SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of Friday’s announcement that defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley had been suspended for use of racist language in a text message sent in 2013, former University of Utah safety Robert Johnson discussed the situation with his big brother.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Robert, you have to protect your house — like, if you feel like the University of Utah football program is your house,” said Johnson, who responded in the affirmative and then was encouraged to defend it.
“Yes, the coach was wrong for what he said and yes he was completely off the topic and should never did that,” noted the older sibling. “But do you believe that this program made you a better person?”
“So that’s how I feel right now,” Johnson said. “No matter what happens, like yes, coach Scalley made a mistake, but I’m 100% sure that this shouldn’t reflect how the program has been going. And it shouldn’t reflect the inner soul of coach Scalley. It shouldn’t feel that way.”
Since Friday’s suspension, former University of Utah football players have weighed in on the situation. Many, like Johnson, a former Ute safety who played for Scalley, have offered support for the coach and the program. Others have been more critical.
Utah athletics director Mark Harlan said an outside firm would look at the situation to determine if it was an isolated incident.
“Coach Scalley and I have spoken. He is very contrite and acknowledged that the text was sent and that it did include a derogatory and painful word,” Harlan said in making the announcement. “The use of any form of racist language is not only antithetical to our policies and our values, but it is an affront to all of us, especially our African American community members.”
Harlan suspended Scalley effective immediately. The coach accepted the decision and vows to use it as a time to reflect and to grow.
“I am completely against racism and this will never happen again,” he said.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham commented as well, expressing both disappointment and shock.
“Although this incident is inconsistent with the character and conduct of the person I have known and worked closely with for more than two decades, Morgan’s use of racist language is a very serious matter and I am supportive of the suspension while a more thorough outside review is conducted,” he said.
In addition to tweets of support for Scalley from former players, there have also been some unfavorable tweets posted about the Utah defensive coordinator since the incident surfaced, the most damaging coming from ex-Utah safety Ryan Lacy, who said Scalley called him by a racial slur.
“I don’t care what you think. END OF STORY,” concluded the tweet by Lacy.
Safety Moe Lee tweeted that he stands by Lacy.
“People have no idea the Man they are trying to protect,” he added.
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Johnson, who arrived from South Central Los Angeles to play for Utah in 2007, is one of the former Utes voicing support to his former school’s program and assistant coach.
“I’m going to protect what I feel and that I know is right,” Johnson said.
When Johnson was a junior, Scalley became his position coach. Things got off to a bit of a rocky start. So much so, in fact, that Johnson wasn’t sure if “he could deal with the dude.” They butted heads on a variety of things such as a defensive scheme that kept Johnson in the middle more often, grades and how to act outside of football. Things like that and holding himself accountable at a different level added to the tension, as did Scalley wanting Johnson to be more like he was as a player, using a different kind of hard-nosed approach.
Things eventually changed. Before Johnson’s senior season the two sides had a good meeting.
“We just needed to talk to each other and be able to understand that we have differences when it comes to playing football and things like that,” Johnson said. “It made our relationship so much better.”
Johnson said his senior year was a breeze. He did better in school, watched his weight more closely and appreciated that Scalley was more open to opinions when it came to certain things at practice.
In October 2009, Johnson put an end to some good-natured trash talk. Scalley noted having two interceptions and an 88-yard fumble return for a touchdown in a 63-31 victory over Colorado State in 2004. Determined to do better, Johnson had three picks in a 24-17 win over the Rams.
Following the game, Scalley paid Johnson a big compliment.
“Dude, this is exactly what I wanted to see from you — is that you can really take over games if you really work hard and you do things,” Johnson recalled. “That was like one of the biggest highlights that I felt like I had.”
It’s part of a relationship that has blossomed. That said, Johnson acknowledged it hasn’t been easy to see what Scalley is going through these days. It hurts.
“Because I’m thinking of a bigger picture. The same people that are speaking up are the same people that weren’t with coach Scalley 24 hours,” said Johnson, who mentioned times sitting in meetings with Scalley, being on the field together, consulting after practices and even having class checks while in school.
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The current saga and its accompanying criticism, Johnson explained, isn’t who Scalley is as a person.
“We all make mistakes, like nobody is perfect. I’m definitely not saying what coach Scalley did is right because it’s not,” Johnson said. “But do I feel like it’s coming from a spot of like he’s racist or a spot that he doesn’t like African American players or things like that? No. I believe that it just was a mistake. It was a mistake.”
Being part of a football team is a brotherhood, he continued, and everyone comes from different backgrounds and sometimes things are said that aren’t really meant.
“I’m not saying coach Scalley was right for what he said. It’s just more of thinking about the bigger picture,” said Johnson, who acknowledged that the experience of teammates may have been different. However, he’s confident no one spent more time with Scalley.
“The first year I had the roughest time with him,” Johnson said. “Like you would probably believe that I’m the one that would tell you if he’s racist or not. That’s how I feel, but everyone’s experience is different.”
“This is our program. This is like our university,” said Johnson, who now resides and works in Salt Lake. “The University of Utah is much deeper than football. The whole state of Utah has been good to me. The university has been good to me.”
Former Utah linebacker Stevenson Sylvester declined to comment on the matter at this time, opting instead to release a general statement.
“I’ve told many people the past few days I am not speaking on the Morgan Scalley issue out of respect for coach Whittingham and the university,” Sylvester said. “Once I receive all the facts and hear from Scalley himself I will be able to comment. But right now I will have to decline the interview until further notice.”
Sylvester did, however, offer some insight on the situation.
“My input is, I do NOT feel coach Scalley is a bigot or racist. I do believe coach Scalley was a victim of his comfortability and crossed a line that should have never ever been thought of to cross,” Sylvester wrote. “This is a major hit and disruption to the university and I think he should be held accountable for his actions. Morgan is a good man and I have never experienced any negative interactions with him. I DO NOT speak for others on this matter.”
In a message to Chris Kamrani of The Athletic, former Utah cornerback Dominique Hatfield said: “I don’t think (Scalley) hates other people. He has a good heart. He would give without expecting nothing in return, but he is biased, naive, and he lacks understanding. For the record, I do not feel he is a racist though. I’ve been in contact with racist men and women and he isn’t that.”
Other former Utes have weighed in on social media since Scalley’s suspension was announced. Among those tweeting — addressing the coach by his Twitter handle: @SafetyPride — was safety Marcus Williams of the New Orleans Saints.
“I usually don’t say much but I think today I need to. While I don’t agree with the language, The one thing @SafetyPride is not is a racist!! Since day one I’ve seen that he has been nothing but a role model, a great coach, a great father, a great mentor and so much more!”
Derrick Shelby, a defensive end for the Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons, also showed support.
“A lot has been said about @SafetyPride, while I don’t agree with the language, Morgan Scalley is a good man who made a mistake. Emotions are high so right now isn’t the time for trial via Twitter. I’ll stand with you Scalley.”
Wide receiver Raelon Singleton, who was recruited in Texas by Scalley, also took a positive tone.
“I don’t know who was behind that Twitter page trying to kill this man’s credibility. I don’t get down like that. We all make mistakes but Scalley showed me nothing but love while I was in Utah along with the rest of the coaching staff and I’m forever grateful for that,” he posted.