UW ignored warnings on athletic abuses, memo says
Seattle Times staff reporter
University of Washington administrators failed for years to heed warnings of abuses by coaches, Athletic Department officials and student athletes, according to a newly disclosed UW memorandum.
In a scathing memo, UW law professor Rob Aronson says that as the university's faculty athletics representative for 11 years, he became increasingly disturbed by a "win-at-all-costs" culture undermining college sports but felt powerless in his efforts to call attention to growing problems.
The memo reveals for the first time that shortly after being hired as football coach in 1999, Rick Neuheisel and then-athletic director Barbara Hedges were furious at Aronson for recommending that the football program impose penalties on itself for violating recruiting rules.
"Coach Neuheisel would not speak with me for six months, and never once consulted with me on any compliance issue thereafter," wrote Aronson, who voluntarily stepped down as faculty representative in May. "My relationship with AD Hedges was shaky for a long time as well. I was considered 'disloyal.' "
The March 16 memo, obtained by The Seattle Times under a public-records request, also alleged that the university's admissions office was pressured to admit academically unqualified athletes; that misconduct by student athletes, including alleged rapes, was routinely mishandled; and that coaches were hired without adequate background checks.
Aronson noted that most coaches and players acted properly. But his memo provides a blueprint of how simple lapses grew into serious failings in an Athletic Department increasingly isolated from the rest of the campus.
The university's new president, Mark Emmert, said he has read the memo and has taken independent steps to improve oversight of athletic programs.
Disclosure of the memo comes as the university awaits the NCAA's determination of penalties over Neuheisel's participation in college-basketball gambling pools and related issues. A decision is expected soon.
Aronson said in an interview that he hand-delivered the memo to then-UW President Lee Huntsman in March, at the same time he and other members of a special investigative panel submitted a report to Huntsman on prescription-drug abuses within the UW softball team. Huntsman, who succeeded Richard McCormick as president, served for 20 months until Emmert took over in July.
Aronson said he hoped the memo would spur reforms and that he had tried to call attention to problems before writing it.
Those warnings went unheeded, he said, because the problems didn't immediately lead to serious consequences.
But the environment changed, Aronson said, when the NCAA began investigating the gambling matter, leading to Neuheisel's firing for participating in the basketball pools and initially lying about it to investigators. Subsequently, softball coach Teresa Wilson was removed for allowing a team doctor to recklessly dispense narcotics to her players, and Hedges suddenly retired over the fallout from both events.
"I was either intentionally or unintentionally overlooked and excluded in a lot of the decisions that were made," Aronson said. "It was my perception that we were increasingly getting into trouble."
Under NCAA and Pac-10 Conference rules, faculty athletics representatives are supposed to help protect the educational welfare of student-athletes and ensure institutional control of intercollegiate athletics.
But as his influence waned, Aronson wrote, the financial and competitive success of Hedges' programs gave way to breakdowns in compliance and in protecting student-athletes.
"The reputation of our athletics program may be at an all-time low, both locally and nationally," Aronson wrote in the 11-page, single-spaced memo.
The memo also raised larger philosophical issues, questioning whether the university's sports program were being hurt by a "win-at-all-costs" mentality and the influence of outside money.
"... [I]f a total, single-minded devotion to athletics participation is necessary to be ranked in the top five or ten nationally, then we should reconsider our priorities," Aronson wrote.
He described how his clout as faculty representative gradually eroded during his tenure.
Neither McCormick nor Huntsman routinely consulted him, he wrote, and each failed to take a strong interest in Athletic Department issues, delegating authority to administrators.
"When I first became Faculty Athletics Representative, President Gerberding took a direct and keen interest in intercollegiate athletics," Aronson wrote, referring to William Gerberding, the university's president for 16 years until McCormick succeeded him in 1995.
The independent role of faculty representative should be "enhanced, rather than diminished," Aronson concluded.
"Firm handle" pledged
Emmert, who took an active role in overseeing intercollegiate sports in his previous job as chancellor at Louisiana State University, said in an interview that he agrees with many of Aronson's key points.
"I think it's utterly critical that the president of any university have a clear and firm handle on the athletic program," he said. "And it's certainly my intention at the University of Washington to be involved in the oversight of athletics."
Emmert said he already has held one-on-one meetings with Aronson's replacement, J. Patrick Dobel, a public-affairs professor and former member of the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission.
Emmert said the faculty representative needs "full access" to the president and will work closely with new athletic director Todd Turner, a former athletic director at Vanderbilt University, and John Morris, the UW's new assistant athletic director for compliance.
Dobel, who took over as faculty representative seven weeks ago, said he thinks he will be given a significant role, though he cautioned it was early in his tenure.
Aronson said he is encouraged by that, and thinks the best chance for reform is "right now" because of the recent troubles.
Emmert said many throughout the university share Aronson's concerns about changing the culture surrounding intercollegiate sports.
"It's fairly clear that all of intercollegiate athletics, all of academia, is growing increasingly concerned about the role of athletics and the creeping professionalism and the role of money in that process," Emmert said.
The key, he said, is striking an appropriate balance between fielding competitive teams and integrating athletics into the larger mission of the university.
"If it's a tradeoff between having an athletic program whose behavior we're proud of and treating young men and women appropriately and winning, we're going to side with student athletes and character every time," Emmert said.
Emmert said he found the overall tone of Aronson's memo "disconcerting."
"Not alarming, but disconcerting," he added, calling Aronson a nationally respected faculty athletics representative.
During his time as faculty representative, Aronson served as one of three Pac-10 representatives on the NCAA's Management Council, a 49-member body that reviews policy matters and makes recommendations to the NCAA's board of directors.
Dispute over penalties
In his memo, Aronson described the reaction of Neuheisel and Hedges when Aronson and other UW officials decided the football program should penalize itself for improperly contacting recruits in 1999.
