Naked in Nebraska: a wrestler's story
LINCOLN, Neb. -- A photo of wrestler Paul Donahoe, arms raised in victory, rushing from the mat, is still on the wall at the University of Nebraska's Bob Devaney Sports Center, where he worked his way to a 2007 national championship in the 125-pound weight class.
Donahoe was both the pride and potential of Nebraska's esteemed wrestling program, which has produced six Olympic wrestlers, including 2000 gold medalist Rulon Gardner.
But this past summer, before Donahoe's final season and his last shot at another national championship, that pride turned to shame. A phone call from a parent tipped university officials off to nude photos and video of Donahoe on Fratmen.tv, a pornographic Web site aimed at gay men.
Think a wrestling singlet is revealing? The photos and video of Donahoe on Fratmen.tv left nothing to the imagination. There Donahoe was, gyrating and masturbating among tousled bed sheets, under running water in a marbled tile shower and on a charcoal chaise lounge facing a patio window. At times, the big, black-and-red trademark "N" for Nebraska, which is tattooed on his left thigh, was visible.
He went by the stage name "Nash."
The Web site's producers masked the tattoo of his real last name on his torso. But that didn't keep Nebraska wrestling coach Mark Manning from recognizing Donahoe when the images reached his desk. On Aug. 12, 2008, Manning kicked his national champion off the team.
He did the same to Donahoe's cohort, Kenny Jordan, whom Fratmen.tv also paid to pose nude.
The gay porn offended moral consciences in the Nebraska athletic department and among Huskers fans, some of whom called into "The Spread," a local sports talk radio show, to debate the athletes' dismissal, says co-host and former Nebraska football player Jason Peter.
"I think it's probably the act itself that people probably couldn't fathom, or didn't register in people's heads that this would actually happen in Lincoln, Nebraska, with college kids," Peter says. "I think when people think of the porn industry, they're probably thinking it's either Las Vegas or it's Los Angeles. But in your own backyard, I think it probably shocked people a little bit. Even though they didn't talk about it a lot, I'm sure a lot of people were wondering, 'How did they come to this decision?'"
Both wrestlers say a rep from Fratmen.tv contacted them through their Facebook and MySpace pages, asking them whether they would like to make some money and score a free trip to Los Angeles by posing for some pictures.
It is an NCAA violation for an athlete to take money to promote his image, according to Nebraska officials. That transgression goes against NCAA rules intended to preserve amateurism, and it can result in a loss of eligibility. Reinstating that eligibility is handled on a case-by-case basis, but the NCAA doesn't comment on individual cases. The wrestlers refused to say how much they earned from the Web site. But Donahoe claims he paid back $3,500 -- the value of his earnings and the trip to L.A. -- to reinstate his NCAA eligibility.
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Donahoe insists he did nothing wrong. Instead, he says he is a victim of a double standard at the university that allows other athletes to get away with far worse. Had the nude images not spread to the blogosphere, in his view, the coaches would have tried to keep his actions quiet. There is precedent for that at Nebraska, according to Donahoe.
"You can't cover up what I did," he says. "Once my pictures were out, people knew I posed nude. Someone gets in a fight, someone gets rape charges, someone gets sexual harassment charges -- you can cover that up."
Two Cornhuskers wrestlers posing nude on a gay pornographic Web site ought to have been enough scandal for the people in Nebraska, one of the nation's most conservative states. But the story doesn't end with Donahoe's dismissal from the team.
In a counterattack, he leveled a string of accusations against his teammates, his coaches and even athletic director Tom Osborne that have led to an internal investigation. And as it turns out, Nebraska had more to reveal about Donahoe as well.
In fact, the curtain hasn't dropped yet on the drama that followed his departure from Lincoln.
Donahoe came to Lincoln in 2004 as a much-heralded wrestler from Davison, Mich., a middle-class suburb of Flint. His family didn't have much money, and his parents split in a messy divorce in 1992, when Donahoe was only 7, a year after he started wrestling. In high school, his coaches became surrogate parents to him.
In college, his bond with Manning became so tight that other wrestlers often razzed Donahoe to ask his "dad" whether he could take it easy on them in practice. Manning expressed his fondness in letters, written on Nebraska stationery, that Donahoe kept.
"You know I love you and would do anything I can for you. You're part of my family!" one reads. Another says, "You're an inspiration and life blood of our team."
Yet that isn't how Manning characterized Donahoe when the coach brought the Web site photos to the attention of his boss. Osborne recalls Manning as saying that Donahoe had become an impediment to the team's chemistry and attitude.
"[Manning] just said that he felt that this wasn't what his team stood for. It wasn't what it represented, and this was not the first incident. And therefore, he felt that he needed to remove these people from his team," Osborne says.
