Jamie Kuntz was dismissed from his college football team after his relationship with a 65-year-old man became known. Amy K. Nelson visited North Dakota and found that the story is told quite differently, depending on who's talking.
Forty-eight hours is all it took. Just 48 hours spent in two small North Dakota towns, to discover that Jamie Kuntz's story – the one in which the 18-year-old football player was dismissed from his college football team after kissing his boyfriend in the press box – is told very differently, depending on who's talking.
After two days spent between two North Dakota towns, it becomes clear there are no winners. Not Kuntz -- the North Dakota State College of Science linebacker who, sidelined with a concussion and tasked with filming his team's road game in Colorado over the Labor Day holiday, found himself outed and gone from his football team within days of his transgression. Not his 65-year-old boyfriend, the one who unwisely chose to put Kuntz in that position, nor Kuntz's teammates and coaches at NDSCS, a two-year school and member of the National Junior College Athletic Association. And then there are the rest of the students, administrators, residents and anyone else who has ties to this story.
"This is such a he said/she said story," said local resident and Kuntz supporter Misty Benjamin. "We just want the school to get its story straight."
No one will ever know whether Kuntz's sexuality was a deciding factor in his dismissal.
That's because no one -- apart from Jamie and his boyfriend -- will truly know what happened in that press box two weeks ago, and no one will truly know whether his former teammates' accounts of what they saw indeed occurred.
"He knew why he got kicked off," said NDSCS defensive end Trevon Money, a former teammate. "I [saw] more than a kiss, that's all I'm saying."
Up until last week, people in this small North Dakota town of Wahpeton weren't saying much. It was a tangled mess of he said/she said/they said, and seemingly no one could agree on any of it.
What is known is that Kuntz says he and his boyfriend kissed and embraced. Teammates say he was doing more --some have even said he was having sex -- and school officials concede they made their decision based on varying accounts. They kicked him off the football team within days, first because he lied to his coach in the moment outside of the team bus -- when he told coach Chuck Parsons that the boyfriend was his grandfather -- then because the distraction he allegedly caused the team during the game was such that Kuntz needed to be dismissed. In the process, Kuntz was outed for the first time as a gay man, even though that largely was his doing.
The pieces left to parse? A young gay man is out of school and out of football. A team, a school and a community have been labeled by many as homophobic, and even many gay rights groups are keeping a safe distance from the story for fear of what may surface.
"If this happened, I'd want it to be a clean story," said one sports LGBT activist, who has a background in sports and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. That Kuntz was kicked off, "just because he's gay, because [then] it's a clean, easy victory.
"It's a tough one, I feel bad for the kid."
It is a complex narrative, and over the course of 48 hours in two different North Dakota towns, this is what I found:
- Jamie Kuntz's story about what happened in the press box has slightly varied since he first went to known gay rights activist Dan Savage with his story.
- The North Dakota State College of Science has issued varying statements, and its athletic director, in his first on-camera national interview, gave unclear and unspecific answers, at times.
- Kuntz's teammates adamantly insist Kuntz's main transgression -- other than explicitly engaging with his boyfriend during a game -- is that he did not film a bulk of the game, with critical game footage missing.
- A few of those same teammates who publicly challenged Kuntz on Twitter contradicted their tweets when interviewed by SB Nation, including one player who made homophobic remarks to Kuntz on the social network but later talked around them in an interview.
- The national media has descended upon Kuntz, and to a degree, Wahepton, N.D. (the small town in which Kuntz was student for less than a month).
And finally, I learned that there are no winners.
THURSDAY, 11 a.m.
It takes a little under two hours to drive from Bismarck, N.D., to the small town of Dickinson.
The weather report from the local NBC station featured Dickinson instead of the state's capitol. There's likely a reason for that: over the past several years, North Dakota has emerged as a booming oil state. Dickinson, once a quaint and quiet town, lies near the oil shales and has been transformed into a bustling -- by North Dakota standards, at least -- oil port.
Hotels are booked weeks in advance. Sports clubs have new members just so they can use the showers, because they have no housing. A local McDonald's offers an $18-per-hour wage because jobs are bountiful and people are not. The hotel room nearest Dickinson is two hours -- and, fittingly, a time zone -- away.
When Jamie Kuntz opens the door to his small childhood home, he has a plate of scrambled eggs with hot sauce getting cold on his kitchen counter. He's all business; his blonde hair coiffed with a dollop of gel and just to the side, his designer jeans and grey waffle-knit shirt fitting his athletic body just perfectly.
And as we sit down at his kitchen table, he's nervous.
"I've never done this," he says. "This is my first time on camera."