Neuheisel, who served on a committee that decided the penalties, had publicly supported the voluntary action, which would reduce recruiting days. But when Neuheisel appeared in front of a Pac-10 disciplinary committee, along with Hedges and Aronson, he railed against the proposed action, Aronson wrote.
"At the hearing ... the committee and I were shocked when Neuheisel asserted the University's self-imposed penalties were too severe and were the result of the pressure caused by the improper comments of other coaches to the media," Aronson wrote. "It was even more shocking when, in response to a question, AD Hedges supported Neuheisel's statement."
Aronson recalled that he was forced to reiterate the UW's position that the penalties were "reasonable and appropriate," which he said likely helped the university avoid being hit with additional sanctions when the Pac-10 ultimately accepted the recommendation.
But it was then that Neuheisel stopped speaking to him and that his relationship with Hedges became strained, Aronson wrote.
Neuheisel, who is suing the UW over his firing, declined comment. But his attorney, Robert Sulkin, disputed Aronson's account.
Sulkin said the self-imposed penalties were actually ordered by the Pac-10 and NCAA, and that Aronson had vowed to fight them because they exceeded penalties levied on other schools for similar violations.
"Rob Aronson broke his promise to the UW coaching staff," Sulkin said.
As a result, Neuheisel "respectfully pointed out" to the Pac-10 the inequity of the penalties, Sulkin said.
Aronson never sent his memo to Neuheisel or Hedges and wrote it "behind their backs to protect himself," Sulkin said.
Hedges, who moved to California after her retirement, couldn't be reached for comment.
On the subject of student admissions, Aronson wrote that some athletes were admitted even though they were unlikely to succeed academically.
Though he has the "utmost respect" for Tim Washburn, assistant vice president for enrollment, Aronson wrote, he nevertheless knows that Washburn has "been subject to undue pressure to admit athletes who were not academically qualified."
Washburn, in an interview, said, "I don't think there's any undue pressure. For me, it's part of admissions, it's part of what we do. I look at it as they have to convince me to take a chance on that student in that situation. One could interpret that as undue pressure."
Only a small number of student-athletes are admitted on a special basis, just as are some music students and others with exceptional talents, Washburn said.
Aronson, in his memo, called for stricter standards, saying the laudable goal of helping athletes with difficult backgrounds has given way to lax practices.
The university "must give serious thought to reevaluating the current policies that admit under-prepared prospects when it is unlikely they will be academically successful," he wrote.
On academic matters and other issues, some coaches and Athletic Department officials don't want outside interference and, on many occasions, didn't want his advice, Aronson wrote.
When he first became faculty representative, Aronson wrote, he gave compliance presentations and answered questions at every monthly coaches' meeting.
"Over time, the coaches' meetings became head coaches' meeting only and I was not invited," Aronson wrote, adding he either had no office in the Athletic Department or was constantly moved.
"Without an office or a regular opportunity to interact with coaches, it is not surprising that they would make mistakes, engage in prohibited conduct, and do other things without me having knowledge of it," Aronson wrote.
In some cases, Aronson wrote, he was able to establish relationships with individual coaches and student-athletes.
"However, I can't help but believe that if I had been involved with student-athletes in a more frequent and formal way, they would have felt more comfortable in bringing issues to me," he wrote, citing softball players.
Aronson says he was particularly disturbed when he wasn't consulted about athlete misconduct.
"Out of many possible examples, I will note only the incident in which a star football player got drunk, drove his car into a nursing home, and then left the scene without reporting the incident or taking responsibility," Aronson wrote, referring to a 2001 episode involving former Huskies player Jerramy Stevens.
Neuheisel was allowed to handle the matter, which resulted in the player being kept out of half of a single game, Aronson wrote.
"Whatever advantage was gained for the football program was, in my opinion, substantially outweighed by the negative message sent to all other students and athletes (including children for whom UW football players and coaches are role models), and cynicism engendered within the University and in the public at large," Aronson wrote.
Additionally, he wrote, he was surprised to read that a former football player, Roc Alexander, had been accused of raping two women but had been ordered by a UW official only to perform community service.
Hiring of coaches also lacked safeguards, according to the memo.
Aronson wrote that he served on the committee that interviewed Neuheisel, and asked Neuheisel about "negative stories" he had heard about him. "He had ready answers, but the questions (many raised by our own coaches) at least called for independently checking out any potential problems."
But in order to prevent Neuheisel's employer at the time, the University of Colorado, from learning too much, Hedges hired Neuheisel without conducting a background check, according to the memo. "Subsequently, we learned of Colorado's self-reporting numerous violations occurring during Neuheisel's tenure there."
Lorenzo Romar was hired as men's basketball coach in 2002, also without a formal background check, Aronson wrote, adding that a check should have been routine even though Romar had a sterling reputation.
Emmert agreed and said a thorough background check was made of the new softball coach, Heather Tarr.
Aronson, in his memo, also lamented growing problems in recruiting, saying the university had been fortunate to avoid "atrocities" like those alleged at Colorado, where recruits have been accused of sexually assaulting young women.
Official visits by recruits at the UW should be restored to their "original function — to show a prospective student-athlete what it might be like to attend the university," the memo says.
"Wining and dining high school athletes, projecting their images on the stadium video screen, enlisting attractive women to escort football players, and similar activities convey an entirely inappropriate message and create an expectation of entitlement that is inconsistent with the model of student-athletes as students first, who should be 'regular' members of the student body."
At the end of the memo, Aronson wrote that he had mainly enjoyed his dealings with the university's "outstanding coaches and student-athletes."
"The most unfortunate aspect of the recent problems in our athletics program is that the mistakes of a few tarnish the incredible accomplishments and character of the many," he wrote.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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