Manning says there was no doubt in his mind that he did the right thing for the team.
"If you're tight with your teammates, you don't think of yourself," Manning says. "He only thought of himself in this situation, and it's sad, because he let his team down."
One member of that team was Robert Sanders, a senior who graduated in May. Sanders was a model student, honored for his academics and leadership skills on campus. He tried, but usually failed, to persuade Donahoe to join the team on community service outings to nursing homes and homeless shelters. And when he urged Donahoe to cut down on his drinking, Donahoe would just change the subject.
"On the mat, [Donahoe] was the hardest worker of anybody. Obviously, he had trouble off the mat," Sanders says. "The coaches loved him. When he did this whole thing, it tore up the coaches pretty bad, along with the rest of us. They jumped through hoops with him because he had other off-the-mat troubles."
The extent of Donahoe's off-the-mat troubles is at the heart of the debate over whether he deserved to be kicked off the team.
This past fall, after local media broke the news that the wrestlers had been kicked off the team, Manning, Osborne and other Nebraska officials were tight-lipped about the incident. They issued a vague press announcement and hinted that Donahoe and Jordan had some prior issues, but didn't provide details. The university refused ESPN's public records request for documents related to Donahoe's violation and its correspondence with the NCAA, citing the school's interpretation of a federal law designed to shield students' grades.
Lincoln police records show Donahoe was arrested on April 13, 2008, for hosting a loud house party and becoming confrontational with police officers. In a separate incident on March 28, 2008, officers cited him for having an open container of alcohol in a vehicle.
Jordan's rap sheet in Lincoln is longer and includes two misdemeanor assault convictions.
Donahoe also had two notable fights with his now former girlfriend, one resulting in multiple 911 calls from her cell phone. Donahoe and the ex-girlfriend present conflicting accounts about what happened, and no criminal charges were filed. But in at least one case, the relationship caused another problem for the coaching staff: The girlfriend placed frantic calls to two of the coaches -- around 4:30 a.m., according to one coach's recollection -- asking for help in getting Donahoe out of her apartment.
At the time he was finally kicked off the team, Donahoe was already under suspension for another NCAA violation, this one coming after he and a few other wrestlers sold the iPods they received as official gifts at the Big 12 tournament.
"I don't really get into trouble that much," Donahoe says. "I mean, I sold an iPod, I had a party at my house and I took naked photos. I mean, other than that, I tend to stay out of trouble."
Donahoe says he didn't see the harm in showing off his body for a little extra money, nor did he think anyone back in Nebraska would find out.
When they did, Donahoe says Manning initially told him to "get those pictures off the Internet," an indication, the way Donahoe sees it, that perhaps the school was going to try to control the damage already done. When his coach, his father figure, booted him off the team over what Donahoe thought were a few harmless photos, the young wrestler felt betrayed.
"I guess the university was worried about their image. And me posing on a homosexual Web site -- I guess they don't want that image," he says.
Donahoe says he is straight, as does Jordan, and suggests the mere association with a gay Web site was too much to handle for the university -- and especially for Osborne, a devout Christian and former Republican congressman.
"I didn't hurt anyone, and I didn't do anything illegal. I mean, it's not illegal to get naked and take pictures," he says.
Other Nebraska athletes have committed more serious transgressions -- hurt people, put people's lives in danger -- and didn't get dismissed, he says.
That precedent, according to Donahoe, goes back to what he's heard about Osborne's coaching days in the 1990s, when the football program experienced controversy over players such as Lawrence Phillips and Christian Peter. Both faced charges on a variety of violent crimes but remained on the team.
As a more recent example, Donahoe alluded to a brawl involving two Nebraska wrestling teammates who attended Manning's wedding in Oklahoma in August 2006. Freshmen Brandon Browne and Mike Rowe got drunk and started fighting in a hotel room. Rowe hit Browne in the head with a beer bottle, sending Browne to the hospital, an incident confirmed by Manning.
"Outside the Lines" could not locate a police report about the brawl, but Browne sued Rowe in an Oklahoma district court, and the judge awarded Browne $6,000 in damages for medical bills and pain and suffering. Manning wouldn't say how long he suspended them, but neither was dismissed. Rowe wrestled three seasons before being dropped from the team in 2008 for poor grades, teammates say.
Of the 44 wrestlers on Nebraska's roster during the past two seasons, at least 14 -- in addition to Jordan and Donahoe -- have faced criminal charges in the past several years. The charges include misdemeanors such as maintaining a disorderly house, marijuana possession, underage drinking, stealing, third-degree assault, littering and five citations for driving under the influence, according to Nebraska court records. Also, freshman Romero Cotton is awaiting trial on felony aggravated battery charges in his hometown of Hutchinson, Kan., for allegedly beating a man who was seeing his mother.
