By Tim Eberly
Spare time is a rare commodity for collegiate athletes. But recently, the Montana State University-Northern women's basketball team has had it in surplus.
Making good on their promise not to play for head coach Kevin Emerick, the Skylights refused to take the floor Saturday against their conference foe, the University of Great Falls, forcing athletic director Ted Spatkowski to forfeit the game.
It was the first scheduled game since the Skylights told Emerick they would not play for him or assistant coach Joan Steffen. Spatkowski spent several hours Friday meeting with the Skylights individually, attempting to bridge the gap between the players and the controversial coach.
The team, however, remained steadfast in its unanimous decision. So instead of prepping for a game Saturday afternoon, the Skylights were at home.
"It was hard because I was sitting around all day," senior guard Tamecia Watkins said. "Usually I'd be at the shoot-around and the pregame meal."
With the automatic loss, MSU-N has dropped to 17-8 overall and 3-7 in the Frontier Conference. The Skylights are scheduled to host the University of Montana-Western on Thursday and Montana Tech on Saturday.
Spatkowski issued a press release about the forfeit and his optimism that a compromise is within reach.
"During those discussions, both sides presented their ideas for resolution," the statement said. "Officials at MSU-Northern remain hopeful that a solution is still possible and the ultimate goal of all parties involved is to see the Skylights return to action as soon as possible."
Only one possible solution, players said, was discussed to halt the walkout: having Spatkowski supervising Emerick at all times at practice, games and in the locker room. Several players, including senior co-captain Paula Owens, said they were not necessarily opposed to that option, but that Emerick had refused.
Reached at his residence Sunday evening, Emerick said Spatkowski had not broached that subject with him but he considers it feasible. "Ted's 10 feet from our bench (during games) and he's been at every practice this year," he said. "It wouldn't be any different of a situation or any hardship for me."
Spatkowski said he did discuss that option Thursday with Emerick, who eventually accepted it. Spatkowski said the players favored it at first but then said it wouldn't address all of their issues.
Thus far, MSU-N players have practiced three times without Emerick during the seven-day boycott. Though they avoided the MSU-N gymnasium when Emerick stood in there during practice time last week, the Skylights have decided to practice today regardless of his likely presence. On Thursday and Friday, Emerick waited in the gym during the team's practice hours.
"He can talk all he wants," Owens said. "We're not going to listen to him. If it comes down to where he's just sitting there, he can watch."
At this juncture, Spatkowski is not prepared to forfeit the rest of the season, but if the Skylights boycott the next two games, he could be swayed, he said.
"I think we'll see what happens in the games this week," Spatkowski said. "I think that if we forfeit (the next two games), then perhaps I think we need to seriously consider forfeiting the whole season."
Last Monday, the Skylights presented Emerick a petition requesting his and Steffen's immediate removal, citing verbal and psychological abuse by Emerick as two of their reasons. Players said that if Emerick was not removed, they would not play for him and were willing to forfeit the remaining games on their schedule.
Players have said the abuse has intenstified during Emerick's battle with MSU-N to keep his job.
Emerick, who has denied the allegations of abuse and misconduct, refused to accept the letter.
Capdeville suspended Emerick with pay Dec. 12 and informed him his contract, which expires June 18, would not be renewed. Capdeville said his action was based on the fact that Emerick was maintaining a personal relationship with Anna Fabatz, a former player who is still a student at MSU-N.
Emerick has said Capdeville and Spatkowski gave him permission to see Fabatz socially after her final season ended.
Emerick sued the university and a district judge reinstated him Jan. 3. After Emerick returned to his post, MSU lawyers asked the Montana Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction in the case and remove Emerick as coach, a request that was denied.
Emerick was notified Friday afternoon that he has until 5 p.m. today to respond to a second appeal filed last week by MSU attorneys with the Supreme Court. MSU requested that Emerick be removed from his position while the high court decides whether to reverse the state District Court ruling that returned him to his post pending a university review. The Supreme Court could rule as early as Tuesday.
"It's still not over and we still have a ton of paperwork to do," Emerick said Sunday. "The boycott has really worked into their plans to try to get this thing heard immediately. I don't think there is any question that it plays right into Capdeville's plans."
The chief legal council for the MSU system, LeRoy Schramm, included in the appeal a description of the players' walkout and petition, as well as the date of the Skylights' game Thursday.
"We pointed out that (the boycott) was one of the things that had happened since the court first decided not to take" jurisdiction in the case, Schramm said today. "But whether that will move them to act more quickly, I'm in no position to know that."
Emerick has accused Spatkowski and Chancellor Alex Capdeville of manipulating the players and orchestrating the walkout. Capdeville and Spatkowski denied those allegations.
Players have said they spoke with Spatkowski about their plans but said that neither Spatkowski nor Capdeville coordinated the action.
Four games remain on the Skylights' regular season schedule before the Feb. 28 start of the Frontier Conference tournament in Butte.