WHAT IS GOING ON IN COLORADO?


The University of Colorado finds itself embroiled in a very public and embarrassing scandal involving sex and the recruitment of football players. Just a coincidence that there's a sports scandal taking place at CU -- again? Chuck Hirshberg thinks not. Drawing on a couple of disturbing incidents from his own distant past while attending junior high school in Colorado, Hirshberg concludes there must be something very unpleasant brewing in that otherwise beautiful state.

Junior high days | By Chuck Hirshberg

At the University of Colorado, sex scandals are a lot like the Olympics -- they seem to happen every half-decade or so. And yet, the school's coaches and administrators always act as though they've been completely blindsided. I have seen this Passion Play enacted with the same phony earnestness every time: Regents blame the administrators, who blame the coaches, who blame "a few bad apples." Yesterday, ESPN.com asked users if they felt the school's current recruiting scandal reflected what goes on nationwide, or if it is something unique to the University of Colorado. The verdict was pretty definitive -- nearly 86 percent said it goes on everywhere. Many fans probably thought it was a stupid question: Of course it's a nationwide problem! There's nothing unique about Boulder except its altitude (about 5,000 feet) and it's natural beauty (it lies at the foot of the Rockies). Right?

No, not entirely. When I lived in Boulder, the town's sports culture was sexually twisted. I don't know if this has anything to do with the current scandal, but it's important enough to placed upon the table. So, here it comes -- bon appetit.

I arrived in Boulder in the summer of '72 when I was 12 years old. I missed my friends in California, but I was excited about starting at Baseline Junior High School (so-called because it sits at precisely 40 degrees latitude). I was a typically sports-loving kid of my generation, proud owner of a huge collection of baseball cards and an autographed photo of 49ers fullback Ken Willard that hung over my bureau. In elementary school, I'd taken a course called "Fizz Ed." It was pure joy -- basketball, touch football, dodgeball, with hidden lessons about rules, discipline and teamwork that were so obvious, no one had to explain them to us.

So when I reported to P.E. class on my first day of junior high school, I was excited. Being a new kid, everybody had ignored me so far, but I was confident that as soon as I got these Colorado kids on the blacktop and showed 'em my outside shot, I'd get the respect I deserved. These skills existed more in my imagination than in real life, but that didn't matter. When I played sports, I took it for granted that I had every right to be there and other boys always sensed that, accepted it, and accepted me. That's why I loved P.E.

"Alright," boomed a voice that reminded me a little of Sergeant Carter from "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." "When I call the roll, I wanna hear, 'HERE, SIR' -- nothin' else!"

This was our P.E. teacher, coach McMillan, who appeared to us like the picture of manhood: fit, muscular, tough as the hardwood floor he stood on. After taking the roll and ordering us to make sure our shirts were tucked in, he explained that junior high P.E was nothing like those recesses we'd had in elementary school. It was not about fun; it was about conditioning and learning the discipline that would be necessary if we ever hoped to become men some day.

We were then introduced to the psuedo-quasi-para-military culture of the locker room. We would wear gray shorts -- literally gray -- and white T-shirts that said PHYSICAL EDUCATION, with our last names written in block letters underneath. We would be divided up into "squads" and lined up every morning for "inspection" and roll call. Any defect in us, or in our uniforms, would be noted by coach McMillan on the demerit sheet, which would be posted outside of his office.

Perhaps you are reading this and nodding approvingly. "What's wrong with a little discipline?" you're asking yourself. Well, you're about to find out.

After taking the roll, coach McMillan led us from the gym to the locker room. He explained that we were about to see a demonstration of exactly how we were expected to behave every day. He selected a boy to use as a model. This boy was assigned a locker and was ordered to change into his uniform, while the rest of us watched.

The kid looked up at coach McMillan with uncomprehension. Then he brightened, and pretended to undress himself -- pretended to unbutton his shirt, pretended to unbuckle his trousers and pretended to hang them in his locker. Surely, coach McMillan didn't expect him to strip naked in front of the entire class. Not on his first day of junior high school. Not at the age of 12, when boys have lots of reasons to be particularly shy about their bodies. No way.

"I said, 'GET UNDRESSED!'" barked coach McMillan.

So, with a confused and stricken look, the poor child stripped down to his tightie-whities. Then he looked up at his coach like a puppy who has just piddled on the carpet and hopes not to be punished for it.

"Finish undressing," said Coach McMilllan.

An amazed, spontaneous cackle rose from the class. Coach McMillan stifled it with a scowl, but the vibe of excitement and delight was irrepressible. I can see that boy yet, blushing pink, his right hand swinging like a pendulum over his birdlike penis, trying to decide how much he could get away with covering himself. I can see him yet, before 25 pairs of popping eyes. And I can see coach McMillan looming over us with his cold, compassionless face, arms folded across his chest like Mussolini. I can hear the stifled giggles, I can smell the mingled odors of sweat and Mr. Clean -- but I still can't imagine what it felt like to be that boy.

Coach McMillan ordered him to put on his uniform, then ordered him to take it off again; then to take a shower ("I wanna see soap suds"), then to dry off with a towel ("Is that how you dry your back? Do it again!) and to dress himself. For the rest of the day, the boys talked of nothing else. It was on that day that I began to become disenchanted with sports. Not because I was traumatized by the experience, but because I sensed that it symbolized a culture of abuse and humiliation that infected athletics -- at least in Boulder. I lost all interest in after-school teams and became increasingly nerdy. I don't blame coach McMillan for that; I wish I'd fought harder for the right to play sports as I saw fit. But I was just a kid and, in this case, I wimped out.

Perhaps you're thinking this must have been an isolated incident. It was not.

Two years later on a snowy day, my P.E. class was playing "crabwalk" soccer in one of the school's two adjoining gyms, under the direction of one coach Hobart. In the gym next door, the girls were doing whatever girls did in P.E. class.

Crabwalk soccer is like regular soccer, except it involves lying on your back, propping yourself up on your hands and feet and moving about like a crab. It's really fun, but it makes your arms stiff and sore, so whenever there's a break in the action, you stand up and stretch. It was during one of these stretching breaks that a very athletic kid named Jeff Homestead crept up behind me and yanked my gym shorts down around my ankles. I didn't notice it at first; then I felt a breeze and heard a storm of laughter.

Now, as a little guy, I knew, from bitter experience, the jungle-law of the schoolyard: Let a bigger kid humiliate you without fighting back and you might as well paint a bullseye on your ass. Every peckerhead in the school would take a shot at you. So I did what I had to do, and Jeff, who was a great kid and meant no real harm, never knew what hit him.

Had his rage matched mine, he could have squashed me like the skinny little bug I appeared to be; but he was completely unprepared for the crazed lunatic that dragged him to the mat and tugged furiously at his shorts. A moment later, Dean Maruna, by far the best athlete in the school, came bounding over to help me and soon, every kid in the class had descended on poor Jeff. His shorts, and, I believe, his jock, were removed and the guys lifted him up like a battering ram and carried towards the door of the gym. Dean was whooping: "Let's show him to the girls!"

Only then did coach Hobart decide to intervene, and no one was reprimanded in the least. Later, in the locker room, coach walked up to me grinning ear-to-ear. "From now on, keep your pants on!" he chuckled. "I've never seen you so aggressive." Then, leaning down confidentially, he slapped me lightly on the ass and said: "Good job!"

What does this have to do with the repeated scandals at CU? Just this: I am certain that a lot of the boys who experienced the sexual depravity of the Baseline Junior High School Department of Physical Education went on to the University of Colorado. And I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that some of their female classmates paid a heavy price for the youthful humiliations inflicted on some of those boys.