Expand the search to other sports, and the list grows with names of Nebraska athletes who've been charged with crimes or had other problems but remained on their teams. Nebraska did dismiss a number of athletes from their teams last year -- at least four football players and three wrestlers -- but university officials declined to provide an exact number or details about the reasons they were let go.
"I could have got in a fight. I could have got a DUI. I'd still be wrestling for that team," Donahoe says.
Three strikes, second chance
Donahoe would not have still been wrestling for Nebraska under any circumstances, according to Manning, who finally broke his silence on the subject this spring. Whether it was because of the pornographic images, a flunked class or another scuffle with the law, Donahoe was finished in Lincoln.
Manning says Donahoe and Jordan were dismissed for "violations of multiple team rules, multiple NCAA violations, multiple legal instances and multiple instances of disregard to academic rules and standards that we set on our team."
Donahoe had become a bad influence on some of the younger wrestlers who looked up to him because he was so talented, according to Sanders.
"After he won nationals, I was hoping he would clean up his act and realize he was a national champ and start living the life that he should," Sanders says. "But there wasn't much of a change."
Had Donahoe returned for his senior season this past year, Nebraska was positioned to win the national team championship. Nonetheless, Osborne says Manning acted in the team's best interest when he removed Donahoe. Manning says the university would have had to report another violation had Donahoe remained at Nebraska. During the investigation into the porn site, Donahoe lied about having been paid, according to the coach.
An NCAA spokeswoman said a formal violation for lying usually is reserved for major infractions for which the institution itself is being investigated.
Neither Manning nor Osborne would elaborate, but both of them insist there is more to Donahoe's history in Lincoln than he lets on.
"I'm not going to go in specifics in regards to that, but there was," Manning says. "Trust me."
Osborne, who came back to Nebraska as the athletic director in 2007, says he has laid down new rules on discipline, including a three-strikes-and-you're-out substance-abuse policy.
"Usually, we don't dismiss somebody here based on just the first, the one incident. It's difficult for people to understand because maybe somebody's picked up for minor in possession and you dismiss him permanently, and another person is picked up for minor in possession and he's maybe suspended for one game," Osborne says. "What people don't realize is in the first instance, this may be the third time or the fourth time that the young person has been out-of-bounds, and he's been told that this is unacceptable, and the next time you're gone."
If the scenarios presented by Donahoe's coaches, teammates and others are true, his isn't necessarily a story of a student-athlete's being denied a second chance. It's a story about a chronic troublemaker given multiple chances to change his ways.
For years, the coaches dealt with Donahoe's tardiness at practice, absences at study hall and trouble away from the team by making him do extra conditioning or taking him on long runs on the outskirts of town, according to accounts from Sanders, other teammates and an assistant coach.
"I really care for Paul, and some people probably fault me for that," Manning says. "I spent four years trying to help him mature and provide very much of a family atmosphere for him, and I'm sure he's hurt because of that. But he's not bigger than the program, and he's not bigger than the University of Nebraska."
The coaches made a point of trying to bond with their wrestlers off the mat, inviting them over for dinner or to watch a football game. When Manning got married in Oklahoma, he tacked up an invitation in the locker room and invited the entire team. Donahoe says the coach even let him sleep on the couch in Manning's hotel suite.
That approach often gives coaches an in with athletes who might need extra help because of their family background or socioeconomic status or some other challenge in their past, according to head assistant coach Mike Greenfield.
"You'll find out pretty quickly there have been a lot of kids who have had chances in our program, just like any program in the country," he says. "Is it going to be a straight, smooth road with 18- to 22-year-old males? No. We're going to try to do the right thing, and we're going to try to help them."
Greenfield says the coaches don't just pull the plug on athletes such as Donahoe who might have a run-in with the law or an alcohol violation. But there is a point where "you have to draw your line in the sand somewhere with what you stand for morally and ethically."
Sanders says Manning didn't sleep for three or four days after Donahoe's porn images surfaced. People from all over the world flooded Manning's e-mail account with messages, some as many as 5,000 words long, lobbying for why he should or shouldn't dismiss Donahoe.
In response to a public records request filed by ESPN for copies of e-mails relating to the wrestlers' dismissal in August, the university provided 13 short e-mails from nine people sent to Manning, supporting him in his decision. To one of them, Manning wrote in response, "In the end, it was not a tough decision! We will not compromise principles to win an NCAA Title!"
Months later, toward the end of the season, Sanders asked his coach how much easier the year had been without Donahoe.
"He said it was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders," Sanders says.
