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A Harvard Football Scandal? That Smarts

Many athletes at the prestigious school still believe the problems are exceptions to the rule.

October 07, 2006|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The team captain, an all-league linebacker, is kicked off the team and charged with domestic assault after allegedly breaking into his girlfriend's dorm room.

The quarterback is suspended five games for violating team rules, but details of his transgression are kept secret by the school.

A senior running back is dismissed because of actions the coach calls "disgusting" during an annual preseason "Skit Night."

These are only a few of the story lines generated by a single football team during the last year, incidents that seem to go hand-in-hand nowadays with big-time college sports.

Except never before has the team been Harvard, one of the world's most prestigious universities.

And if it can happen here....

Harvard does not award athletic scholarships. Its conference, the venerable Ivy League, doesn't even allow its league champion to participate in the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.

Here along the banks of the Charles River, the sports teams receive little emphasis and cause nary a ripple on campus. Asked about the football controversy last week as they studied on the steps of the library, two graduate students answered with blank stares. They had no idea.

But football Coach Tim Murphy is well aware that his team is being watched by many on campus who are worried that the university's image is being sullied at the expense of a few extra victories.

Murphy is in his 13th season as one of Harvard's most successful coaches. Under his leadership, the Crimson has won three Ivy League titles, and the 10-0 squad of 2004 is considered by some the best Harvard team in 100 years. Every one of his four-year players has played on a league championship team and has graduated.

Recent events, however, suggest that his program might be falling prey to the type of scandal that rocks programs with lesser ideals.

On a table in front of the coach's desk on a recent morning was a book titled "Never, Never,Quit," and Murphy does not intend to. He wants to defend his program and reputation but has received orders not to comment further on off-field matters.

"We're just focused on football," Murphy said.

Thomas Dingman, the dean of freshmen who instructed Murphy not to talk, referred all interview requests to Robert Mitchell, Harvard's director of communications. Mitchell did not respond to an interview request.

Bob Scalise, Harvard's athletic director, also declined to comment, and no Harvard football players were allowed to be interviewed for this article.

Chuck Sullivan, the school's director of athletic communications, said he understood the man-bites-dog intrigue involving a university with such a vaunted reputation.

"Harvard can be an easy target," Sullivan said, adding that it was wrong to draw conclusions from isolated incidents and naive to think Harvard was immune to societal problems.

"You can't fairly take a small sample and extrapolate that to mean there's an epidemic."

Murphy prompted raised eyebrows, however, when he recently suggested that Harvard was merely a microcosm of society. A random sample of his players' media guide biographies suggests otherwise:

"Career plans include research toward cure for ALS," reads one.

"It's a microcosm of winning," former Harvard star receiver Pat McInally said of his alma mater's woes. "It's the price of having not just a winning program, but a program that is yielding pros."

No longer able to state his case, Murphy referred a reporter to his postgame comments from a 38-21 win against Brown on Sept. 23.

"I've been a head coach for 20 years and I've never been through anything remotely like this," the coach said that day. "I know this: 99% of the kids that we've had at Harvard have been world-class human beings, the kind that you would literally be proud for your daughter to marry."

Other Harvard athletes downplay the events. Kelsi Chan, a freshman member of the Harvard soccer team, dismissed the football controversy as tabloid talk.

"It's not a good story if it's not a bad story," Chan said. "That's human nature."

Jim Goffredo, senior captain of the Harvard basketball team, said it was sad that athletes "get lumped together" but added that he didn't think the football team's problems were a reflection of the 40 other athletic teams fielded at the school.

"It's an easy story to make something out of Harvard," said Goffredo, who attended Crescenta Valley High School and is on schedule to graduate from Harvard next spring with a degree in economics.

David Stearns, a reporter for the Harvard Crimson newspaper, opined in an Oct. 3 article that the football team was taking a national beating "because it's Harvard, and when people have a chance to knock the Crimson down a notch or two, they jump on it."

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