Saturday home football games were always a challenge for Rhett. A typical Friday night was a handful of pistachio nuts and half a bottle of Crown Royal. She didn’t shower or prepare the night before game days, always assuming she would have time on Saturday to get herself presentable before kickoff.
Football games were held off campus, three toll booths and a buck 25 to arrive in a shady part of town that had been transformed to benefit the few thousand loyal season ticket holders that decided to attend the game. Rhett had a parking pass and an all-access pass that made challenges for others easy for her. The biggest challenge for her was resisting the free alcohol available to her in the president’s box. Her only role at the game was being the senior woman administrator, proving to anyone who cared to notice that yes, this school had a woman in an authoritative position in the athletics department.
Rhett would greet and mingle with visitors, grabbing a bite to eat with each new hello, filling up her empty stomach and soaking up any lingering alcohol. A noon game usually meant wrinkled, previously worn clothes and that she would have to say hello to many, many people. Afternoon and evening games she had time to eat something at home, shower, iron and basically sober up before attending the game.
She was able to hold strong in September but this October, the temptation to have a drink was too much to resist. Only two months into the academic year and Rhett was overwhelmed at work. She found satisfaction in her job because she was able to help people, offering solicited advice that was actually well received. For all the times she was ignored, laughed at – to her face rather than behind her back like a normal work environment, and dismissed by her male counterparts, the women and younger generation made up for by asking her for help.
But her job wasn’t to help. Her nature was to help. If she could fight off her demon, her dance with the drink, she was an incredibly generous penny-pincher. If her demon was in control, she was generous with a pour and only interested in herself.
She was promoted into her position because the department had to have a woman at the executive level. Even though she was previously a secretary, and later labeled an admin, the athletics director knew how much work she could juggle. He knew she had worked hard to get her bachelor’s and master’s degree because, as his secretary, he signed the paperwork allowing her to take classes for free. To him, it was natural to promote a secretary for a mandatory female position, rather than do a national search for someone with executive level experience. He had no idea what this role was to do so he gave her all of the human resources tasks for the department and other small-ticket items to keep her busy.
Rhett was absolutely reliable, knocking off the small requests with ease and efficiency. She always had a new idea that she was willing to implement herself, but each idea was bad timing or too expensive or would require new staff. When she realized that her job was to manage every situation, scenario, scene and circumstance that her colleagues did not want to handle, she backed off providing new ideas. All of her time, even when something wasn’t going wrong, needed to be dedicated to the possibility of something unfortunate or uncomfortable happening so she could provide solutions, quickly and quietly.
At this point of the season the football team was on its second coach, promoting the offensive coordinator to interim head coach after the head coach was fired for his criminal activity. The whirlwind caused by the head coach inevitably landed in Rhett’s lap – something awful happened, something worse happened, the unthinkable happened and no one wanted to deal with it, especially since it involved the ousting of one of its founding members.
Rhett was enjoying the mild beginning to this year – hiring new employees, the football team holding up against major programs and winning against comparable teams and the men’s soccer team finally winning a few games, keeping the women’s soccer coaching staff from demanding more, more and more because they were the best program on campus. She also had Doug to help her with small tasks that never seemed to go away despite the number of times she proved her worth, making it easy for her to keep a solid routine in her personal and professional life.
Around 5:15 one evening, Rhett heard an unusual amount of activity. Typically at that time of the day the only people remaining were the sports information staff and other administrators coming back to their office to pick up and leave for the day.
On this evening, there was an odd scurry, the sound of people walking fast but trying to be quiet, incapable of reaching their goal because of how quickly they were moving. Rhett’s curiosity forced her out of her chair and into the hallway, resisting the urge to put her back against the wall, raise on her tiptoes and use her hands down by her side for balance. She thought, the need for that is only in the movies, so she slowly moved to the lobby and stood with her hands on her hips trying desperately to see clearly through the dirty doors.
She noticed a man dressed in black standing behind a lonely, misplaced tree and two men in black standing about 50 yards away in the parking lot. Something strange was dangling from their sides and as she stepped to the left for a better angle she saw another man in black with his back against the building, knees bent and arms out in front in a triangle position, clearly holding a pistol. Her eyes whipped back to the two men in the parking lot and like twisting both ends of binoculars she was able to focus and find the dangling items were assault rifles. Her inclination was to go back to her office and lock the door but her reaction was to push through the doors and ask someone what exactly was happening.
