Archives: 20 years after Bias' death, schools still falter with scandals

  • University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias
University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias (BALTIMORE SUN PHOTO BY ELLIS…)
June 18, 2006|By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun

It was a pleasant, late-March evening on the Duke campus and the tulips were blooming near the neo-Gothic chapel. But university president Richard Brodhead could hardly enjoy the night air.

As Brodhead, a silver-haired scholar of 19th-century American literature, stepped out onto a campus green he was immediately bathed in television-camera lights and swarmed by shouting, placard-waving female students.For Brodhead it was just the beginning of a rolling tsunami of a scandal over allegations that three men's lacrosse team members raped an exotic dancer at a party.

But to the American public there might have seemed something familiar about what was unfolding. Anguished allegations and 911 calls. A media frenzy. A coach resigning under pressure. University handwringing. And, finally, athletic reforms.

Twenty years after the cocaine-induced death of basketball star Len Bias left much of the University of Maryland's athletic program in tatters, universities still seem not to have learned how to prevent athletic scandals from taking on image-damaging lives of their own. Part of the problem is that the schools' attention is typically divided between factions seeking reforms and others - often including deep-pocketed athletic boosters - worried that too much change will cripple sports teams. Campus administrators are often left playing defense in the face of a barrage of media reports and demands.

Maryland, Baylor, Colorado, Duke. Sports-related scandals at each school - and others - led them down long, harrowing paths. Each institution seemed to undergo a public cleansing process along the way that was painful to watch and yet somehow riveting.

The circumstances are different in each case, of course. Bias' death - "It's Len Bias. He passed out. His body is shaking," said a friend's haunting 911 call - led to an examination of drugs on campus and of academic and admissions practices for athletes.

Baylor basketball coach Dave Bliss left in 2003 after one of his players, Patrick Dennehy, was murdered. Another former Baylor player, Carlton Dotson of Hurlock, pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 35 years. An investigation found that Bliss had tried to cover up an improper tuition payment to Dennehy by asking players to say Dennehy had paid his tuition by dealing drugs.

At Colorado, where football team members have had numerous problems with the law, an independent investigation in 2004 concluded that some recruits were offered sex and alcohol arranged by players.

Losing control

While the circumstances vary, there is a sense in each case of a university having lost control, of the story galloping ahead while a campus is left gasping for breath.

"Colleges and universities frequently find themselves behind the eight ball when crises erupt," said David Carter, director of the University of Southern California Sports Business Institute. "The schools seldom have all the facts and find themselves searching to ascertain what is fact and what is fiction - and do so at the same time [as] the media. The difference being that the media is trained to smoke out the story, the witnesses, and any salacious details."

Other experts suggest another, more troubling reason why universities appear to lag in getting to the truth: they might be reluctant to upset the status quo.

Universities are often "guarded as to what gets seen," said Len Elmore, a Terrapins basketball standout during the 1970s who is now a member of the university's board of trustees.

"A lot of that obviously is self-protection. That's just a natural reaction. People don't want to lose their jobs," said Elmore, a lawyer with the LeBoeuf Lamb law firm in New York City. "I think the antidote is being proactive and taking preemptive action."

But acting boldly in a taut, scandalous environment is not easy, particularly if it means alienating boosters worried about the impact of public disclosures on recruiting.

Allen Schwait, who was chairman of the University of Maryland Board of Regents in 1986, said there was resistance to the broad athletic reforms proposed after Bias died.

Now a Baltimore Circuit Court judge, Schwait recalls leaving his law firm for weeks at a time to help manage the crisis on the university's behalf.

Schwait said he came to believe early on that the university needed to make "institutional" changes. He said it had to better monitor how athletes were performing in classes and the extent of drug use on campus. He also said there was underlying tension between coaches and the administration over admissions standards for athletes.

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