The Atlantic

A #MeToo Nightmare in the World of Competitive College Speech

Success in forensics is about making yourself vulnerable. Several former competitors accuse a prominent coach of exploiting that vulnerability to sexually harass students.
Source: Emily Jan / Zieusin / Rangizzz / MirasWonderland / The Atlantic

In the lobby of a deserted student-union building in Peoria, Illinois, the George Mason University speech team falls into formation. Following their coach, a petite, white-haired man in a silk designer tie, they walk single file down an empty hallway and into an empty classroom, where someone plugs in a speaker, turns up the music, and announces that it’s time to dance.

On this rainy Saturday morning in April 2017, no one really wants to dance. It’s 6:30 a.m., and most team members are running on four hours’ sleep and a granola bar for breakfast. Everyone is in a suit. Still, they sway their hips, kick the air, jump up and down, bang on the walls, and belt out their best rendition of Nicki Minaj’s “Starships.” At least one person leaps on top of a chair. Because standing off to the side, arms crossed, their coach, Peter Pober, is watching.

Pober considers the dancing essential. It’s his time-honored pretournament ritual, designed to coax students out of their head for a few moments right before they compete. The prevailing wisdom in collegiate public speaking is that to be truly excellent, the performer must expose himself completely, presenting a speech so “raw” and “real” that he sheds his self-consciousness. So as the team dances—for about 20 minutes, before every tournament—Pober closely examines each student. If someone appears too reserved or too controlled, he will often arrange to meet with him after the tournament, and let him know.

In the world of competitive public speaking, known to insiders as “forensics,” Pober is legendary; his team, legendary by extension. Pober has participated in speech, as a competitor and then as a coach, for more than 35 years, steering two of the country’s top speech programs—at the University of Texas at Austin, where he worked until 2003, and at George Mason—and winning more top awards than almost any other coach in the country, building an international reputation. In 2005 he started the George Mason Institute of Forensics, colloquially known as GMIF, one of the preeminent high-school public-speaking camps in the country, and led it for 13 years. When Pober walked through the halls at a speech tournament, people would turn around and stare.

Many who knew Pober well weren’t surprised when, in February 2018, after 15 years as the director of George Mason Forensics, he was placed on administrative leave amid allegations of sexual harassment. Pober’s special interest in “good-looking, skinny white boys” was an “open secret,” Jon Tyree, who graduated from GMU in 2014, told me. According to several of Pober’s former students, he would invite his “favorites” out for one-on-one dinners, buy them round after round of margaritas, and host them at his home for Thanksgiving. Less well known were the things he’d allegedly whisper to certain students and young alums in tournament hotel rooms or nestled in the back corner of his favorite dive bar: to the then–GMU student Jim Welty, “I want to fuck you on this bed,” or to the alum Sean Cummings,

Você está lendo uma amostra, registre-se para ler mais.

Interesses relacionados

Mais de The Atlantic

The AtlanticLeitura de 6 mins
A Polarized City, Mirrored in Its Diaspora
Hong Kong’s protests have pitted relatives and friends against one another, including those who no longer live in the city.
The AtlanticLeitura de 6 minsPolitics
No One Knows International Law’s Failures Better Than the Rohingya
Grandiose talk of worldwide relief and justice has been accompanied by little to no action. Now the group’s options are narrowing.
The AtlanticLeitura de 5 mins
The Best Thing to Happen to Bernie Sanders’s Campaign
His recent heart attack has given his effort a new message—and has brought his supporters home.