Sordid culture in college sports?

Alleged incidents of sexual misconduct at Colorado and elsewhere point to possible crisis in college athletics.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Angela Cox attends the University of Colorado. But her lament could apply to just about any institution of higher learning with big-time sports programs. "This school is about classes and learning. It shouldn't be about football," says Ms. Cox, a junior majoring in kinesiology.

Unfortunately, allegations of sordid behavior involving players for Colorado's Division I football program, as well as some other schools nationwide, are raising anew an old question: Where should victory of athletics rank in a list of university priorities?

This time the problem is not cash under the table, but sex. At Colorado, adult entertainment companies have confirmed that football players hired strippers for recruiting parties. The only woman to have ever played for the University of Colorado team - as a kicker - has accused a former teammate of rape.

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Earlier this month, St. John's University suspended five basketball players for breaking curfew to visit a strip club while on the road for a game. The University of Minnesota is looking into allegations that football recruits visited bars and strip clubs last year.

At the University of Colorado's campus, students say they are repulsed - but not surprised - by their scandal.

"In some senses, it is something that is going on at every college campus," says Steve Brancucci, a junior accounting major who sports long sideburns, a rumpled oxford shirt, and baggy jeans as he walks to class. "It just came out here, but I don't think it is unique to CU."

School officials are scrambling to respond to a growing number of rape allegations swirling around the team, creating a public relations nightmare and threatening to indelibly stain the fabric of Colorado's most prestigious public university.

CU football coach Gary Barnett was suspended this week. Athletic Director Richard Tharpe and CU President Elizabeth Hoffman also face uncertain futures.

"Everyone's job is at risk at any point in time," Ms. Hoffman said earlier this week. "If we get any evidence from our own internal investigation, the police, or anyone else, we will take action."

In addition, a criminal investigation into the matter could lead to sexual assault charges against current and former members of the football squad.

Accusations that CU used sex and alcohol - including prostitutes, sex parties, and visits to strip clubs - to recruit high school football players prompted the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to set up a task force to reexamine their recruiting rules.

The genesis of the CU scandal was a December 2001 off-campus party for football recruits. Three women claim they were raped during or after the event. Prosecutors investigated the claims but never filed charges.

In December 2002, one of the women brought a civil lawsuit against the university, accusing the school of fostering a hostile environment for women that set the stage for the rapes. Two other women later joined the suit.

The issue simmered until Jan. 28, when a deposition in the civil case by Boulder County District Attorney Mary Keenan was released. She accused the CU football program of using sex and alcohol as recruiting tools. School officials vigorously denied the allegation, but Ms. Keenan's charge set off a chain of events the school could not ignore.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens demanded a response, and angry state lawmakers began laying plans for a legislative inquiry. Within days, the district attorney's office reopened the criminal case on the matter.

Ms. Hoffman headed off action by the General Assembly by announcing that the school would put together an independent probe, a move that has satisfied critics for now.

But an already ugly situation took a turn for the worse this week when former CU place kicker Katie Hnida - one of the first females ever to play Division I college football - told Sports Illustrated she was raped in 1999 by a member of the CU football team and endured verbal and physical harassment by teammates.

Ms. Hnida left CU in 2000 and now attends the University of New Mexico.

School officials said Tuesday they know of at least one other incident of sexual assault involving the football team, but would not release any details.

Meanwhile, CU Chancellor Richard Byyny hopes that a new sports administrator will help the school change their sports program.

"When you live in a culture and deal with a culture you make observations, and those observations will be important as we make improvements," Mr. Byyny says. But he adds, "These are all just allegations ... We don't have any evidence that anyone in the athletic department isn't doing their job."

Math professor Steve Craig is willing, for now, to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, as well as some time.

"They've got to find out what is going on," he says. "If there are negligent people at the college, they've got to step in to get rid of them and stand up for what is right."

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