Doubt hangs in air over Colorado

Questions: The players in a program rocked by scandal say it's a new day, but others disagree.

College Football

October 09, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

BOULDER, Colo. - As a recent practice ended for the University of Colorado football team, it was difficult to distinguish the black-and-gold clad Buffaloes from any other Division I-A program in the country trying to rebuild after a nightmarish season.

The players huddled around coach Gary Barnett and his assistants, chanting and cheering and demonstrating their new-found togetherness.

Has life returned to normal so quickly for a team that only months ago was coming off a 5-7 season and found itself engulfed in a recruiting scandal that nearly cost Barnett his job?

Has the black cloud that seemed to hover permanently over this picturesque campus last spring finally gone away? Have the months of turmoil given way to a new perspective on football, if not life itself, for Barnett, his staff and his players?

It certainly seems so, and it has only partly to do with the team's 3-1 start going into today's game here at Folsom Field against No. 22 Oklahoma State.

"When something is taken away from you and then you get it back, you don't make the same mistake twice," said defensive captain Matt McChesney, a senior tackle.

Ever since the first public allegations of rape were made against members of the team earlier this year and were followed by eight similar charges, the Buffaloes have been portrayed as a renegade program and Barnett as a coach who didn't know, or didn't care to know, what was going on.

The charges dated to a December 2001 recruiting weekend during which recruits were allegedly enticed with alcohol, sex and prostitutes. None of the recruits wound up coming to play here, and none of those players rumored to be involved was officially charged or remains in the program.

"It's frustrating for us to a certain extent, but we've put all of that behind us now," said senior offensive tackle Sam Wilder. "People have their own perception of who we are and what we are, but until they've been around us, they don't know."

Coming off their first losing season since 2000, the early victories (including a season-opening, 27-24 win over rival Colorado State) have helped the Buffaloes distance themselves from what happened on the field last fall. But making this community forget what transpired in the aftermath will likely take more work.

A cloud of uncertainty lingers.

The grand jury that investigated the allegations of rape and other acts of sexual abuse has yet to make its findings public.

The lawsuits that have been brought by three of the women against the players and recruits, as well as Barnett and the university, won't go to trial until next year.

The revisions that were supposed to be made in Barnett's contract after the 58-year-old coach was reinstated in late May following a 14-week paid leave of absence have yet to be announced.

There is a feeling that, as long as the team keeps winning, the scandal will be pushed further into the past.

Barnett, who last summer said he would "officially not acknowledge" using the word "scandal" to describe what transpired, disagrees.

"In no way would I ever say that winning will make all this go away," said Barnett, whose team lost for the first time last week, 17-9, at Missouri. "I don't know how to predict what will happen."

There is also the feeling university officials are in denial.

"They've put everything under the carpet and then they ask, 'Why is everyone so upset?' " said Joanne Belknap, a 1981 graduate who returned here in 1998 as a sociology professor.

Belknap is among many, both locally and nationally, who have criticized the way the university handled the matter by allowing the key officials involved - from university president Elizabeth Hoffman to longtime athletic director Dick Tharp to Barnett - to remain in their jobs.

"I want us to regain our integrity," Belknap said. "But we can't do that if we continue to bury our heads in the sand. Not only are we putting young women in danger of being raped, we are putting young men in danger of being rapists by thinking this is normal behavior for a football team."

Jim Martin, a local attorney who has served as a state-elected member of the school's Board of Regents, said the actions taken are simply not enough to change a culture that predates even Barnett's arrival as head coach in 1999.

"There was an opportunity for the climate to change. It hasn't happened, and it won't happen," said Martin, who is not seeking reelection to the board. "It's not just the culture of the athletic department, it's the culture of the University of Colorado system. It's a good old boys network."

But there have been some policy changes made throughout the campus, particularly when it comes to the consumption of alcohol. One student was expelled after getting drunk and passing out at a freshman orientation activity. A fraternity is in jeopardy of losing its charter after the recent alcohol overdose death of a freshman pledge.

Yet Belknap is upset no revisions were made regarding sexual misbehavior.

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