As the various scandals have swirled around the University of Colorado football program the last few weeks, I've been wondering about head coach Gary Barnett, who has repeatedly claimed he knew nothing of booze and sex parties for visiting recruits and rape allegations by women around and even on the team. I've been wondering if he's a liar or an idiot.
It hadn't occurred to me until this week that he might be both.
Barnett was asked by reporters Tuesday to comment on a published allegation by former Buffaloes placekicker Katie Hnida that she had been raped by a teammate. Hnida, who later transferred to the University of New Mexico and became the first woman to score a point in a Division I game, told Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly that she had suffered sexual harassment in the form of verbal abuse and repeated groping during her freshman year on the team in 1999, culminating the next summer in the rape at a teammate's apartment, which she never reported to police.
"It was obvious Katie was not very good. She was awful. You know what guys do. They respect your ability," Barnett said when asked about Hnida's playing skill. He added that the players on the team felt that Hnida was forced on them. Barnett's predecessor, the ethically challenged Rick Neuheisel, had done a nice thing by letting her walk on after she'd made honorable mention all-county at Chatfield High in Littleton. "Katie was not only a girl, she was terrible, OK? There's no other way to say it," Barnett said.
What an idiot.
Barnett apologized Wednesday and said his remarks had been misinterpreted and taken out of context, and I have to admit they probably were. I watched CNN morning anchor Soledad O'Brien interview Reilly Wednesday morning, and, in the context of talking about the alleged rape, she asked him if he'd heard what Barnett had had to say about Hnida. Then she played the clip of Barnett talking about what a lousy kicker Hnida was.
It looked for all the world like Barnett was saying that Hnida deserved what she got because she couldn't kick a ball through the uprights. It probably looked that way three paragraphs ago in this very column. But in case you didn't notice, he was actually responding to a question about Hnida's merits as a player. CNN, and all of the other news outlets that have replayed or published those quotes similarly out of context have ambushed Barnett in a way.
And you know what? He deserves it.
There is no "context" here other than the one in which Hnida is alleging that she was raped. Her kicking ability, five years after she left the team, is beyond irrelevant. There's no reason for Barnett to talk about how lousy she was except to smear her, to back his boys by suggesting that, yes, they treated her disrespectfully, but you have to earn respect and she didn't because she was a weak player.
This is someone who says she was raped, a credible claim given the context that matters, the one of behavioral carte blanche for Colorado football players and recruits. Three other women are suing the university because they say they were raped by CU players or recruits at or after a recruiting party in December 2001. The suits allege that the university violated Title IX gender bias policy by fostering an atmosphere in which sex and booze are used as recruiting tools. On Wednesday Boulder police released a report from a woman who worked in the athletic department who said she was raped by a football player in September 2001. Thursday the Boulder cops said they were looking into yet another sexual assault allegation involving a football player, this one from August 2002.
Boulder County District Attorney Mary Keenan said in a deposition that she didn't believe rape charges would be upheld in the December 2001 case partly because the recruits "had been built up to believe that the situation they were going into was specifically to provide them with sex." Steve Lower, who owns Hardbodies Entertainment, says Colorado is one of several schools where his company's strippers have been hired to entertain football recruits at parties.
Barnett's comments helped get him placed on paid administrative leave by university president Betsy Hoffman, who says she's reserving judgment on Barnett until a university committee finishes its investigation into these matters in the spring. Paid administrative leave, though, is Latin for "you'll be fired once we finish getting paper on you."
Hoffman also said she was "utterly distressed" over a police report released this week in relation to the lawsuits that says Barnett tried to intimidate one of the women now suing the university when she claimed she'd been sexually assaulted by a football player. He told her, the report says, that he "would back his player 100 percent" if she went to the police. She did, but declined to press charges.
This is the Barnett who keeps saying he can't be held responsible for what players do on their own time. "None of us could ever say that type of behavior is condoned or accepted," he told Sports Illustrated.
Either he's lying or the woman who said he'd back his player "100 percent" is. Who are you betting on?
Barnett also said this: "Let's say there is no football here and we don't have athletes on scholarship. Is it likely the same kind of party [as the one that eventually led to the three lawsuits] would have occurred on a college campus somewhere in this country on Dec. 7?"
On that date or another, coach, yes. Probably at a campus where there's a big-time football or basketball program.
The University of Colorado has famously been cited by the Princeton Review as the No. 1 party school in the nation, ranking high in liquor and marijuana use and binge drinking. Talking about these scandals, Hoffman, the university president, told the "Today" show that "binge drinking and the resulting dangerous and irresponsible behaviors that go with binge drinking are not a University of Colorado problem alone. This is a problem that is endemic to the college culture throughout this country."
That's true, but this isn't about binge drinking. It's about the culture of big-time college athletics, which is morally and ethically warped. And that's also, of course, not a University of Colorado problem alone. In some ways, Barnett's being made a scapegoat here. He's just operating within the same set of circumstances everyone else in the upper levels of Division I-A is. Unlucky for him it's blowing up in his face and not some other coach's.
You could almost feel bad for him about the whole thing if he weren't so ridiculous. Boulder is a town of fewer than 100,000 people, and the Colorado football program is just about as high profile as anything gets there. Unless he's an even bigger idiot than his comments about Hnida would indicate, Barnett's statement that he wasn't aware that booze and sex were being used to entertain potential recruits is an outrageous lie.
How fitting. The whole edifice of big-time college sports sits on the foundation of a big lie -- that revenue-producing sports are not a multibillion-dollar business built in part on the backs of free labor, but rather a part of the educational experience for the "student athletes."
Once you start with that whopper, there is no ethical barrier that won't be crossed. Compensate "unpaid" athletes with privileges other than paychecks? Sure. Cover for them when they break the law or university rules? Why not? Help them to create a culture that's intimidating and dangerous for some of their fellow students? Not a problem. Hinder the investigation into the murder of a player by slandering him so you can keep hidden the cheating that your program has been doing? You got it.
Other than real people having their lives damaged, the saddest part of the whole Colorado scandal for me is that this headline about it, in USA Today, made me laugh out loud: "NCAA shaken by charges that sex, booze are used in recruiting." Yes, and Capt. Renault was shocked -- shocked! -- to find that gambling was going on at Rick's Cafe Americain.
The sad thing is that not a single thing that's been alleged in this whole mess has surprised me. Has it surprised you? And if it has, what's it going to take before revelations like it stop surprising you?
- - - - - - - - - - - -