CU president made statement in deposition

Updated: June 16, 2004, 4:23 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

DENVER -- The University of Colorado president was criticized Tuesday for refusing to condemn a vulgar anatomical reference allegedly used to describe a female football player who says she was raped by a teammate.

Colorado president Elizabeth Hoffman made the statement in a deposition for lawsuits filed by three women who allege they were sexually assaulted by football players and recruits who went to a party at one of the women's apartments in 2001, KUSA-TV reported Monday.

KUSA said it had obtained a partial transcript of the deposition that was scheduled to be released Tuesday.

During Hoffman's deposition, one woman's attorney said the derogatory term had been used by a Colorado football player against former placekicker Katie Hnida. The attorney asked Hoffman if she thought the term was "a filthy and vile word."

Hoffman replied that it was a "swear word" and that its meaning depended on the circumstances in which it was used, the station reported.

When asked if it could ever be used in a polite context, Hoffman replied, "Yes, I've actually heard it used as a term of endearment."

Hoffman defended her answer Tuesday in a meeting with Durango (Colo.) Herald reporters and editors, but said she should have phrased it differently.

"I was immediately sorry I said it," she said.

Hoffman began to cry at one point in the discussion at the Herald and left the room briefly to compose herself, the newspaper reported.

The comments sparked a fresh storm of protest surrounding Colorado's flagship school. Women's groups and a member of the Board of Regents said they were appalled by what they called Hoffman's lack of sensitivity.

University spokeswoman Michele Ames said Hoffman knows the current use of the word has "negative connotations" but in its original use, centuries ago, it was not a negative.

"Because she is a medieval scholar, she is also aware of the long history of the word dating back to at least Chaucer," Ames said. Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the earliest English writers, lived in the late 1300s and used the word in "The Canterbury Tales."

Hoffman was in "an extremely adversarial deposition," Ames said. In the transcript, a university attorney accused the plaintiff's lawyer of yelling at Hoffman while questioning her. A second plaintiff's lawyer denied the allegation.

"I am concerned that all of us in public life do our best to represent the State of Colorado and I think I understand the context of what President Hoffman was trying to say, but I won't comment any further," Colorado Gov. Bill Owens said Tuesday.

Nine women met behind closed doors with Owens for an hour Tuesday, urging him to pressure Colorado to take more steps to protect women. They said Hoffman's comments are proof the school is insensitive.

"We're very disappointed," said JoAnne Belknap, a sociology professor who met with Owens.

Claudia Bayliff, who runs a Boulder rape crisis center, said the school has made no attempt to train employees outside the football program on how to deal with sexual harassment and violence.

"As the father of a young woman who attends college here in Colorado, I understand and share many of their concerns," Owens said in a prepared statement after the meeting. "I believe we share a common goal that a college campus should be a safe, non-threatening environment."

Owens has little power over the university, which is governed by the elected regents. He said he told the women the school has been making progress in dealing with the scandal, but some issues remain under investigation by the attorney general.

The three women suing the university accuse Colorado of failing to protect them under federal Title IX law, which guarantees equal access to an education. They seek unspecified damages.

Hoffman suspended football coach Gary Barnett with pay in February, partly because of insensitive comments Barnett had made after Hnida said she was raped by a teammate, Hoffman said at the time.

Barnett initially expressed his support for Hnida at the time, then went on to say that Hnida had been a "terrible" kicker. Barnett said it after being asked why other players had resented Hnida's presence on the football team.

Now Hoffman, who's claimed the establishment of a campus sexual-harassment policy as one of her achievements as Colorado president, is catching flak for appearing to be insensitive.

"The word is meant to strip a woman of her decency, her humanity and her right to respect," said Regina Cowles, a Boulder spokeswoman for the National Organization for Women.

Regent Jim Martin called Hoffman's comments "more outrageous" because they were made under oath by the university's top leader.

"I'm embarrassed for the university, I'm embarrassed for her and, quite frankly, it shocks the sense of human decency," Martin said. "She needs to give an immediate apology ... talk about an ivory tower approach to management."

He added: "We're getting glimpses of the way the university does business, of the way the university administrators think."

Earlier depositions in one of the lawsuits plunged the university into a scandal over its recruiting practices. An independent commission found that some players used sex and alcohol to entertain promising athletes, and that university officials failed to supervise recruiting practices closely enough.

No criminal charges have been filed, but a grand jury has heard testimony from athletes and a former recruiting aide accused of paying $2,000 to an escort service.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.