It's been a few days since Kuntz's story was released to the world on Savage's website, and because his phone number is public via an old YouTube video, his iPhone will not stop ringing, texting ... noising. He leaves the phone in his basement bedroom while he sits at his kitchen table to be interviewed. Kuntz sits upright, composed, a tad jittery but always seemingly in control, and ready for what will be thrown his way.
Simply put, he is prepared to defend himself. To wit:
Why, Jamie, would you even put yourself in the position to out yourself -- and at your own team's football game, no less?
"I didn't think anything was going to happen. I thought we were going to stand in the press box and watch the game together. I never thought we were going to kiss; it never crossed my mind."
How did you two remotely become physical?
"One of those things; everyone can say they wouldn't have done it. Everyone can get caught up in the moment, but we got caught up in the moment of being together. That's all I really can say about it."
You initially told Dan Savage that you just kissed him; what exactly happened in that press box?
"Nothing beyond a kiss, and [hugging]. If I was having sex in the press box, people would have said something, they would have called the cops."
If anyone asked questions, did you have an answer?
"Yeah, that he was my grandfather."
Kuntz had met his boyfriend on a website for younger men to meet older men, and vice-versa. They've officially been dating since April, but began their online relationship when Kuntz turned 18 last November. Kuntz is well aware the relationship makes people uneasy, especially his mother, Rita.
"I think even if it was an 18-year-old girl and a 60-year-old man ..." she said. "It has nothing to do with that it's a gay relationship, but the age difference does bother me."
As we sit in his kitchen, Kuntz tells me about Benjamin -- the Wahpeton local and total stranger -- who had reached out to him on Facebook in support. He calls her and we put the phone on speaker at the table. I ask her what led her to reach out to Kuntz. She reveals that her brother was gay, and had committed suicide. She feels a kinship with Kuntz, and thinks he should never have been kicked off the team. She's seen what the football players get away with, and thinks the school acted unfairly because Kuntz is gay. As Benjamin relays this, Kuntz looks at me and mouths, "I had no idea."
After the call, Kuntz says that when he was six years old, his father committed suicide. His mother, he suggests, suspects that this may contribute to his attraction to older men.
"It's tough growing up without a father," he said.
FRIDAY, 9:30 a.m.
Stu Engen had been on the job a little over four months as athletic director when coach Chuck Parsons walked into his office a few weeks ago and said he wanted to dismiss Kuntz. Engen said he made sure they did a thorough and complete evaluation, that the decision to dismiss Kuntz was not rushed, that had it been a woman in that press box, the school would have acted in just the same manner.
Entering the beige office of the human resources director, Engen is appropriately wearing a different hue of beige. It was his first national on-camera interview. He sat for over 30 minutes while three school officials stood in the back of the office and monitored.
Throughout the interview, Engen emphasized that Kuntz's dismissal had nothing to do with his sexual orientation. He repeatedly said his school was a place of tolerance and respect. But at times, he gave unclear answers.
- Engen said he heard varying accounts of when Kuntz was engaged in "ongoing and explicit behavior," ranging from the entire game, to all of the second half. "All I can confirm is that it happened at least all of the second half," Engen said.
- When asked which part of the student-athlete policy he violated, Engen said Kuntz was there not as a student-athlete, but as a staff member. He was unclear about whether Kuntz's role as a staff member still violated the student-athlete policy for conduct detrimental to the team.
- When asked what the explicit nature of the behavior was, Engen would not get into specifics, and said he received varying accounts of what happened. "Different people have seen different things ... I know they were making out, if you will."
- When asked whether the conduct could be seen as detrimental because, in part, it is a subjective matter and could have offended some of those on the team who might be uncomfortable with a teammate who is gay, he said, "I think that our goal is to strive to have policies and have rules and we're trying to take the subjectivity away, but to your point, it's probably hard to entirely remove all subjectivity."
One of the repeated criticisms by Kuntz's supporters of the administration is its inconsistency in detailing exactly what Kuntz is alleged to have done in the press box to warrant such an extreme distraction. Engen declined again to go into specifics, but made it clear that the school based its decision on inconsistent statements from various players and parents.
"The stories, they have varied," Engen said. "We have had various individuals describe various acts ... Our focus was on the effect it had on the team."
At first, school spokeswoman Barbara Spaeth-Baumaid said neither she nor Engen could comment on former students. Then, as the story grew, interviews were given -- first by Engen, and later by the president of the school. Both cited two reasons why Kuntz was dismissed from the football team: lying, and actions detrimental to the team.
