This was not a bad week for the national reputation of our state university. This was a horrible week.
Can you imagine sitting in St. Louis, San Antonio or San Francisco and reading how seven students, present and former, filed a federal discrimination complaint against UConn, alleging that the school failed to protect them from sexual assault on campus? How, in the words of pitbull civil rights lawyer Gloria Allred, it showed "deliberate indifference" in responding to the charges?
And then picking up a paper a few days later to read that the UConn basketball program, the crown athletic jewel of our state, had a graduation rate of 8 percent for players entering the school between 2003 and 2006?
Those people have to be wondering what the hell is going on in Storrs. Reputations do not make for absolute truths, of course, and UConn has mounted its defenses. Still, there was one startling accusation that left me feeling like I had been punched in the gut.
Junior Rose Richi said she was sexually assaulted by a UConn athlete, didn't feel comfortable about telling anyone because of the "overwhelming privilege of athletes on this campus" and when she did report it to the UConn police the detective told her he didn't believe her.
He "made it clear my experience did not matter," Richi said in a news conference.
The discrimination complaint is complex, involves several women, each with a different set of circumstances. It is a sports story only to the extent that it involves Richi and the fact that lead complainant Carolyn Luby wrote a public letter to President Susan Herbst last spring that asserted Herbst appeared to be more interested in promoting a mean, snarling new school logo than problems involving men in the athletic program or an atmosphere of zero tolerance for violence against women on campus.
Richi's allegations read like something from one of the stereotypical, all-powerful football factories out in the Midwest or down South. I swore nearly two decades ago that, when I accepted the job as lead sports columnist at our state's largest newspaper, I would not sit quietly in the face of campus allegations involving violence against women.
It was true in the case of UConn football defensive back Chris Meyer when he was charged with helping to cover up a rape in 2002. It was true when basketball player Nate Miles violated a restraining order against a female student before he was forced off campus. It was true even when Ben Gordon stood accused of slapping a female student in the face. This is not done out of any particular courage on my part, rather a requisite watchdog responsibility that comes with the job.
The UConn police have demonstrated that they usually are unafraid to bring charges against athletes. There is a long, long list to back such an assertion.
That's why Richi's tearful words were startling. If she is telling the truth, that means some athlete, perhaps glorified in this very space, is walking free after a terrible crime. If she didn't step forward initially because she was afraid of the overwhelming privileges of athletes at Storrs, then the university must, must, must have the perfect apparatus in place to alleviate those fears. And if it doesn't, then every student on campus must, must, must be made abundantly aware of them. Lots of ifs.
I'm not resting on this one. I am reaching out to Richi, just as I reached out to the woman whom basketball player Enosch Wolf was accused of getting into an altercation with last spring, a boyfriend/girlfriend incident. I contacted that woman a number of times in hopes of giving a voice to the crime. She repeatedly refused comment. I respect her privacy. I still feel she missed a chance to better educate all of us about college relationships. And now we possibly have much worse.
As the Courant sports columnist, as a dad of a daughter at a state university, the Richi story is personal. I didn't know one thing about the allegation before Monday. Now I do. I will not rest until we get to the truth.
I do want to say this. UConn President Susan Herbst has taken some serious heat in recent days. She has been painted as indifferent to the women's claims. She has been painted as overly defensive of the university. It will be up to others with a fuller view to eventually draw the most vital conclusions. But I feel compelled to share an exchange of emails last spring after Luby's open letter published by The Feminist Wire.
Some websites simplified the entire matter and said Luby was claiming the new logo promoted sexual assault. It gained national attention. She was subjected to some horrible stuff. Luby, who has said she was a victim of rape and sexual assault, said she had received threats of rape and all sorts of harm after her letter. I don't agree with Luby's tying the logo to the issues of sexual assault. As I wrote in April, I wholeheartedly back her right to make the argument. Let's be clear: It sickens me to hear of the abuse she is getting, from nameless, faceless morons.
I wrote to Herbst that maybe a more friendly, female mascot could be added. A number of universities, Tennessee comes to mind, have done it. She responded in the kind of caring, thoughtful way of a real leader. She wrote how she had significant experience with these matters on many campuses. She said she understands when students are upset, rightfully, about sexual assault, inequality and the general treatment of women. She wrote she didn't think it is about the Husky logo at all and it is best for us to separate the dog from the issues of assault, which are very real, and should never be trivialized by dragging in a sports mascot. Her words were not meant for publication, but in my mind they demonstrate her true feelings when not directly pressed by any legal allegations.
As for the 8 percent graduation rate for players entering UConn from 2003 to 2006, there is no clearer indicator that the UConn basketball program under Jim Calhoun became a minor league franchise for a number of years. Every major college basketball program is one to an extent. Still, UConn basketball was allowed by the school hierarchy to go way too far, get away with too much and the results spoke for themselves: national titles, NCAA recruiting sanctions involving Nate Miles and an academic performance that left the school banned from the NCAA Tournament two years after it had won it all.
Hey, win some national titles, lose some reputation. And if you think conferences like the ACC weren't watching, well, keep drinking the national flag blue Kool-Aid kiddies.
Too many guys didn't do enough schoolwork, a few weren't equipped to do it and some bolted the moment the whistle on their final game sounded. Some essentially were run off when they didn't produce or transferred because they didn't get the minutes. The atmosphere went beyond being a two-year feeding ground for a few guys guaranteed to make the NBA. There also was the secondary target of playing abroad. UConn put players in the pros. And UConn bragged about it. There are some who will scream "Huzzah" at this characterization, point out that those players made some serious cash, and insist the entire college athletic system is a sham anyway. I will not try to change their minds today. Some of their argument is true.
I will only argue that the 8 percent graduation rate should not be embraced as a clarion call that massive academic changes are needed at UConn or — as the program's staunch loyalists will argue — that it's a number from long ago that should be buried and forgotten.
Late comers, over-reactionaries and some simply bent on undercutting what they see as a state university built on testosterone-raging athletics have been pounding their fists the past few days and screaming, "Something must change!" Well, something already did. Pay attention. The school made appropriate steps two-three years ago. Look at the academic numbers of the program's past few school years. Not only have they improved dramatically, but also when the NCAA gets around to announcing the APR from 2012-2013, people will see a perfect 1,000 score.
Still, the 1-for-12 happened. The 8 percent stands as an insult to any and all notions of student-athleticism. The national graduation average for that time span in men's basketball was 74 percent. UConn finished ahead of one school: Centenary. The 1-for-12 should not be forgotten. The 1-for-12 should not be buried. The 1-for-12 and the humiliating APR numbers should be on display alongside all the championship trophies as a reminder that it cannot happen again.
That's why the institutional lionizing of Jim Calhoun in recent months has been curious. There was that massive night in his honor a full year after he retired with his program facing NCAA sanctions. A street was named in his honor. He leaves behind a complicated legacy, some good, some not good, and it almost seems as if the school is trying to rehabilitate that complicated image. To what end? To increase athletic fundraising?