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01 Mar 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Troubled Times at CU

by Russell Levine

"Colorado attorney general to probe Buffs' scandal"

"NFL makes second appeal of Clarett rulling"

"NCAA may try to level recruiting inconsistencies"

"Ball State reprimands coaches for WR frostbite"

"CU players cozy with cops?"

Those were the headlines on ESPN.com's college football news page on Sunday. A quick glance tells you all you need to know about the type of offseason it has been for the college game. And this comes on the heels of the controversial split national titles that happened in spite of the best efforts of the BCS.

All in all, not the best of times for my favorite sport.

Most of the headlines this winter have been devoted to the ongoing sexual assault scandal at Colorado, which certainly looks as if it will cost head coach Gary Barnett his job. He's currently on administrative leave following insensitive remarks about a former player, female kicker Katie Hnida, who has alleged she was repeatedly harassed by players on the practice field and later raped by a teammate at CU.

Obviously, something is very, very wrong at Colorado, but it's difficult to say exactly where the fault lies, and any examination of the situation leads to more questions than answers. Did the football program, first under Bill McCartney, then under Rick Neuheisel and Barnett, foster an atmosphere where recruits were led to believe that sex would be available to them, leading to a lawless band of over-privileged athletes wreaking havoc on campus? Remember, before McCartney quit to start the Promise Keepers, a faith-based family values organization, he won a national championship with a team whose rap sheet was as lengthy as any outfit Barry Switzer ever fielded at Oklahoma. Neuheisel, his successor, managed to get both Colorado and Washington in trouble with the NCAA before getting fired for taking part in a high-stakes March Madness pool. Is Colorado somehow different than other major college football programs? Or is the problem more inherent to college campuses in general today?

The answer, as it usually does, lies in some combination of those circumstances. Certainly, the atmosphere in Boulder in general contributes to the problem. This is a school that was voted the top party school in America by Playboy last year, and anyone who has spent a weekend there can attest that the students do their very best to uphold that reputation. Or maybe they can't. I spent a weekend there for a Michigan game in '96 and can't remember much of it. It's that kind of campus.

That is not to suggest that rape is a natural progression at a school with a rampant party atmosphere, but there is some connection. Any time you mix thousands and thousands of young people with plentiful alcohol and recreational drugs, the conditions for sexual assault will be present. Insofar as that potent mix may be more prevalent in Boulder than other college towns, it's possible that could be a root cause of the problems CU is facing.

Don't get me wrong, there is no excuse for sexual assault, and merely having the conditions that make it more likely to occur does not mean that it is still not the responsibility of those individuals that commit the crime.

So what did happen at CU? Much of the news coverage has spoken of an atmosphere of tolerance that existed within the football program, as well as a sense of entitlement among the players themselves. Again, you could apply those critiques to virtually any big-time college or pro athletic team. Of course the players have a sense of entitlement. Of course they believe the rules don't apply to them. Because, for the most part, they don't. Many scholarship college football and basketball players have been reaping the benefits of their athletic talents since they were teenagers, whether it's teachers that are more lenient with them, to coaches that will try and get them out of any they trouble they get in, etc. They come to understand at a very young age that their athletic talent does indeed entitle them to certain privileges that others do not enjoy.

If these conditions exist at virtually every big-time athletic school, why haven't there been more scandals such as the one at Colorado, with allegations of the use of sex as a recruiting tool and an athletics administration that turns a blind eye to the misdeeds of its players?

That, I can't answer. Many will point to Barnett as the center of blame, and he almost assuredly will lose his job. I'm not a big fan of Barnett. His arrogance as he led Northwestern to the top of the Big 10 (at Michigan's expense, I feel compelled to add), instantly killed for me what was an obvious feel-good story. But I don't think the blame lies with him. Truth be told, Barnett probably runs a tighter ship than most Division-1A coaches and he's one of the few that has strict limits -- such as a 1 a.m. curfew -- for players on recruiting visits (those rules came about after sexual assault allegations following a recruiting parting a few years ago).

At minimum, Barnett is guilty of some very, very poor judgement in his comments about Hnida, whom he referred to as a "terrible" player following her rape accusation. Barnett has protested that the quote was taken out of context, and he's right, but he should be smarter than that. Barnett was attempting to answer a question as to why Hnida had a hard time fitting in with her teammates and he answered along the lines of players respecting ability and she didn't have much. That's where the "terrible" quote came in. His explanation was probably partially correct. For one, Hnida has no business being on a Division One college football roster, and that has nothing to do with the fact that she's a woman. At her new school, New Mexico, Hnida is the third-string kicker. Most schools do not carry a third-string kicker, certainly not an upperclassmen third-string kicker. She has kicked a couple of times at the end of blowouts, and never in a meaningful portion of a game.

