Commission must respond by April 30

Updated: February 6, 2004, 11:50 PM ET
Associated Press

AURORA, Colo. -- The University of Colorado chose two former lawmakers Friday to head a commission that will spend the next three months investigating whether the school's football program enticed recruits with alcohol-fueled sex parties that may have led to rape.

Two university regents questioned the plan, suggesting the commission won't be impartial and lacks leaders familiar with sexual violence issues.

Speaking in front of a packed crowd at an emergency meeting of the regents, university President Elizabeth Hoffman chose Democrat Peggy Lamm and Republican Joyce Lawrence to co-chair the commission.

The panel must report its findings by April 30 on whether "sex and alcohol are used as recruiting tools" -- claims school and athletics officials have insisted are untrue.

The nation's flagship university has been caught in a firestorm since depositions surfaced last week about a December 2001 off-campus party in Boulder attended by football players and recruits. Three women who say they were raped at or just after the party sued the school, saying it fostered a hostile environment for women in violation of federal gender equity laws.

Boulder District Attorney Mary Keenan declined to file rape charges but said in a depositions leaked to reporters she believed sex was used to lure recruits and that athletics officials had ignored her demands to crack down.

The fallout has been dramatic: Gov. Bill Owens warned the university to take action or he would step in, Regent Jim Martin said he received a death threat from a CU booster and football coach Gary Barnett said he lost two potential recruits.

"This has been a horrific week," Regent Pat Hayes said. "It's like having a knife in your heart and every day someone's turning it a little more."

The regents backed the commission plan on a 7-2 vote, with Martin and Regent Cindy Carlisle dissenting.

"We have a black eye with the state of Colorado if not the country," said Martin, who questioned whether the university could thoroughly investigate itself.

"My goal has been to do exactly that," Hoffman replied. "My goal is independence and impartiality throughout this process."

Carlisle, whose husband is an attorney representing one of the women suing CU, said neither Lamm nor Lawrence has a legal background or experience dealing with violence against women.

However, she said she would reserve judgment on whether the public will be able to trust the panel's conclusions.

"Everything will ride on who the other appointments are," she said after the meeting.

Nearly 3,000 pages of depositions have been released in the past week. In one statement, a former CU athletics official suggested Barnett wasn't interested in restricting recruits because it might hurt CU's chance of staying competitive with teams like Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Barnett, however, told the regents that during preseason camp, for an hour every night, the team goes over a players' handbook that outlines the exemplary behavior expected of them. He said his staff checks the background of recruits intensively.

"We don't bring in loose cannons," he said. He said an athlete who appears to be a potential problem while visiting campus will not be offered a scholarship -- something that happened once this year.

Many parents said they were angry about the allegations.

Patty Klopfenstein, among several players' parents who attended the meeting at the university's Fitzsimons medical campus, told regents the scandal has muddied the names of everyone on the team. She said she does not believe coaches ever set up tawdry entertainment for recruits.

"By all means, do your investigation," she told the regents. "That may be the only thing that clears these men's names."

Bill Redmond, the father of a woman who says she was raped by a University of Nebraska football player in the 1990s, also said he didn't believe Barnett set up sex parties for recruits.

"The question is, was the athletic department aware and didn't do anything?" he said.

Hoffman bristled at the suggestion, and Chancellor Richard Byyny described at length how the university tightened policies regarding sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse after both the 2001 party and a similar 1997 party in which a high school student said she was raped. No assault charges were filed in either case.

Byyny also said players are warned not to initiate sexual contact with someone who is intoxicated, and are told the university does not condone alcohol use. He said athletes now have a curfew, and that player hosts are expected to behave during recruits' visits.

"The overriding goal here for all of us is for the university to do what it can to protect its students from sexual harassment, sexual assault, alcohol abuse and other harm," Byyny said.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press