Accusations often enough to damage athlete's career irreversibly

October 20, 1991|By Michelle Kaufman | Michelle Kaufman,Knight-Ridder News Service

Nearly five years have passed since George Williams Jr. lost his basketball future in Room 308 of the Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wis. He remembers every detail of that bitter cold evening and the ensuing six-month nightmare he and his family endured.

"We were on a three-game winning streak in the Big Ten and had just upset No. 2-ranked Michigan the week before," Williams said from his home in Oakland, Calif. "Gary Grant and Roy Tarpley played for Michigan at the time, and I was starting for Minnesota, even though I was only a sophomore. Everything was going right on track.

"Then, that night in Madison, we beat Wisconsin by one point on a last-second shot by Todd Alexander. I was 3-for-3 that game."

Williams never again slipped a maroon-and-gold basketball uniform over his 6-foot-8 frame. His next uniform was blue and baggy, with the words "Dane County" stamped on the shirt.

He was one of three Minnesota players accused of rape. All were acquitted later.

Derrick Fenner. Donald Igwebuike. David Wingate. All were talented athletes, too. All were accused of felonies. All were cleared. All stigmatized, nonetheless.

Williams can relate.

Mike Tyson is accused of raping an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant in Indianapolis. His trial is scheduled for Jan. 27, but the public prosecution already has begun. Some people think Tyson shouldn't be allowed to fight Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight title in a bout originally scheduled for Nov. 8 at Caesars Palace. Tyson's training injury has postponed it.

Last month, the Detroit Free Press posed this question to readers: Should the Tyson fight go on as planned? Seventy-six of the 111 responses (68.5 percent) said no.

The Fifth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution state that no person can be deprived "of life, liberty or property, without due process of law." Those words are supposed to ensure that a defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Under that presumption, a defendant would be allowed to continue to pursue his or her career until trial.

But in the cases of murder and rape, employers often feel a charge is grounds enough for suspension.

The same philosophy comes into play when an athlete is accused of a serious crime.

Professional and college athletes often are suspended pending the conclusion of their trial.

"We have kids who look up to these guys, and an athlete accused of rape is not someone you want representing your team," said Bob Bass, vice president of the San Antonio Spurs, Wingate's former employers. "On the other hand, is it fair to fire a guy and punish him before his trial? It's a tough call. That's why suspension is often the best answer."

Those who call for the postponement of Tyson's fight feel he should be proven innocent before the American public pays him $15 million for a boxing match. They worry about the integrity of sport when an accused rapist can captivate a national television audience while the alleged victim suffers the aftermath of a heinous crime.

"Innocence before greed!" shouted a group of Guardian Angels who demonstrated outside the Marion (Ind.) County Superior Court during Tyson's arraignment last month.

Tyson's attorneys argue that their client has the right to make a living while he awaits trial. They claim it would be unconstitutional to lock him out of the ring and insist that a celebrity accused of a crime merits no more attention than any other defendant.

It doesn't always work that way.

Ask Williams.

After that victory over Wisconsin, Williams and teammates Kevin Smith of Lansing, Mich., and Mitch Lee of Miami spent the late-night hours in Room 308 with an 18-year-old woman they met at a party. What happened in that room, only those four know. The woman called it rape the next morning.

Within 24 hours, the three players were whisked off the team plane, charged with 12 counts of sexual assault, kicked off the Minnesota basketball team, denounced by the university president, forced to withdraw from school and splashed on the front pages of most sports sections around the country. In some cities -- including Detroit -- the news made the front page.

Basketball fans at Purdue held up posters that read: "Big Ten All-Criminal team, Mitchell Lee, Kevin Smith, George Williams" when Minnesota came to town.

"The way the university and media painted it, we were guilty, and we hadn't even had a day in court yet," Williams said. "You're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but it wasn't like that. My life was devastated just because someone accused me of something. What hurt most is that the university bailed out on us."

A Dane County jury announced its verdict July 26 that year: Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.

Smith threw up on the courthouse floor. Williams and Lee slapped high-fives. The three families wept in jubilation.

But the damage was done, and it was irreversible.

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