Bill Manny

We still let abusive college athletes quietly leave town. Shame on us.

University of Idaho president touts athletic director’s efforts to prevent sexual assault

Calling him a "role model for the university," University of Idaho President Chuck Staben expressed support for athletic director Rob Spear in comments to student leaders on Wednesday, March 28, in Moscow.
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Calling him a "role model for the university," University of Idaho President Chuck Staben expressed support for athletic director Rob Spear in comments to student leaders on Wednesday, March 28, in Moscow.

There’s plenty of blame to go around in the case of the University of Idaho football player accused of assaulting or threatening at least three women in 2012-2013. But I worry that the biggest problem this case spotlights is not only going unaddressed, but being ignored: An athlete suspected of a crime and judged to be a danger to female athletes in Moscow ended up on a campus in New York with little concern for the students there.

We’ve decided as a society that such out-of-sight, out-of-mind policies are no longer acceptable for abusive priests or offending school teachers. So how is it still OK for universities and athletes?

That’s not to say there aren’t other maddening takeaways from the case of Jahrie Level. It’s hard not to agree with the U of I volleyball player who blogged March 24: “I can no longer say I have complete trust in our system, because I thought our staff would be different.”

Let’s start at the top.

University President Chuck Staben arrived on campus in 2014, well after the screw-up in 2013. He had a chance to remain untainted by this mess. At the March 28 meeting of the student senate, Staben could have welcomed the scrutiny as a chance to listen, to learn, to promise no repeats. Instead, he lectured students, like an HR director, on the complications of firing someone. He said Athletic Director Rob Spear has become a “role model” for working to prevent sexual assault cases. After offering his tone-deaf remarks, he departed for a previous commitment. Instead of signaling that he would be open-minded in search of the truth, he sided with the defensive establishment. His too-late decision to place Spear on administrative leave Tuesday feels more like rear-end covering than the sincere search for the truth that U of I needs.

Athletic Director Spear admits he mishandled the original report from diver Mairin Jameson. Policy called for such cases to be referred to the dean of students. This is not a mere technicality: Had Spear done the one thing that the AD was supposed to do, Jameson immediately would have gotten proper advice and referrals to campus resources. Jameson’s unnecessary, years-long anguish would have been prevented. And the school and other students would have been safer.

Spear and the university assure us that, although the process was botched, the final result was right: Level was dismissed from the team and ended up leaving campus. “The outcome wouldn’t have changed,” Spear told Statesman sports editor Chadd Cripe.

That misses an important point: Jameson, angry at being treated dismissively, and her equally angry mother had to push university officials to do their jobs. Jameson had to discover on her own that the university had a protocol and resources to serve her, after being told otherwise. Moreover, following proper steps would have triggered the internal process to address the threat to campus promptly. And, on a human level, the outcome for Jameson would have been much different: She wouldn’t have had to wait five years for an apology, or for an explanation of what happened (including the positive steps the university had taken that would have reduced the anxiety she experienced in 2013).

Firing Spear might serve as brief pressure relief and satisfy the critics angry at him for myriad reasons beyond this case. But that would offer up a scapegoat instead of focusing on systemic problems that deserve further examination and remedy.

Moscow police: Thanks to courageous young women, we know now that Level was investigated for three separate cases of reported threats or assault, and charged in one of those for giving alcohol to an underage student. Why did it take informal, back-channel communications between Jameson, runner Maggie Miller and a newspaper to connect those dots five years after the fact? How did the police not alert the athletic director that a football player had been charged with providing an underage woman with alcohol and was investigated following a report of a possible assault? Wouldn’t that have changed the way the university handled later reports about Level?

Idaho law: This case revealed that the crime of unwanted sexual touching of an adult is not a sexual offense under Idaho law. That means that police can charge someone accused of unwanted sexual touching only under the misdemeanor battery statute. Idaho and Mississippi are the two states that still treat touching that way. Why does it matter? Because it is a simple misdemeanor, so police had no way to go after Level once he left the state. That meant no criminal history, no public record. It was as if it never happened.

Stony Brook University is the New York school where Level transferred after leaving Moscow. The school’s first response to Statesman inquiries about Level was to sneer about old news, rather than address whether it had welcomed an abuse suspect to its football team. Did the schools ever communicate? Did Stony Brook have the information it needed to make a sound decision? Nobody’s talking, so we don’t know. But it seems unlikely: Stony Brook’s press release at the time praised Level for having “a great head on his shoulders.”

The one thing we do know from Spear is that U of I told Stony Brook on the routine transfer checklist that Level had not been suspended from school and was a “student in good standing.” A starting receiver relocates across the country to a new team, yet neither Spear nor football coach Paul Petrino remembers ever getting questions from Stony Brook.

Either Idaho failed to alert Stony Brook, Stony Brook failed to inquire or Stony Brook didn’t let what it knew deter it from making room on its roster for an assault suspect. One of these institutions did not take its public trust seriously.

Athlete catch and release: How often does a student-athlete get into trouble and then quietly transfer elsewhere, with little or no public accounting? U of I officials say they can alert another school about a potential problem student on a “case-specific” basis. If this case doesn’t qualify, then what does?

Policymakers and taxpayers need to be able to trust that public institutions operated with public dollars prize public safety and accountability. Yet we continue to see a system that allows male athletes accused of harassment or crimes slip away, with no criminal record that would serve to alert others elsewhere to beware.

These sad cases raise questions far beyond whether Spear should be suspended or fired. In the end, we need a system that protects victims and ensures accountability, a system that doesn’t shunt problem athletes to other campuses.

After decades of disgrace, society finally has deemed it unacceptable to hush up the case of an offending teacher or an abusive priest, to let them move quietly away to become another community’s problem. The fact that it is still OK for universities and athletes is shameful. The experiences of gutsy athletes such as Jameson and Miller need to be the catalyst to end this practice.

Bill Manny is the Statesman community engagement editor: bmanny@idahostatesman.com; 208-377-6406, @whmanny; Twitter/Instagram whmanny.

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