Donahoe left Lincoln the day after he was dismissed, and Manning's burden quickly became an opportunity for Tim Flynn, head coach at Edinboro University in northwestern Pennsylvania.
Donahoe's high school coach, Roy Hall, tipped Flynn off to the fact that Donahoe was available, with eligibility left. Flynn says he chatted briefly with Manning, who praised Donahoe's athletic prowess and offered just a subtle caveat: He was a good kid who had made "some decisions that maybe aren't the greatest."
The Edinboro coach conferred with athletic director Bruce Baumgartner, a U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame wrestler who has won two gold medals, one silver and one bronze. Within weeks, Donahoe had joined Edinboro's highly ranked Division I wrestling team and was back on the mat that same semester.
But Donahoe wasn't done with Nebraska just yet. Along with the allegations of a double standard in the university's athletic department, Donahoe told "Outside the Lines" in April that the school's wrestling staff had committed multiple NCAA infractions.
"If Tom Osborne knew of all the NCAA violations that the wrestling coaches had broken, he'd probably fire the Nebraska coaching staff," Donahoe said at the time. "I know of probably five different NCAA violations they've broken."
He says he had threatened to go public with that knowledge in August when Manning told him Manning would release him from his scholarship, but to only three schools. Donahoe says he had offers from at least 20.
"That same day, I called Manning back and said, 'I'll be on the 6 o'clock news to talk about all the illegal stuff you have done,'" Donahoe says. Manning -- whom Donahoe has since referred to as a "scumbag" -- then backed off and agreed to give him more transfer options, according to the wrestler.
Manning's version differs. He says Donahoe's poor academic performance at Nebraska hindered his ability to get into several colleges.
"I spent the better part of three weeks, every hour of every day. I talked to over 15 coaches at different universities," Manning says about his attempts to place Donahoe elsewhere.
Just as the university declined to say exactly what Donahoe had done throughout the years to merit his dismissal, Donahoe also refused to elaborate to ESPN about the "five different NCAA violations" he accused Nebraska of committing -- with one exception. Donahoe alleged that Manning permitted underage drinking at his wedding -- the same wedding where the two freshmen wrestlers came to blows. Although he confirmed the brawl involving Browne and Rowe, Manning denied the underage drinking accusation, saying there was a cash bar only and a bartender checking IDs.
ESPN questioned other sources and uncovered allegations that the coaches sometimes played poker with the wrestlers and wagered hundreds of dollars. The NCAA frowns on gambling, although it's not an official violation unless there is an inappropriate exchange of money between athletes and coaches. According to some sources, the "inappropriate" standard was met.
"Oh, there's people that walked out with eight-, nine-hundred, a grand, easy," says Jordan, the other wrestler kicked off the team. Jordan says he often played poker with the coaches, other teammates and Donahoe, who acknowledges that he is a big fan of Texas Hold 'em.
"They're big cash games. All the coaches would be sitting there and to tell us to come in with a pocketful of money. We'd leave, you know, be broke, whatever. So, if anything, it'd be their problem," Jordan says.
Greenfield admits they played cards together but insists the stakes never got that high. The most he won or lost was $40 or $50, he says.
"I'm smart enough to know I'm not going to take a bunch of money from college students," Greenfield says.
Nebraska's NCAA compliance officers launched an internal investigation in May, in light of ESPN's inquiries, and interviewed the coaches, including Greenfield, who has remained in contact with Donahoe. The school has yet to verify any NCAA violations.
"Paul has since apologized to me for putting us all through that," Greenfield says. "You're young and you don't know where to turn and you just lash out. Paul's a good kid. He just made some bad decisions. That's the story."
When "Outside the Lines" followed up with Donahoe in May on the contention about NCAA violations he made so emphatically seven weeks earlier, he appeared to have developed a bout of amnesia, saying as he smiled and laughed, "I said that? I must have been on drugs or something. I don't remember that. I must have been doing some kind of drugs."
Pushed to elaborate, Donahoe says he is simply ready to let what's done at Nebraska be done.
"I competed for Edinboro. I'm a fighting Scot. I'm going to graduate from Edinboro," he says. "Whatever Nebraska is doing, I mean, they can do whatever they want. If they didn't want me on their team, whatever. If they don't want Paul on their team, they're not going to be better without me," he says.
In March, Donahoe lost his chance at a second Division I national individual title when a wrestler from Cornell, Troy Nickerson, beat him in double overtime in the championship match.
In the team competition, Nebraska came in fourth overall at the NCAA championship. Even with the points from a weight-class title from Donahoe, the Huskers would have fallen short of first place.
Paula Lavigne is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines. ESPN's David Amber and Lindsay Rovegno also contributed to this report.