It is abundantly clear that Kuntz violated the student conduct policy by lying. The school had every right to dismiss him -- even if it would have been extreme -- based on that alone. Kuntz does not deny this. However, Engen said Kuntz was traveling to the game that day not as a student athlete, but as a staff member. Which asked which school policy Kuntz violated as a staff member when it came to the disruption and conduct detrimental to the team, Engen was unclear. He added Kuntz was still a student-athlete, but it was unclear whether his role as a staff member would have made a different in which policy he violated.
When asked for a hard copy of the student-athlete policy, the school's public relations firm sent an excerpt which clearly states that any conduct detrimental to the team is grounds for dismissal, as is lying. Whether Kuntz has any legal recourse is unclear, because technically speaking, he was not traveling as a student-athlete for the trip.
Engen added that because Kuntz's job was to film the game, and portions of the game were not filmed, he also erred in his tasks for the day, thus exhibiting conduct detrimental to the team. While Engen spoke for the school, I still wanted to find actual students -- in particular, Kuntz's former teammates.
11:30 a.m., OUTSIDE THE NDSCS FOOD HALL
From the time this story broke, no football players had been asked on the record about what happened. There was still a void and a voice that had not been heard. As I was waiting to find more students to speak with, a group of players exited the food hall en masse, ready to talk.
Their reasoning came off, at times, as very fair and understandable. They argued that no matter whether it was a woman or a man up in that press box, their reactions would have remained the same.
"It wasn't that he was gay, it was he was doing in the middle of a football game," said ex-teammate Money. "There's a time and place for everything ... Whether it was Halle Berry up there, you still deserved to get kicked off the team."
The players contend that once they realized Kuntz was engaging in that behavior, no matter how explicit, he created a huge distraction and lacked an account of responsibility. They also said his failure to tape everything -- a fact Kuntz does not argue -- could also hurt them when it comes to recruiting video.
And some are angry that they have been cast as homophobes.
"I got like three gay people in my family I'm super close with," said Davion Stackhouse. "I don't got nothing against gay people. I'm not homophobic; everyone on Twitter is calling me a homophobic idiot. I got nothing against gay people, I'm not homophobic, there's just a time and place."
It is not fair to cast the entire school, town and team as homophobes. But not all of the players were completely forthcoming, either. Mykar Groves was one of Kuntz's former teammates who publicly sparred with Kuntz on Twitter after he left the school. Groves wanted to know why Kuntz just hadn't told the team before, because many of the players say the way they found out added to the frustration. But with all the homophobic slurs his teammates used on a daily basis, Kuntz countered, how could he possibly feel comfortable coming out?
Groves responded in a tweet, saying: "man, gay jokes? Cuz we don't expect noone [sic] to like boys who be in the same locker room and s*** as us that's why!"
When asked about the tweet, Groves denied he had any issues with a gay teammate in the locker room.
"He shouldn't have been afraid. If he would have just come out to the team and told us he was gay, we would have been all right with it," he said.
Groves also said he saw Kuntz "doing what all gay dudes do," which is dropping to his knees, and that was "nasty to me."
2 p.m., HIGHWAY 94 EAST OUT OF NORTH DAKOTA
As I leave the state, I think how many stories I had been told, how the players, for the most part, were passionate about how they felt they had been mischaracterized, and how Kuntz had clearly violated their cohesiveness because of what he did at the game, not for something off the field.
"We want you all to understand we respect him as a person, but we don't like the way he went about it," Money said. "I don't like how the world came at us at a team like we're bad players like we don't accept him."
And what gets lost in all of this is that, at just 18 years old, Kuntz is now labeled -- part of his choice for being so public about his story, of course. He may have a difficult time finding a role with another team, especially since he pointed out the hypocrisy in how teammates had committed drinking violations and had not been dismissed from the team as he was. It can be a far more difficult road when one points the finger at teammates.
Yet in spite of this, all of his former teammates said they believed he deserves to play football somewhere else, that everybody deserves "a second chance."
Kuntz is not so sure he'll get it. He's looking to enroll in the spring semester somewhere in order to play next fall. He knows it's an uphill battle. But he stands by his decision to have his boyfriend in the press box, while also admitting it was wrong of him. He knows how bad it looks to the outside world that he's dating someone more than three times his age. He insists he was the aggressor, and in the end, he hopes all the media attention will eventually subside, and he'll be able to get back into school -- and, with any luck, get back to playing football.
"There has to be at least one Division I program," he said, "that's willing to give me a shot."
For now, there is not. So Jamie Kuntz waits by his phone, 18, out of school, out of football, in his hometown he wants desperately to leave, hoping that soon on the other end is one brave coach willing to bet on him.