Boulder an enigma wrapped in the Rockies

Originally Published: May 27, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

BOULDER, Colo. -- The commission that investigated the use of sex, alcohol and drugs as recruiting tools by the University of Colorado football team issued a 51-page report last week that is couched in language dry cleaned by lawyers. But tucked away early in the report are two unemotional sentences that scream why this program has spent four months scraping mud off its public face.

"Other teams in the (Big 12) conference are located in communities that are more supportive of their football teams than Boulder is of the University's program," the commission wrote. "The tension between academics and athletics is particularly keen at the University of Colorado."

No one can argue the right or wrong of sexual assault, alleged against recruits and players by at least nine women in incidents dating to 1997, or whether bong hits and beer are proper entertainment for a visiting high school senior. The commission found no evidence that athletic department officials sanctioned the use of illicit lures for recruits.

Gary Barnett and Elizabeth Hoffman
Colorado head coach Gary Barnett has been suspended with pay since February.
However, the investigation unearthed a startling lack of communication among chancellor Richard Byyny, athletic director Dick Tharp and coach Gary Barnett. The commission recommended that president Elizabeth Hoffman evaluate whether the three men "are capable of and committed to providing the leadership necessary to effect profound changes in culture, structure and reporting systems" at Colorado.

Hoffman, who suspended Barnett with pay in February, reinstated the coach on Thursday. She also announced that no one would lose their job because of the scandal.

Had the rape allegations occurred in a vacuum, the university would have been embarrassed enough. But there is more to the morality play that has developed over the last four months on this scenic campus. No matter the vantage point on the current state of Colorado football -- and this controversy has more facets than the Hope diamond -- there is general agreement that the circus that has transpired could happen only in Boulder.

All it takes is a recipe of liberal politics, arrogant coaches, condescending faculty, libertine lifestyles, racial imbalance and a long-simmering battle between town and gown. Mix well and bake in the glare of competitive media -- Denver, 25 miles down the highway, is one of the last two-newspaper cities in America -- and what started as rape accusations too fuzzy to prosecute became a national symbol for college football programs run amok.

The People's Republic Of Boulder
"There's a reason," said longtime area resident Chuck Neinas, the former Big Eight Conference commissioner and now a collegiate athletics consultant, "that people still refer to it as the People's Republic of Boulder."

When commission co-chair Peggy Lamm said that it "didn't have a dog in this hunt," she referred to the commission's independence, not its political correctness. That's a necessary distinction in Boulder, which in 2000 changed its municipal ordinances to refer to pet "guardians" instead of "owners." After all, the city council decided, one living thing shouldn't own another.

According to the 2000 census, 52.4 percent of the residents of Boulder County have a bachelor's degree or higher. The percentage for the state is 32.7 percent. In a state with a Republican governor and two Republican senators, George W. Bush received only 36.4 percent of the 2000 presidential vote in Boulder County. Al Gore received 50.1 percent, and Ralph Nader, 11.8 percent.

Jennifer Korbelik, the Boulder city official who serves as the liaison to the university, said, "We're not like Nebraska, where the town turns red on Saturday. People have other things to do."

They are active, skiing and boarding in the winter, hiking and biking -- without helmets, if an eyeball survey of campus is any indication -- in the summer. They are also activists, especially when it comes to property rights. Zoning regulations that preserve the open spaces in Boulder also prevent the university or private investors from building high-rise dorms to house nearly 30,000 students.

"We have 6,000 beds," said Bob Maust, chair of the university Standing Committee on Substance Abuse. "That means 23-24,000 are out there somewhere doing something. That's very different from other schools of similar size."

Maust makes presentations to local bar owners and residents with a map that illustrates the cluster of 60 bars and liquor stores that sell alcohol within a mile of the university.

"In 1980, they had 960 legal adults for every liquor license," in Boulder, Maust said. "By 1996, that was down to 440. There are 225 alcohol outlets and 25 pharmacies, and the pharmacies have a lot better drugs."

I think there will be a change even if they keep everybody. Even if the worst happens, and nobody loses his job, I don't think it will be the same as it was before. I don't think it can be.
Joanne Belknap,
Colorado sociology professor
All of which explains why the Princeton Review regularly lists Colorado among its top party schools, an "honor" that drives university officials and faculty to distraction. Maust testified before the commission that 63 percent of university students meet the definition of "binge drinkers," compared with 44 percent nationwide.

That sensitivity contributed to the explosive reaction on campus when a deposition by Boulder district attorney Mary Keenan was made public last January.

"Keenan testified that she put the University on notice in February 1998 to stop using sex and alcohol to lure recruits," the commission wrote.

The use of alcohol by students embarrasses the faculty. But professors are more steely-eyed when it comes to athletics. Barnett, who worked as an assistant coach under Bill McCartney with the Buffs from 1984-91, returned to Boulder knowing the relationship between faculty and athletics was "fragile," as he has said in the past. (Barnett declined to comment for this story, as, through a spokesman, did Tharp). Any doubt about the faculty's attitude was erased when a special committee released a proposal for athletic reform on May 6.

"(A) winning football or basketball program has never and will never boost the academic reputation of a university," according to the proposal. "To the contrary, it has been proven time and again that excessive emphasis on big-time college athletics may result in misplaced priorities and unethical and even illegal behavior that cause embarrassment, comprise the integrity of often respectable and talented educators, waste untold sums of money, and unnecessarily tarnish the reputation of what is otherwise a world-class research and teaching institution."

