he laughed and said, “Peter out… I think there might be something wrong with that too.”

It got a laugh from the room that cut the tension, but the observation was reflective of how aware of his words Turner had already become. Apologizing to his entire department — some of whom he had offended, and all of whom he had embarrassed — was humbling for the school’s highest-paid coach.

“What I realized at that time is that I had taken a point of great pride for our university and turned it into an embarrassment,” Turner admits. “That’s hard to do. But that’s what I had done.”

As Turner navigated the controversy, his own players had his back. Jonathan Galloway, the Big West All-Conference player who set several team records during his time as an Anteater, said he saw through the criticism because he knew Turner’s character.

“His number-one priority is the welfare of his players,” Galloway said via phone from Denmark, where the defensive specialist now plays professionally. “I felt that since day one. He really helped me on and off the court become a better man, become a better player. I’m so glad I got to spend five years with him.”

In June, Turner attended the Outsports Pride Summit, a day of conversation held at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion that featured a couple dozen LGBTQ people in sports talking about their experiences across.

It was at the Outsports Pride Summit that I first met Turner, approaching him between panels and introducing myself, thanking him for making the time to be part of the discussions as an audience member.

As he shook my hand he tried to get out some words but was overcome by emotion. He literally could not speak. By then he had engaged in dozens of conversations, had endured the struggles with his family and team, and had become present with how much damage his word choice had done to an entire class of people.

“Thank you for the opportunity,” he said, tears streaming down his face, his lip quivering like it would dozens of times during our two-hour interview weeks later. Our encounter had come moments after a powerful discussion at the Summit about trans inclusion in sports, and conversation about gender and the power of language abounded.

A lot of men in sports are simply sorry they got caught doing something stupid. Turner seemed, in our initial three-minute encounter and in our two-hour conversation weeks later, genuinely regretful for doing the stupid thing in the first place.

Making good

Now several months after Turner’s ill-fated press conference, Turner is talking publicly for the first time about the ordeal because he wants to help.

He’s been silent since his initial apology because he knew he had work to do. Listening. Learning. Before he opened his mouth and talked about it again he wanted to do the work, learn from others and open his eyes.

Turner hopes the national conversation that formed out of his blunder has helped open the minds of other coaches that the words they use can have more impact than they ever realized.

He also hopes his example — sharing his journey publicly — can help others walk down a path of education and acceptance, whether its before they make a hurtful mistake or after.

Jason Collins said he’s proud of how his former coach has handled the situation. Everyone makes mistakes — It’s how people handle the mistakes that we see their true character.

”It’s not easy to go through a negative media storm where everyone is pointing their finger at you, and turn it into a positive situation,” Jason says. “He will not be the last coach or person in the sports world to make comments like this. But in every situation it can be an opportunity for someone else to learn. And they can use this example of how Russ handled this and say, ‘Hey this happened with Russ, and this is what he did. Let’s try to make this better.’”

Turner said Jason, who lives in nearby Los Angeles, has agreed to talk with his team this season.

“Every stereotype of being gay is opposite of who he was as a player,” Turner says of the 7-foot strongman. “[My players] may not know that about him, but they’ll know the success he’s had.”

It’s no secret that Turner may have missed out on a higher-profile coaching gig after the incident. He had been on many top-coaching-candidate lists and did have interviews with schools the week after the press conference.

Nicodemo feels that, given the educational path Turner has embarked on, this episode shouldn’t hold him back from bigger opportunities. In fact, it has made Turner better equipped to handle issues of inclusion.

“Based off of our conversation, if something like this happens down the road, I think he’ll deal with it differently,” Nicodemo says. “I think it’s going to create more conversation and help LGBTQ people. Now he’s aware and he’ll create a more inclusive environment with his coaches and players, and then they’ll do that in their own lives.”

Turner is again excited for the future. Over the summer he signed a new six-year contract to be the head men’s basketball coach at UC-Irvine. School administrators — people who know him best and who have seen up-close the work he’s done to learn from this episode — are comfortable embracing Turner and his future as a coach of young men.

With the next season now just a few weeks away, he’s ready for some basketball. His team this season is chock full of freshmen and sophomores — Leadership will be at a premium.

It’s a challenge Turner is ready for. What he’s learned over the last few months will educate how he leads his team into the future. He still isn’t sure exactly how he will address all of this with his team ahead of the season, but he is committed to doing so.

 

For the sake of the kids, coaches and colleagues around him — and for his own well-being — he is resolute in never making a mistake like this again.

“The losses hurt more than the wins feel good,” Turner says. “And the experience that I created is a lot worse than losing. I didn’t have any idea that I’d create that, but I did. And I’m going to learn from it, be more aware, be a better representative of UC-Irvine and a better leader for my players. And just a better dude in general. That’s what I think this whole thing has taken me toward.

“I’m confident I can avoid ever creating this scenario again.”

Again, Turner chokes up, pauses. The emotional toll this has taken is evident in every tear.

“I’m going to be better.”

You can follow Russell Turner on Twitter @coachrussturner.