Jahrie Level at the University of Idaho. Sam Ukwuachu at Boise State. Idaho knows what can go wrong while handling cases of athletes accused of sexual harassment or violence. But the good news is that a school or a conference that wants to say “No more” can find better ways to address such cases.
On April 5 I wrote about the shameful “catch-and-release” approach that lets athletes who are sexual misconduct suspects – potential dangers to new victims – simply leave campus and re-establish themselves at other universities. The practice reminds me of the way abusive priests or teachers were shunted off to unsuspecting communities, sometimes to repeat their offenses.
I wanted to do more than complain. I wanted to know: Are there ways to make the system work better – for victims, for universities, for society?
The answer is yes. There are systems that Idaho colleges could easily copy. Idaho can become a leader, rather than wait for the next victim and the next headline.
The powerful Southeastern Conference adopted a policy in 2015 that no student with sexual misconduct on his or her record can play in that conference. Period. And now the University of Oklahoma in the Big 12 is going even further: It’s making its coaches responsible for doing interviews and background checks to verify that a transferring athlete isn’t a “bad egg” looking to start over somewhere else.
No more “Gosh, we didn’t know.” No more plausible deniability for coaches or athletic directors tempted to put the strength of the starting lineup ahead of student safety.
Oklahoma has had its own cases of athlete violence, including a top running back who punched a female student.
“It says something when it’s an Oklahoma,” said W. Scott Lewis, an expert on this stuff. “This is a school that gets good recruiting classes. That has perennial championships in multiple sports. And is a place where kids say, ‘Man, I want to play at OU. That’s also what the SEC’s take was: ‘You want to play for us, so here are the rules.’ ”
Oklahoma’s policy is “the right move, the smart move. It’s going to disincentivize the bad behaviors; it’s going to encourage good behaviors. There’s a lot of positives that come from this.”
The Oklahoma approach also will encourage student-athletes to come clean, because lying or failing to disclose will be a deal-breaker. “So on one hand, OU’s taken a much more active approach, but on the other hand it’s not a blanket ... ‘We’re not taking you. We’re going to think about it. We’re going to be intentional. We need to know everything.’ ”
I was less pessimistic after several people recommended I talk to Lewis, a partner with the NCHERM Group. The acronym stands for the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, which advises 70 universities on campus safety and behavioral risks. Lewis has spent a career in higher ed, including a dozen years as an associate vice provost and dean of students at the University of South Carolina, and before that at Texas A&M. He’s a founding member of ATIXA, the association of Title IX administrators. He’s seen schools screw up, and seen them do good.
And doing good is going to have to become the norm, he told me. Universities and conferences that don’t adopt some of these best practices will be in danger of being left behind, or being found neglectful.
“We live in a different world now,” said Lewis. “Two, three years ago, there was no Harvey Weinstein (scandal), no #MeToo movement. A lot of people put up with that crap. Now schools want to say ‘We don’t put up with that.’ ”
Idaho has had its wake-up call.
For those who don’t remember, Level was the University of Idaho receiver accused of harassing and assaulting a U of I diver in 2013. He left the school and the team; when the Statesman’s Chadd Cripe reported this spring about this case and then two other cases involving Level, the U of I scrambled to explain. Students demanded action; Athletic Director Rob Spear is on leave while the university investigates.
Boise State defensive end Sam Ukwuachu was dismissed from Boise State in 2013 for “violation of team rules.” He transferred to Baylor, where he was arrested, charged and convicted of raping a member of the Baylor women’s soccer team. His conviction was overturned on appeal in 2017, and a new trial ordered.
At the 2015 trial, evidence emerged that he had hit and choked his then-girlfriend at Boise State.
So, a court case – and prosecutor subpoenas – provided a peek behind the bland “violation of team rules” curtain, a glimpse into how coaches and programs handle these cases.
Baylor’s football coach, the famed Art Briles, said that before bringing Ukwuachu to campus he talked with Chris Petersen, then Boise State’s coach. Briles said he was not told about any violence against women. Petersen responded, saying he initiated the call: “I thoroughly apprised Coach Briles of the circumstances surrounding Sam’s disciplinary record and dismissal.”
It’s not known exactly what Petersen shared with Briles, and in Petersen’s defense it’s not clear that he knew anything in 2013 about the violence with Ukwuachu’s girlfriend. Briles says Petersen did tell him that Ukwuachu’s depression was connected to a “rocky relationship with his girlfriend.” In an official statement in 2015, Boise State said: “Boise State University never received any reports nor had any knowledge of Sam Ukwuachu being involved in any accusations of sexual assault before or during his time at Boise State,” and it wasn’t a factor in Ukwuachu’s dismissal from the team.
Court testimony revealed that the team trainer knew of potential violence against the girlfriend. Texas prosecutors later praised the assistance of Ada County and Boise prosecutors, but criticized Boise State and Boise police (who didn’t file a police report following an incident with Ukwuachu) for not sharing information that later came out in documents.
So, a big mess, the damage from which was not limited to the women who were physically assaulted. Briles was fired, and Baylor’s ultimate house-cleaning cost President Kenneth Starr (yes, that Ken Starr) and its AD their jobs. (This spring, reporters uncovered that Briles got $15.1 million and Starr $4.5 million in settlements with Baylor.)
“The DI football world and the DI basketball world – and frankly, the DI world period – that’s a small cadre of people,” Lewis said. “They all run in the same circle. You’re only one degree of separation.”
The Boise-Baylor story and its fallout was a watershed moment for college athletics, Lewis said. Coaches today are much less likely to defend colleagues who say, “Gosh, how could I know?”
“They’re like, ‘That’s bull crap. We know. We talk to each other,’ ” Lewis said. “Before you take a kid into DI, you’re asking the coach, ‘Hey are there any problems with this kid, so I’ve got a head’s up?’ So there’s a real shift in culture.”
The part of the Level story that’s still not clear is what did or didn’t get said between Idaho and Stony Brook University in New York, where Level was welcomed to the football team with a press release praising the “great head on his shoulders.”
Both schools have been opaque, about their processes in general and what happened specifically with Level. But that’s been the system: plausible deniability.
Lewis said there is no privacy excuse when it comes to colleges failing to talk. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act allows schools to talk to one another about transfers, or potential transfers. “They don’t need a FERPA waiver for that,” he said.
I know this is a complex area of policy, with competing rights and privacies and due process to consider. I get it.
But there is one place we can start. Idaho’s experience is fresh and President Chuck Staben, after a shaky initial response to angry students, seems committed to getting this right and preventing future missteps. Idaho’s three other four-year universities have or soon will have new presidents. Our State Board of Education can ask our institutions to adopt an Oklahoma-style policy, and our universities can use their clout to get their conferences to adopt an SEC-style policy. We can insist our colleges tell the full story, and ask for the full story, when athletes transfer.
These policies won’t cover every situation – and they apply only to transferring athletes. But they are a good first step and a signal to all that decent behavior is expected from those privileged to have scholarships and team memberships.
It’s easy to wring our hands and demand that “somebody” do “something.” But we have examples of somebody who is doing something, templates for what we can do right here in Idaho. No more excuses for not having the strongest policies.
“One has to wonder,” said Lewis, “why they didn’t exist before.”