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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Relative Importance Of A Three-Game Losing Streak

News item: Gary Barnett is finished as the head football coach at the University of Colorado. Barnett, for all his successes on the football field (49-38 record in seven seasons at CU, including a Big 12 title), will be remembered more for the troubles his program had off the field. Yet ultimately, it was a three-game losing streak during which his team lost by a combined 130-22 score that did him in.

In 2004, the football team was beset by allegations that it used sex and alcohol as recruiting tools. Worse, shortly after that, former placekicker Katie Hnida claimed that she had been raped by a teammate while a member of the Buffaloes. Barnett didn't help matters when he responded to that claim by criticizing Hnida's playing ability and stating that she didn't have the respect of her teammates because she was "a girl. Not only was she a girl, she was terrible. There was no other way to say it. She could not kick the ball through the uprights." Hnida's allegation was at least the sixth allegation of rape against a Colorado football player over an eight-year period.

Following that storm of controversy, Barnett was suspended from his duties while he was investigated. But Barnett bounced back, finding himself reinstated three months later. He never missed a game on the sidelines, and his punishment was restrictions on his recruiting. The school's investigation found only that Barnett was guilty of lax oversight of his program, but that he did not condone the practices. At the time of the suspension, before the investigation had concluded, I argued that such oversight would still be grounds for dismissal, but the school's administration felt differently.

Although Barnett kept his job, ironically, the school's president, chancellor, and athletic director soon found themselves gone. Under pressure created by the recruiting and sexual assault scandals, AD Dick Tharp, who was also criticized for his oversight, resigned in November 2004. A month later, Chancellor Richard Byyny, who was also investigated, resigned as well, although he insisted it was unrelated to the football turmoil. And in June, school president Elizabeth Hoffman resigned, citing in part a civil trial related to the football scandal. But Barnett made it all the way to yesterday.

Tight end Quinn Sypniewski called Barnett's dismissal a "tragedy," an unfortunately coincidental remark. A month after Hnida's rape allegations, Colorado basketball player David Harrison used the same word to describe his team's not being selected for the NCAA tournament. As I wrote then:
Let's get one thing clear. If your team doesn't make the tournament, it's a disappointment. It's depressing. It sucks. But it is not, in any way, shape, or form, a tragedy.

The athletic community seemingly still places greater emphasis on wins and losses and postseason success than it does on the quality of life for students and the Boulder community in general. Rape, murder, those are tragedies. Settling for the NIT is not.
Even though new allegations had recently begun circling around Barnett - among them that Barnett tried to influence testimony in depositions and before a grand jury, that players were forewarned of random drug tests, and that money from football camps was questionably handled - there was talk about Barnett having his contract extended, pending the results of an audit of those camps.

But three big losses at the end of the season did what allegations of rape, prostitution, perjury, and embezzlement could not do - they cost Gary Barnett his job. It's a shame that in amateur athletics, which is what college football still holds itself up to be, that a three-game losing streak can weigh heavier than a near-permanent dark cloud of criminal allegation.

Don't shed too many tears for Gary Barnett, though. His contract was bought out for three million dollars. And he'll be hired by another school soon enough. After all, he's won in the past.


A side note to the whole Barnett issue that I thought was worth mentioning:

Through the whole scandal, Colorado governor Bill Owens stayed mostly in the background, calling for action when the sex-as-recruiting-tool scandal broke, then agreeing with the school's decision to suspend Barnett. His sternest rebuke, from what I can tell, was calling the recruiting scandal an embarrassment to the state of Colorado. He did appoint a special prosecutor to look into the allegations, but no criminal charges were ever filed.

Meanwhile, another lightning rod for controversy emerged at the University of Colorado - professor Ward Churchill. Churchill's writing and speeches have been very critical of the U.S. government, suggesting that the September 11 attacks were inevitable given American foreign policy. He made an unfortunate comparison between financial wheeler-dealers who were killed in the World Trade Center towers and Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, suggesting that they were not altogether innocent victims. The essay in which this argument appeared was published shortly after the attacks, but it sat in relative obscurity until January 28, when Bill O'Reilly discovered it and launched a letter-writing campaign to prevent Churchill from speaking at Hamilton College. Not only was the campaign ultimately successful, but the governor of Colorado, Bill Owens, publicly called for Churchill's dismissal from the Colorado faculty.

Let's get this straight: When the coach of a prominent football program is unaware of the potential severe criminal misconduct of several of his players - in connection with the team, no less - Owens pays the situation lip service. But when a professor makes a politically unpopular statement, he should be fired? What happened to First Amendment rights?

Owens's argument for Churchill's termination: "[T]here are grounds spelled out by CU for termination that include professional incompetence, neglect of duty and insubordination." Dave Curtin & Howard Pankratz, Governor Renews Call for CU Regents to Dismiss Churchill, DENVER POST, Feb. 10, 2005.

I don't really see how Churchill's comments fall into any of those three categories. But I would think that a head football coach who doesn't realize that his team is using sex and alcohol to lure recruits, as the investigation concluded about Barnett, could be considered to be either professionally incompetent or neglecting his duty.

Barnett brought bowl games, though. All Churchill brings are angry letters.


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