Nobel laureate Wieman left Michigan for Boulder

Updated: February 19, 2004, 1:04 AM ET
Associated Press

BOULDER, Colo. -- Nobel laureate Carl Wieman figured he had put the craziness of college football behind him when he left the University of Michigan 20 years ago. What he is seeing at the University of Colorado may be far worse.

For three weeks, professors, students and residents have been hit with an almost daily barrage of accusations against Colorado's football program, including rapes, strip-club visits and alcohol-fueled sex parties for recruits. After a former female kicker came forward to say she was raped by a teammate, the coach indelicately described her as a "terrible" player.

Late Wednesday, University President Elizabeth Hoffman placed football coach Gary Barnett on paid administrative leave over the comments. "They were extremely inappropriate and insensitive. Rape is a horrific allegation and it should be taken seriously," Hoffman said.

Wieman, a physics professor, said the furor over the football program has taken the focus away from more pressing issues, like the state's vulnerable higher education budget.

"Out of that program, we regularly have issues that embarrass the university," Wieman said. "That tells you that they occupy much too much importance. Something's fundamentally wrong."

The university is the liberal heart of this outdoorsy haven on the flanks of the foothills 30 miles north of Denver. While proud of its academics, the school has caused embarrassment for Boulder over the years.

In 2000, raucous off-campus parties turned into student riots. Princeton Review recently declared Colorado the No. 1 party school, based on its students' lack of studying and affinity for marijuana and booze.

The football program has brought in millions of dollars and the school won a national title in 1990. But it has a long history of scandal: In 1962, questions over whether recruits were paid to attend cost a coach his job. A Sports Illustrated cover story in the 1980s documented how players were accused of everything from drunken driving to serial rape. The school was slapped with NCAA sanctions two years ago for recruiting violations.

The latest scandal appears to be the worst yet and its roots date at least to 1997, when a 17-year-old high school student accused a football player of rape after a recruiting party.

No charges were filed, but three women have since sued the school, saying it fostered an environment that led to their rapes by football players or recruits at or just after an off-campus party in 2001.

Boulder County prosecutor Mary Keenan decided against assault charges but has reopened the investigation and says she believes the athletics program entices recruits with sex and alcohol -- an allegation denied by university officials but one that prompted a demand for action from Gov. Bill Owens.

University officials are looking into recruiting practices and are hiring a special assistant to oversee athletics, but the allegations have not stopped. A player admitted taking a recruit to a strip club, while a former recruiting aide said he used a school cell phone to call an escort service for his personal use.

On Tuesday, former kicker Katie Hnida, one of the first women to play college football, said she was raped by a teammate at Colorado four years ago.

While university officials urged Hnida, 22, to tell her story to police, Barnett said later Tuesday he knew of no one who could back up her claim. Asked why she left Colorado after the 1999 season, he said: "Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible. ... There's no other way to say it."

The scandal continues to unfold. On Wednesday, Boulder police released a report from a woman who worked at the athletic department and alleged she was raped by a football player in her home Sept. 28, 2001.

Barnett and athletic director Dick Tharp were informed of the allegation, according to the report. The player said the sex was consensual and the case was closed when the woman declined to pursue charges.

While Boulder has been abuzz with the scandal, but not everyone is obsessed with football -- or thinks the university deserves special attention over what's happened.

"I've always been much prouder of the fact CU won the solar decathlon than that CU had a winning football team," said Mayor Will Toor, also director of the University of Colorado Environmental Center.

Pam Penfold, a 1970 Colorado graduate who is now editor of CU's Coloradan magazine, said it is unfortunate that an "incident of college kids involving alcohol" has gotten more attention than the school's achievements.

Players, their parents and alumni say the media have blown the cases out of proportion and insist no sex parties are arranged for recruits.

Still, said former quarterback Bobby Pesavento, football players are treated differently from other students. "You're kind of put on a pedestal and people notice who you are," he said.

In an opinion piece for the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper, Wieman said the university might better be called an "academic appendage to the football program."

Back at Michigan, Wieman remembers thinking it was ridiculous that Ann Arbor businesses shut down during Wolverine football games. The year before he left for Boulder, Colorado lost nearly every football game.

"So I thought, 'Great! They can't possibly put so much emphasis on football,' " Wieman said with a laugh. "Little did I know."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press