As soon as she extended her arms she heard, “Rhett! Hang on a minute.”
It was the athletics director, dressed in pink pants and still wearing golf shoes. “I was on the 11th hole when one of the country club staff members showed up and told me there was an urgent message to come to the office. What are you doing?”
“I thought you played golf in the morning?”
“I do. Today I had two outings, which made leaving a little easier. Nevermind that, tell me what you know.”
“I know there are armed men dressed in black basically surrounding the football offices. That’s about it. I was just about to go ask someone for more details.”
“You can’t go out there and ask for details, are you nuts? We’ve got to work on a plan to make this go away.”
“I can’t make anything go away until I know if it is something that should go away.”
“Come here, let’s get out of the lobby.” The athletics director put one arm out, pointing to his office and motioned his other arm like an officer directing traffic to move. When she didn’t budge, he motioned faster, convincing her to join him in his office.
“All I know, and I swear I just found out today, is some of the football players bought cell phones from a teammate that works at AT&T.”
“That seems harmless. Do we need to investigate how they got money to buy phones or …”
“They bought phones for a one-time price. The teammate stole the phone numbers from existing customers who continue to pay for calls that are being made by the players who bought the phones. Every call they make to people outside of Florida is a federal offense because it crosses state lines.”
“And you just found out about this today?”
“Yes, Rhett. Jesus. I just told you I golf twice a day. How the hell would I find out about something like that before now? Before everything was about to implode?”
Using that kind of logic, Rhett believed her boss. He was never in the office. Because of his background in football and his influential charm, he never worked a day in his life. He was paid six figures to attend games, shake hands, smile, delegate and golf. But something was missing from the picture in front of her.
“So what are the police trying to do out there?”
“From my understanding, what you see out front is the start of a raid. They are raiding the football locker room to see what players have the phones. It’s the only way they can identify who broke the law.”
Rhett was confused by technology in general but never understood how communication devices became such a definitive form of status. First it was the beeper, worn on the side of a belt to prominently display importance. She saw people wearing those things and they never buzzed or beeped, no matter how many times they adjusted them to see if they were going to do one or the other. Somehow having one, even if it was silent at all times, meant they were important enough to be reached at all times.
Overnight, it seemed, the beeper wearers were walking around holding a small black, rectangular box labeled Motorola. It was an extension of their hand, like a smoker with a cigarette, used to point directions, express confusion, or wave hello. Her daughter couldn’t afford a phone but thought it was important to have one so she bought her one, from a Sam’s club of all places. They had the best prices and even though she, nor her daughter, understood the pricing plan, there was comfort having one just because everyone else did.
Months after the Motorola phones hit the market something called a Nokia became a hit, with its identifiable ringtone that became the new mark of status. The phone became so valuable that everyone, including ladies, was wearing a holster on their belts to hold their phones. Now, the most prized phone on the market was a Samsung flip-phone. It was small, fitting in the palm of a football player’s hand when folded, so executives could put it in their dress shirt pockets and an average person could hold it in their front pants pocket. Almost everyone could afford a phone because it came free with a contract. The football players couldn’t afford the monthly payment that made the contract, so having an option to buy the phone at one price must have been the appeal. But they had to know they were breaking the law, which made Rhett wonder who they needed to call so badly that they’d be willing to go to jail.
Rhett walked over to the sports information office to ask Mark what he knew. “Mark, have you had any media requests for the football coach today?”
“Just the normal post-practice crew. Nothing special.”
“Alright, good. Business as usual, thanks Mark.”
Rhett returned to the lobby, determined to make it through the front doors to find someone in charge and get specifics about the scene. In the moments she was gone, the lobby was stuffed with reporters all looking as if they’d been wrangled out of the wild and into a ranch corral. She pivoted and returned to Mark, alerting him of the media invasion and also letting him know there was an impending police raid, potentially with federal agents, of the football locker room.
Rather than panic, or tend to the media, Mark called the football coach to find out his availability. After a few moments on the phone he knew there would be no press conference and comment, except for Mike Ritondo, who could speak to the coach if he was there and wanted. For some reason the coach trusted Ritondo and Mark knew, even if it was in the best interest of the university, athletics department or football program, he would not be permitted to sit in during the interview. Mark silently prayed Ritondo wasn’t there but as he entered the lobby he immediately saw the reporter’s bald head.
