BOULDER, Colo. — In this picturesque town set against the Rocky Mountains, where conversation usually tends toward skiing this time of year, the talk has shifted abruptly to a scandal involving alcohol, rape and the local college football team.
Almost every day this month has brought a new accusation against the University of Colorado Buffaloes, and Thursday was no different. Police said they are investigating whether a team member sexually assaulted a woman in 2002, the seventh such claim since 1997.
Players also have been accused of offering alcohol and strippers to high school recruits, which has prompted a high-level investigation. Coach Gary Barnett was placed on leave Wednesday night after downplaying an allegation by Katie Hnida, a former Colorado kicker, who said she was assaulted by a teammate. Barnett called her a "terrible" player.
These developments have pushed Colorado to the forefront of a wave of embarrassing incidents involving college athletics. Much of the controversy centers on the way football programs cozy up to high school prospects.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 24, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Colorado football -- An article in Section A on Friday about problems with the University of Colorado football program said the University of Alabama was placed on NCAA probation in 2002 because strippers entertained recruits. According to an NCAA report on the Alabama case, numerous violations were involved, including cash payments to recruits and the cost-free use of an SUV by a player.
From Oregon to Alabama, reports have surfaced of recruits being offered alcohol, marijuana and sex while visiting campuses. A Florida recruit was accused of accosting a woman and punching a man outside a nightclub during a recent visit.
These allegations have prompted the NCAA to form a task force to establish more stringent rules.
The alarm has sounded even louder in Colorado, where allegations extend well beyond recruiting practices, and state officials have demanded action.
"These are fundamental questions that people have to wrestle to the ground," said Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "It keeps fueling the idea that college athletics are out of control."
At first glance, the Colorado campus and its surrounding mountains seem an unlikely setting for such a scandal.
The school's faculty includes two Nobel Prize winners. The psychology and molecular physics programs are considered among the nation's best. Unlike some big colleges, the campus is not dominated by football.
"They can't even sell out a CU football game because half of the students are out mountain biking," said Bronson Hilliard, an alumnus and managing editor of the Colorado Daily, a newspaper serving the student community. "These are not the kind of people out waving a big Styrofoam finger in the air."
But Colorado is also the site of the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case and a rape scandal at the Air Force Academy. The Buffaloes, who won a national championship in 1990, have had trouble too.
As far back as 1962, a coach was fired amid allegations that recruits were paid to attend school. During the 1980s, players were accused of various crimes, including serial rape and drunken driving.
More recent problems date to 1997, when a 17-year-old female high school student accused a player of rape after a recruiting party. Four years later, three women alleged they were raped by football players and recruits at an alcohol-saturated party.
Boulder County prosecutor Mary Keenan, who found insufficient evidence to file sexual assault charges in the 2001 case, has said she believes the university entices recruits with sex and alcohol.
A Broomfield, Colo., man who has operated an escort service for 15 years said he has sent strippers to recruiting parties for several colleges in the state.
"It's a tradition handed down from player to player to player," he told local reporters.
When Barnett and university President Elizabeth Hoffman initially denied accusations, Gov. Bill Owens stepped in, vowing to "take whatever steps are necessary to protect the integrity of the university."
Hoffman created a panel to investigate recruiting practices but even that raised a furor when her appointed co-chair, Joyce Lawrence, said: "The question that I have for the ladies in this is, why are they going to parties like this and drinking or taking drugs and putting themselves in a very threatening or serious position like this?"
The panel's final members were chosen this week.
In the meantime, at least one Colorado player said he took a recruit to a strip club. Barnett suspended four players for violating team rules pertaining to recruiting activities.
Barnett, 57, came to Boulder from academically respected Northwestern University, where former players remember him as a stickler for rules.
"I don't know anything about what's going on in Colorado, but none of that went on here," said Steve Schnur, quarterback of the school's 1995 Big Ten championship team.
Colorado hired Barnett in 1999 to restore a program that had, by most accounts, run amok. Not long after his arrival, the NCAA determined that more than 50 recruiting rules had been violated under his predecessor, Rick Neuheisel.
Many in Boulder welcomed Barnett as a disciplinarian and a polar opposite of Neuheisel, who took his players on river-rafting trips and served them ice cream after practice.