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Palomar coach on gay football player: "Our big thing is, he lied"

SAN DIEGO — In a hastily called late Tuesday afternoon interview, Palomar College spokeswoman Laura Gropen and head football coach Joe Early addressed an SDGLN article published Tuesday morning calling into question the coaching staff’s treatment of Jamie Kuntz, the outed All-Conference linebacker from North Dakota. The coaching staff initially offered Kuntz an opportunity to try out for their 2013 football team only to withdraw that offer three days after finding out that Kuntz was gay.

Palomar College could have made history by welcoming an openly gay football player, an All-Star athlete to boot, to its football team and becoming a shining example of an all-inclusive athletic program. Instead, the college is on the defense.

“We don’t discriminate against anyone,” Gropen told San Diego Gay & Lesbian News. “Palomar College does not discriminate against any student for any reason.”

As evidence, Gropen noted that the school is one of only a handful of junior colleges in the country that funds an LGBTQ resource center for students.

Coach Early said he didn't want a liar on his football team.

“Our big thing is, he lied,” Coach Early said, apparently ignoring the entire backstory about why Kuntz didn't initially tell the truth about getting caught kissing his much-older boyfriend in a press box during a road game. “There’s no sense in bringing someone in from 2,000 miles away who lied to his coach. It’s an issue of integrity and character.”

Background on the lie

Early was referring to the lie Jamie Kuntz told his previous head football coach, Chuck Parsons at North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS). A standout at Dickinson High School in western North Dakota, Kuntz was offered a scholarship to play linebacker at NDSCS, a junior college in Wahpeton, 50 miles south of Fargo on the state’s eastern border with Minnesota.

During practices for his NDSCS Wildcats’ first game of the season, Kuntz suffered a concussion and was limited to video duty, meaning that the freshman linebacker would spend the team’s first game of the season, against Snow College in Pueblo, Colo., in the stadium’s press box filming game footage for coaches to dissect later.

Using what the teenager now calls poor judgment, Kuntz took advantage of the light duty to invite his 65-year-old boyfriend, a Denver resident, to drive down for the game and hang out in the press box. While there, at some point during the game, the two kissed, a moment that was witnessed by someone in the stands or on the team and reported back to Coach Parsons.

After the game, when players, including Kuntz, had loaded on the bus headed back to Wahpeton, 930 miles away, Parsons pulled Kuntz off the bus and asked him what had happened in the press box. Perhaps fearing the repercussions of coming out to his football coach so far from home, Kuntz lied and said the person he was with was his grandfather.

Kuntz was allowed back on the bus and the team headed home. Once there, 16 hours later, Kuntz, from the safety of his dormitory, confessed to Coach Parsons who the man was and what they were doing.

The following day, Kuntz was dismissed from the team for telling a lie, even though the lie only lasted the length of a bus ride home and telling the truth in that instance may have had dire consequences.

“Looking back would I lie again?” Kuntz recalled during an interview earlier this month. “Yes, of course I would.”

The background check

The Palomar coaching staff found out about Kuntz’s lie -- from Kuntz. The day after Kuntz had accepted the school’s offer, linebackers coach Robert Bala called the player. Among questions asked was what Kuntz had been doing from when he graduated in June 2012 to January 2013.

When Kuntz said he had gone to NDSCS but things didn’t work out, Coach Bala said he needed to talk to the NDSCS coach to find out why. Kuntz told Bala that he had been kicked off the team for being gay. Bala’s initial response was favorable, calling it a private matter, but still needed to speak to NDSCS.

After getting the full story from NDSCS Athletic Director Stu Engen, Bala reported back to Coach Early that Kuntz had lied to his NDSCS coach. By extension, Coach Early said late Tuesday afternoon, “Coach Bala felt Kuntz had lied to him.”

Not good enough to stand out

In addition to the lie, Coach Early said, Kuntz’s skill level wound up not being good enough to stand out upon further review.

“A player’s stock rises and falls based on our needs,” Coach Early said. So while the coaching staff was initially interested in Kuntz’s YouTube video showing his athletic skills, “it was high school video, taken over a year ago and against high school teams.”

“We’re always looking at film,” Early said. The coach maintains that from Thursday, Jan. 17, when Kuntz accepted Palomar’s offer to try out and linebackers coach Robert Bala responded by saying he was “really excited to have you,” the coaching staff watched so much video by the following Tuesday morning that Kuntz’s stock as a player dropped so far as to not even warrant a look, even though it was a long holiday weekend and Coach Early was by his own admission out of town.

“We think we have players of higher caliber at his position either locally or already here,” Coach Early maintains. “Athletically he’s not one of our top guys, having seen film since then.”

Coach Early did not elaborate on how much film he had reviewed during that time frame that caused him to change his mind.

Early insisted: “It had nothing to do with him being gay.”

Kuntz is still welcome?

Coach Early and school spokeswoman Gropen repeated during the interview the idea that in no way does the withdraw of the recruitment effort mean that Kuntz is in any way unwelcome at Palomar College. Nor does it mean Kuntz isn’t welcome to register for classes and even take the football class (which is required for anyone who wants to be on the team). Were he to do that all on his own, they said, Kuntz would then be evaluated by the coaching staff.

“It just means we’re not going to extend staff time to help him organize his classes and schedules like we would our other recruits,” Coach Early said.