University of Colorado Is a Study in Sports Scandal
In this picturesque town set against the Rocky Mountains, where conversation usually tends toward skiing this time of year, the talk has shifted abruptly to a scandal involving alcohol, rape and the local college football team.
Almost every day this month has brought a new accusation against the University of Colorado Buffaloes, and Thursday was no different. Police said they are investigating whether a team member sexually assaulted a woman in 2002, the seventh such claim since 1997.
Players also have been accused of offering alcohol and strippers to high school recruits, which has prompted a high-level investigation. Coach Gary Barnett was placed on leave Wednesday night after downplaying an allegation by Katie Hnida, a former Colorado kicker, who said she was assaulted by a teammate. Barnett called her a “terrible” player.
These developments have pushed Colorado to the forefront of a wave of embarrassing incidents involving college athletics. Much of the controversy centers on the way football programs cozy up to high school prospects.
From Oregon to Alabama, reports have surfaced of recruits being offered alcohol, marijuana and sex while visiting campuses. A Florida recruit was accused of accosting a woman and punching a man outside a nightclub during a recent visit.
These allegations have prompted the NCAA to form a task force to establish more stringent rules.
The alarm has sounded even louder in Colorado, where allegations extend well beyond recruiting practices, and state officials have demanded action.
“These are fundamental questions that people have to wrestle to the ground,” said Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “It keeps fueling the idea that college athletics are out of control.”
At first glance, the Colorado campus and its surrounding mountains seem an unlikely setting for such a scandal.
The school’s faculty includes two Nobel Prize winners. The psychology and molecular physics programs are considered among the nation’s best. Unlike some big colleges, the campus is not dominated by football.
“They can’t even sell out a CU football game because half of the students are out mountain biking,” said Bronson Hilliard, an alumnus and managing editor of the Colorado Daily, a newspaper serving the student community. “These are not the kind of people out waving a big Styrofoam finger in the air.”
But Colorado is also the site of the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case and a rape scandal at the Air Force Academy. The Buffaloes, who won a national championship in 1990, have had trouble too.
As far back as 1962, a coach was fired amid allegations that recruits were paid to attend school. During the 1980s, players were accused of various crimes, including serial rape and drunken driving.
More recent problems date to 1997, when a 17-year-old female high school student accused a player of rape after a recruiting party. Four years later, three women alleged they were raped by football players and recruits at an alcohol-saturated party.
Boulder County prosecutor Mary Keenan, who found insufficient evidence to file sexual assault charges in the 2001 case, has said she believes the university entices recruits with sex and alcohol.
A Broomfield, Colo., man who has operated an escort service for 15 years said he has sent strippers to recruiting parties for several colleges in the state.
“It’s a tradition handed down from player to player to player,” he told local reporters.
When Barnett and university President Elizabeth Hoffman initially denied accusations, Gov. Bill Owens stepped in, vowing to “take whatever steps are necessary to protect the integrity of the university.”
Hoffman created a panel to investigate recruiting practices but even that raised a furor when her appointed co-chair, Joyce Lawrence, said: “The question that I have for the ladies in this is, why are they going to parties like this and drinking or taking drugs and putting themselves in a very threatening or serious position like this?”
The panel’s final members were chosen this week.
In the meantime, at least one Colorado player said he took a recruit to a strip club. Barnett suspended four players for violating team rules pertaining to recruiting activities.
Barnett, 57, came to Boulder from academically respected Northwestern University, where former players remember him as a stickler for rules.
“I don’t know anything about what’s going on in Colorado, but none of that went on here,” said Steve Schnur, quarterback of the school’s 1995 Big Ten championship team.
Colorado hired Barnett in 1999 to restore a program that had, by most accounts, run amok. Not long after his arrival, the NCAA determined that more than 50 recruiting rules had been violated under his predecessor, Rick Neuheisel.
Many in Boulder welcomed Barnett as a disciplinarian and a polar opposite of Neuheisel, who took his players on river-rafting trips and served them ice cream after practice.
On Thursday, former quarterback Charles Johnson called Barnett “a man of high moral integrity. We believe he is doing the right things.”
Yet, during his tenure at Northwestern, four players were implicated in a gambling scandal. At Colorado, his style did not suit at least one administrator.
Robert Chichester, a former associate athletic director who now heads the UC Irvine athletic department, told investigators that Barnett had been warned of concerns about recruiting.
Barnett, Chichester said in a deposition, “didn’t necessarily want to know what was going on.”
“I felt if the head coach doesn’t know what’s going on with recruiting activities, he has a responsibility to know generally what’s going on and to set the tone and climate,” he said. “I didn’t get a sense that coach Barnett was committed to that.”
Barnett did not return calls seeking comment.
The problems at Colorado are the most visible in a recent spate of incidents:
* During a recruiting trip to the University of Florida in January, high school linebacker Willie Williams was accused of punching a man outside a nightclub and hugging a female hotel guest and refusing to let go.
* In January, at the home of a Brigham Young University football player, recruits allegedly witnessed team members consuming alcohol and making sexual advances to female guests. The university is investigating.
* In December, University of Minnesota recruits visited a strip club two weeks in a row and drank alcohol.
* The father of San Diego State running back Lynell Hamilton told the Stockton Record that his son was offered sex, alcohol and marijuana during a trip to the University of Oregon in 2002. Hamilton also visited Colorado but said nothing improper occurred there.
* Strippers entertained recruits at parties at the University of Alabama -- violations that landed the university on NCAA probation in 2002.
NCAA President Myles Brand recently said, “Some of what is being alleged is morally reprehensible and has no place in college sports.” Brand called for a task force to study recruiting bylaws and report to the NCAA Management Council in April.
But the scandals have reached beyond recruiting, even beyond athletes.
Last year, Alabama fired football coach Mike Price after he spent hundreds of dollars at a strip club and allowed a young woman to order $1,000 in food and drinks from his hotel room the next morning. Iowa State basketball coach Larry Eustachy was dismissed after photographs of him partying with students were made public.
Roby, the Northeastern University ethicist, said recruiting infractions are “symptomatic of a bigger issue -- what kinds of messages do we send kids?”
At Colorado, university administrators were upset by Barnett’s comments Tuesday regarding rape allegations by former kicker Hnida.
Hnida, who has transferred to the University of New Mexico, told Sports Illustrated that she was verbally harassed by teammates and raped by a player while at Colorado in 1999.
Barnett said: “You know what guys do -- they respect your ability. Katie was a girl and not only was she a girl, she was terrible. OK? There’s no other way to say it. She couldn’t kick the ball through the uprights.”
Barnett, appearing on CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Thursday night, tried to clarify his remark. “I was trying to communicate that we cared about Katie, that we were going to any extent we could to help her achieve her dream of being a college football kicker.”
According to Associated Press, administrators were also concerned by the disclosure Wednesday of a 2001 police report filed by another woman who alleged she had been raped by a football player. The report quoted an unidentified woman saying Barnett told her he “would back his player 100%.” The woman declined to file charges.
Barnett might not know his fate until the university’s investigation into recruiting practices is concluded in late April.
In the meantime, state officials are left to ponder what has gone wrong at their flagship university, where scandal follows another embarrassment.
Last fall, the Princeton Review named Colorado the biggest party school in the nation. The football team has added to the worries.
“It’s the only thing in the news anymore,” said Peter Steinhauer, chairman of the CU Board of Regents. " ... This is a black eye for the school. Our integrity is under attack.”
Kelly reported from Boulder, Wharton and Dufresne from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Steve Henson contributed to this report.