But if Barnett is correct in that her ability was preventing her from being respected by her teammates, he should have cut her from the team (she joined the team under CU's previous coach, Neuheisel). And if her allegations of serial sexual harassment, groping, etc., occurring during practice are true, then Barnett, as the head coach, had to know it was going on and had the responsibility to do something to stop it. A college football coach can't control every aspect of his players' lives -- NCAA regulations limit the number of hours a coaching staff can have contact with its players -- but he certainly should know everything that goes on on the practice field. If one of his players was subject to regular harassment and mistreatment by the rest of the team, Barnett had a duty to take action, and he obviously did nothing.

That alone will probably cost Barnett his job. Should it? Given everything else that has gone on surrounding the program in recent weeks -- a lawsuit alleging sexual assaults at a party for recruits, among other rape allegations, somebody must be held responsible. Barnett, for better or worse, is the head of the program. At the very minimum, he claims complete ignorance of some rather serious harassment charges involving incidents at team practices.

It's hard to imagine that the scandal at CU will not eventually claim several other high-ranking members of the university administration, including the athletic director and school president. But how much will replacing all these people do to end the problem?

The problems at CU are reflective of problems in society as a whole -- some estimates say that as many as one in seven college women will be the victim of a sexual assault. Certainly, the sense of entitlement many big-time recruits feel is a contributing factor.

It's a potent recipe for disaster -- prized athletes, used to getting their way on the field and off, with readily available alcohol, recreational drugs and young women. Throw in all the systems in place to ensure their academic and athletic success, and it's easy to see why athletes can get the impression that everything about campus life, including young women, is theirs for the taking.

If you read any of Willie Williams' recruiting diaries, you know that for the prized athlete, the campus visit bares little in common with the one your parents took you on in the family mini-van after your junior year of high school. These days, the top recruits are flown in on private jets, often squired around campus by "greeter girls," a squad of ultra-peppy, ultra-attractive coeds who do their best to get Johnny Highschool to sign on the dotted line, and wined and dined at gourmet restaurants by fawning coaches.

It doesn't take a tremendous leap of faith to imagine how your average 18-year-old star athlete, already used to being the BMOC in high school, could get to thinking that he will rule the roost at State U.

CU may be the unfortunate school featured in all the scandalous headlines this winter -- but trust me, all over the country there are university and athletic department officials that are breathing a sigh of relief, knowing it could have just as easily occurred on their campus.

University administrators have been trying for generations to figure out how to limit that party atmosphere that exists on most college campuses. Nothing that happened the last few years at Colorado is likely to lead to an effective sea change.

So what can be done about the particular problem of athletes? The NCAA rule book is already several inches thick and governs nearly every aspect of the student-athlete's life, from initial recruitment to fifth-year senior season. Somehow, some rules of common sense regarding the on-campus visits of recruits aren't among the thousands of regulations. How is it that there are pages devoted to how many colors can be used in the brochure you send to a high school player, yet not a word suggesting that picking up said player in a private jet and sending him on a campus tour with a squad of glorified cheerleaders could give the wrong impression?

At this point, it would represent a crackdown for the NCAA to pass some legislation limiting the number of strippers that could be sent to a recruit's hotel room.

New NCAA czar Miles Brand has emphasized putting the "student" back into "student-athlete" and cracking down on the business aspects of college athletics. It's time to put his money where his mouth is. The recruiting shenanigans have to stop. No greeter girls, no private jets, no four-star restaurants. Provide the opportunity for parents to accompany recruits on their visit. In other words, make the athlete's campus visit somewhat akin to what the regular student would experience.

Hey, I enjoyed reading Williams' recruiting diaries in the Miami Herald as much as the next guy. Somehow, the fact that he faces charges for three unrelated incidents during a single weekend visit to the University of Florida wasn't as entertaining as the stories about his surf and turf dinners.

If the NCAA and its member schools are serious about cleaning up the badly damaged reputation of their marquee sport, they need to start with the next class of incoming freshmen. Show them what college life is like for the actual student, not just the star athlete.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 01 Mar 2004

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