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For many major universities, their sports teams, especially their football and basketball teams, give them their proud persona. The teams and their star players are virtually worshipped.
But while sports bring schools fame, glamour and money, the value placed on sports often produces scandal and potential scandal, corruption, abuse and a culture of secrecy. Presidents, governing boards, coaches and university-friendly lawyers will go to great lengths to play down scandal, especially sexual assault, and hide it altogether.
The crisis unraveling at the University of Iowa has a familiar ring. Last October, a female athlete accused then-football players Abe Satterfield and Cedric Everson of raping her on campus. The university immediately went into damage control, quietly launching informal and formal investigations. The problem was that the victim and her parents were kept out of the loop as administrators and their lawyers worked behind the scenes.
After university president Sally K. Mason and the statewide Board of Regents got involved, openness went out the window — all to keep the scandal out of the news. But the parents of the victim persisted, writing letters and speaking with reporters after they and their daughter weren’t even interviewed during the initial investigation.
"We asked over and over and over and over and over, what is the process," the parents wrote to the university five weeks after their daughter accused the players of assault. "What can we expect? Who is protecting the victim after she told her story to so many people that first week? Where are these boys in all this? NO ANSWERS." To make matter worse, news reports show that the female was harassed by male athletes after the case became public.
Lawyers for the two accused males don’t apologize for the foot-dragging and the secrecy in the case. Des Moines attorney Alfredo Parrish, who is representing Satterfield, is blunt. "My real successes are the (cases) you never hear about," he told the Des Moines Register. "In my view, I’ve already lost once something gets into the newspaper."
People who watch such cases say that Iowa is far from being alone in protecting its investment in outstanding athletes. Several years ago, several top administrators at University of Colorado at Boulder, including president Elizabeth Hoffman, football coach Gary Barnett and athletic director Dick Tharp, were either fired or stepped down in a sensational case that involved sexual abuse and booze. To put the scandal on ice, the university agreed to pay $2.85 million to settle a lawsuit brought by two of the victims.
Elsewhere, ESPN’s "Outside the Lines" aired a computer-assisted analysis in July showing that 46 Penn State football players have faced 163 criminal charges since 2002, with 27 players having been convicted of or pleaded guilty to a combined 45 charges.
Researchers and victim rights advocates argue that because universities with powerhouse sports programs are so worried about negative publicity, they fail to treat athlete-related scandals with the urgency they show in other crises.
Some universities don’t have formal procedures for dealing with such scandals. On some campuses where sexual assaults have been alleged, administrators have bypassed their own police departments for criminal investigations and have instead gone straight to their lawyers and boosters to keep the lid on.
A recent Chronicle of Higher Education commentary summarized what university administrators need to do to repair this culture of corruption, abuse and secrecy: "Key officials should know the basics of how to conduct investigations, from protecting the privacy of the parties involved to preserving evidence. Executives should know exactly which administrators — the general counsel, and the vice presidents for student affairs, public safety and media relations, for starters — to bring in immediately upon hearing of sexual assault allegations.
"These administrators, in turn, should know precisely what is expected of them in such a situation. And such planning should be done ahead of time — not the morning the story breaks." Executives and their coaches are duty-bound to protect the rights of all students. But too often the rights of assault victims have taken a back seat to keeping the criminal behavior of athletes out of the news. It has to stop.
(Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the St- Petersburg Times. E-mail maxwell(at)sptimes.com)