Mark was shy, quiet, backwards and awkward in almost every situation except when it came to addressing the media. With them he was calm, cool and in control. He knew he held all the face cards and they had no chance of winning unless he dealt them in the game. He also knew once they were in the game they were in control so he protected his hand with fierce competitiveness. He quickly announced there would be no comment and recommended the reporters wait until he announced a press conference, to be held at a future date. It was vague, he knew it, but it also was to the point – drop it. Some reporters tried to get him and Rhett to comment on the chaos but neither of them did. Fortunately, Mark and the media had no idea the athletics director was hiding in his office, hoping this would all disappear.
As Mark returned to writing his game notes, Ritondo shuffled into the hallway and slithered into the office asking to meet with the football coach.
“Hey Mike. Coach said he would talk with you but obviously, we’ll need to wait until everyone else is gone to make that happen.”
“Wait? Me? C’mon Mark. I’m not the student newspaper. I’m here, offering to write about your program instead of Florida. I won’t wait all night for this to happen.”
Mark escorted Ritondo down the hallway no one ever used, disconnecting the security alarm and opening the back door. The two walked around the building, which was actually the front of the building, and knocked on an orange door of the football building, the opposite side of the police presence.
The football coach opened the door and welcomed Ritondo in, shooing Mark away with a nod and a smile, suggesting he was in control. Mark returned to his office passing television reporters and cameramen doing their reports now that the raid had apparently dissipated. He called Rhett to give her an update out of courtesy and she thanked him.
Rhett waited hours for the media to leave, deterring requests for comment, lying about the director’s availability and eventually assisting in his escape from the building. She couldn’t decide if she was most disturbed by his irritation with not being able to complete his golf game or his incessant whining about how much trouble he could be in for not knowing. She also didn’t know about what was happening and she was there every day, and night. She was confident that the football coach knew, probably in advance, of the raid and likely, that his players had purchased illegal phones. Because of her intuition, she expected a war. The football coach would expect complete loyalty and a pass for any wrongdoings, the athletics director would throw any person he needed to under a bus in order to preserve his golf-paying job.
The next day’s newspaper showed who exactly was in control and proved to Mark, and Rhett, that arrogance is the most deceiving personality trait. The football coach believed Ritondo felt lucky to have a conversation with him, spewing all sorts of trust and quotes on the record that his arrogance led him to believe would be kept between the two of them. When Rhett read the paper with a quote like “Federal law enforcement is trying to kill a fly with an ax” and that the coach knew of the raid in advance, she knew his confidence had reached the point of delusion.
She wondered if all coaches eventually hit the same stage of delusion, believing they can do no wrong, that they have an obligation to decide who deserves protection, lies and cover-ups. They worked at a small school with barely a hint of success. She could only imagine what would happen if a coach at a major school with genuine success decided he was going to protect someone who was molesting children or raping women. She prayed that would never happen but she knew in all likelihood it was happening somewhere at some school.
Within days it became clear that the police raid failed because the coach had informed his players to get rid of the phones. The coach knew of the raid because a former player’s father was in law enforcement and he broke his oath by sharing the news. The coach was using the media, without Mark’s assistance, to taunt law enforcement, suggesting he was more powerful and admitting in print, that he was misleading them on purpose. When he finally realized he was actually, literally, breaking the law by lying to investigators and telling his players to lie, it was beyond too late. He was fired, pled guilty to misleading investigators and was sentenced to two year’s probation, 100 hours of community service and fined $2,000.
Rhett didn’t consider herself much of a future-reader but the more she read in the paper, the more she knew the outcome. In order to prepare for the inevitable, she determined who would step in as the interim head coach before the coach fired himself with lies. After that happened, her only job was reassuring the athletics director he did all of the right things and applying lotion to her thick skin as she read more and more cuts the former head coach delivered through print.
She continued her duty at football games but always found time to sneak out and visit the press box. It might have seemed impossible to the ticket office, but attendance was down because of the former coach. Even with hardly anyone in the stands, the media still attended the games and to Rhett’s eye, there were more than any other seasons. She assumed it was their way of catching a good story, success despite scandal, winning against all odds, losers lose – whatever the headline, a reporter was there ready to write it.
Rhett left the press box with a coffee cup and lid, took it to the president’s box bartender and told him to fill it with whisky. She knew it was wrong and she knew she’d be starting over again, but she needed it to function.