Not a lot of room for common ground there.

The rupture came into sharper view this week, when the Denver Post reported that retired professor Vine Deloria Jr., a renowned scholar on Native American affairs, refused the university's offer of a Doctor of Humane Letters degree. Deloria cited the "transparent coverup" of wrongdoing in the athletic department.

"As a scholar," Deloria said in a letter to Hoffman, "I am dismayed at the use of language to obscure the facts and the intent to continue practices that reflect badly on the university."

Sociology professor Joanne Belknap says it is possible to support football and be a feminist. "I have had some wonderful football players in my class," she said. Belknap, a 1981 graduate of Colorado, returned to Boulder as a professor six years ago. Her academic field includes victimized women, and she works with sexual assault victims on campus.

When the investigative commission concluded the presentation of its report to the Board of Regents last Wednesday without a word of apology to or concern for the women who alleged that they had been assaulted, Belknap shot out of her chair and demanded that they be recognized.

The following day, sitting in her office amid stacks of papers, Belknap said, "I would hate to see the day that we can't have a football team again because we don't have the ethics (and) players feel like they can use sex, alcohol and women as bait."

Each side has turned hyperbolic. A group of local boosters who call themselves "Buff Defenders" have launched a website and written a report of their own endorsing Barnett. "Nowhere else in Division I does the academic side hate the athletic side," said Kim Moss, a 1988 graduate of the university and a Boulder resident. "Barnett said it's been this way for 30 years. I've lived here for 20 years. I'm embarrassed. ... People were assumed guilty and forced to prove their innocence."

Academics vs. Athletics
The standoff between faculty and athletics dates at least back to the McCartney era, when the success of the Buffaloes on the field was marred by arrests off of it. The former coach, now active in the ministry in the Denver area, is taken aback by the vehemence of the anti-football rhetoric.

Some in Boulder as well in the academic departments look down at Colorado athletics.
"The biggest misconception is that football is an embarrassment to academia," said McCartney, echoing the description used by Gov. Bill Owens last winter when he called for the university to investigate the athletic department. "That is just not true. The great majority of these kids play football and do everything that's requested and they also compete in the classroom. When they go out into society, they are better prepared."

As ennobling as that sounds, the reality is that the athletes understand early on in their careers at the university that they are different.

"It's a very highly educated community," said Boulder attorney Jean E. Dubovsky, a former Colorado Supreme Court justice. "Many people don't put football at the top of their list. Football players often think of themselves as being viewed as the old stereotype of a dumb football player. All of that makes recruiting particularly difficult."

If football players think of themselves as outsiders, imagine the mindset of an African-American player. The commission noted that the 2003-04 freshman class for the university included only 85 African-Americans. Fifteen of them came on a football scholarship. According to the 2000 census, less than one percent of the 291,288 residents of Boulder County are African-American.

You're a football player, you're black and now the entire campus wonders if you're a closet rapist. In the wake of the allegations last winter, Colorado athletes reported being harassed on campus. The burdens of being a Buff weighed heavily on safety J.J. Billingsley this spring.

"I don't know what's going to happen. Whatever they say happened here happens everywhere, and I think everybody knows that," Billingsley said one day last week, standing behind Balch Field House. "To characterize Colorado football players as 'these monsters' is just crazy. I'm not that. It's a huge blow. To say I'm something I'm not is just crazy. I don't talk about them and what they do."

"People on campus say this happens everywhere, so CU is being piled on," Belknap said last week in her basement office, "and they are saying this at the same time that they're saying we didn't know this was going on."

Belknap adapted a look that says, "Hello?"

Now What?
McCartney released an open letter to President Hoffman on Monday in which he defended the sport in general and Barnett in particular. "I'm not sure any school has ever gone through anything like this," McCartney said. "By virtue of the fact that they still haven't proved (Barnett did) anything, it seems like people would back off a little bit."

All his stance is likely to do is embolden each side of the debate. Neither side can expect a complete victory. The academicians who want to clean house and bring the athletic department under control of the provost will almost surely be disappointed.

John DiBiaggio, the former president of Michigan State and Tufts, has been hired by Hoffman as a consultant and charged with recommending changes within the athletic department. DiBiaggio, who finished his work for Hoffman last Friday, was an original member of the Knight Commission, which first spoke out for athletic reform more than a decade ago. His zeal has tempered in the interim.

"I don't see changes happening at the NCAA level," DiBiaggio said. "...The only way this could really be altered is at the institutional level, by presidents standing up and saying, 'We're not going to allow this to continue.' You (a president) could say we're not going to go along with the national culture. Look at Stanford. They win regularly. You can have quality of life equivalent to what other students have. You may not be number one. At least you're not embarrassed."

Belknap, the sociology professor, is going on sabbatical. She called herself "a cynical optimist."

"I think there will be a change even if they keep everybody," she said. "Even if the worst happens, and nobody loses his job, I don't think it will be the same as it was before. I don't think it can be."

DiBiaggio disagrees.

"Things are forgotten," he said. "Look at scandals. Look at Baylor, Georgia, St. Bonaventure. Look at the recruitment of an athlete at Miami who's been arrested God knows how many times. It goes on. Ben Franklin said today's newspaper is use to wrap tomorrow's fish. This will fade away."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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