Report questions top officials' leadership

Updated: May 19, 2004, 1:03 PM ET
Associated Press

DENVER -- In a blistering report that stopped short of calling for firings, an investigative panel said Tuesday that sex, alcohol and drugs were used to lure football recruits to the University of Colorado and lax oversight by top university officials is to blame.

The university's Board of Regents formally accepted the report, but did not order leadership changes, after holding a closed-door session Wednesday.

The board turned the recommendations of a special investigative panel over to one of the officials the report criticized for allowing an atmosphere in which women accused football recruits of rape.

That official, university President Elizabeth Hoffman, told the board she would have a preliminary report by the end of this month on steps that will be taken in response to the scandal.

Regents Chairman Peter Steinhauer expressed support for Hoffman.

"Now is the time to heal," Steinhauer said. "I want to make it crystal clear that we have the utmost confidence in President Hoffman."

The investigative panel's report said there was no evidence officials condoned misconduct, but it suggested they were lazy or simply ignored what was going on in the top athletic program at the state's flagship university.

"The university's leadership must be held accountable for systemic failings that jeopardized students' safety and allowed for ongoing misconduct in the football recruiting program," the report said.

The panel did not recommend firing anyone, but said the regents must decide whether university President Betsy Hoffman, suspended head football coach Gary Barnett, Athletics Director Richard Tharp and Chancellor Richard Byyny are capable of making the sweeping changes required to correct deep-rooted problems and restore the school's reputation.

Members of the eight-person panel said their investigation had simply confirmed that collegiate athletics nationwide are undermined by a "hyper-competitive recruiting 'arms race' that is complicated by the presence of big money, lucrative media and easy access to alcohol and sex."

At Colorado, the panel said, some player-hosts "felt pressured to impress recruits and resorted to providing alcohol, drugs and sex, including visits to strip clubs and the hiring of strippers." The report did not detail the alleged drug use.

The report had been eagerly anticipated in part because Barnett's future depends in part on its conclusions.

The report said Barnett and his staff failed to provide sufficient oversight of football recruits and he personally did not follow protocol following reports of sexual assault or harassment at least twice.

The report also singled out Tharp and Byyny for criticism, suggesting both failed to pay proper attention to what was going on.

While the panel did not call for job changes, it said Hoffman must decide whether all three men are capable of changing the culture, structure and reporting systems at the Boulder school.

It also called on the regents to decide whether Hoffman herself can restore the university's "integrity and reputation" after a scandal that drew national scorn and criticism from Gov. Bill Owens.

"As the university's chief administrator, Hoffman failed to exercise sufficient oversight until pressured by the governor and lawmakers," the report said.

Barnett said the scandal has been hard on his family.

"I'm not sure of the word I'd use to explain how I feel," he told The Associated Press. "I'm not relieved, because I didn't expect them to find anything. I'm not happy because I didn't want to go through this process. Vindication is probably the best word."

His agent, Gary O'Hagan, said the scandal reminded him of the Salem witch trials.

"There are people who owe Gary Barnett an apology," he said. "His entire family and he were dragged through the mud needlessly because people have an agenda out there. ... Is he perfect? No. Did he commit any crimes? No. Did he break any rules? No."

Regent Jim Martin said he was concerned the report would be turned over to Hoffman and that would be the end of it. He declined to say if people should lose their jobs, adding that he's "not on a witch hunt."

"Gary Barnett ought not to be the fall person for anybody. This is a culture problem," Martin said.

At least nine women have said they were raped by football players or recruits since 1997, though no charges have been filed. Three of the women have sued the school in federal court, accusing it of violating federal Title IX laws against gender discrimination in education.

Attorney General Ken Salazar, tapped as a special prosecutor by the governor at the height of the scandal in February, said last week he had turned up no new evidence warranting criminal charges. Boulder police also cleared two football players in one of the cases.

The report recommended that Salazar look into claims that one-time recruiting aide Nathan Maxcey paid at least $2,000 in cash over a 45-day period and arranged sex for young men, presumably recruits, at a Boulder-area hotel. Maxcey has denied he obtained escorts for recruits or players.

Salazar's spokesman, Ken Lane, said the investigation is not over.

"We continue to investigate other aspects of the recruiting beyond the sexual assault allegations," Lane said.

Boulder County District Attorney Mary Keenan said the report validated her claim that sex and alcohol were recruiting tools, an allegation that helped spark the scandal earlier this year.

"I hope we go where we always wanted to go, the road to making needed and effective change," Keenan said. "That's all anyone ever wanted."

The regents' panel was formed to investigate Keenan's allegation and determine whether university officials knew of wrongdoing.

"There is evidence demonstrating that sex, alcohol and drugs were used as football recruiting tools by some player-hosts and possibly a football recruiting assistant," the report concluded. "There is no clear evidence that university officials knowingly sanctioned this, or had direct involvement."

The commission, however, said the athletic department has long lacked "strong oversight" from the president or chancellor, who oversees the Boulder campus and its 25,000-plus students.

It said the athletic director should report directly to the provost, rather than the chancellor -- and it had sharp criticism for Tharp, the athletic director at Colorado since 1996.

"Tharp evaded and ignored repeated directives to implement policy changes and failed to place appropriate boundaries around the football coach," the report said. "The athletic director espoused a philosophy of 'plausible deniability' when faced with accusations of misconduct by student athletes and employees, isolated himself from his staff and has not given his full attention to his responsibilities."

As for Byyny, who has been in charge of the Boulder campus since 1997 the report said he had exerted little or no authority over athletics and failed to implement the school's goal of putting academics "above winning on the playing field."

Barnett was summed up as someone resistant to change with an "unproductive, defensive attitude." He was suspended in February over comments he made in two of the cases, including that of former Colorado player Katie Hnida, who said she was raped by a teammate in 2000.

Hnida now is on the football team at the University of New Mexico.

Patty Klopfenstein, mother of tight end Joel Klopfenstein, said the report shows Barnett should be reinstated. "There is nothing there. There was nothing there in the beginning," she said.

The commission blamed the NCAA for failing to address standards of behavior.

"The commission observes that the NCAA has adopted rules governing the number of logos a player can wear, yet fails to adopt rules governing more substantial and potentially life-threatening issues such as alcohol use, acquaintance rape and other inappropriate behavior," the report said.

NCAA spokesman Wally Renfro said the recommendations will be evaluated by a task force looking at recruiting practices nationwide.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press