Friday, February 20, 2004

You can send a jock to school...

I found the best piece of unintentional humor today in the Sun-Times sports section. I'd like to share it with you.

"(C)oach Barnett is brutally honest."

That wonderful punch line was supplied by Colorado linebacker Sean Tufts. Tufts was defending his coach, Gary Barnett, the former Northwestern coach whose program in Boulder is now embroiled in a major scandal involving football recruits attending sex parties during visits to campus and alleged sexual assaults by Colorado players. Barnett is currently on paid administrative leave after attacking the football skills of former Buffaloes placekicker Katie Hnida, who has alleged being raped by a fellow CU player four years ago.

Barnett, in a monumental lapse of judgment, responded to Hnida's allegations by relating what a terrible kicker Hnida was and that football players respect "ability."

"I don't care if you're 90 years old, if you can play football the players will respect you," Barnett said, leading some to believe that Hnida's alleged rape was avoidable if she could have split the uprights with a forty-yard field goal into a crosswind to beat Nebraska.

I sit here typing thinking to myself that while karma is not instant, when it comes around it sure as hell does get you. Gary Barnett is finding that out the hard way right now.

Barnett first rose to prominence in 1995 after guiding traditional doormats Northwestern to the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance. Projecting to the public a persona of a firm but fair-minded coach- a father figure for the previously sadsack purple clad Wildcats. That image was a pentimento; an image covering another. In short order Barnett was exposed as an opportunist and braggart who was quick to deflect blame when scandal arose.

Reports leaked to newspapers that Barnett had arranged to interview for the open head coaching position at UCLA while preparing Northwestern for the Rose Bowl were verified when he actually interviewed for the Bruins' job. Barnett said afterward that he was "weighing his options." Northwestern promptly signed him to a megabucks multiyear deal.

The following year he guided Northwestern to a share of the Big Ten title, entertained more offers from other universities interested in his services, and continued using those offers as leverage against Northwestern. In the midst of all this, four of his players were implicated in a gambling and point shaving scandal. The father figure Barnett promptly cut ties to the players, claiming the gambling scandal to be a "betrayal."

As the Wildcats football fortunes began to wane, Barnett worked hard to keep his profile as a taskmaster elevated, even as the buzz got louder about how he was "weighing offers" (read: campaigning) from other universities. Finally, in Spring 1999 he interviewed for the Colorado head coaching position vacated by Rick Neuheisel and openly lied to his Northwestern players that he "wasn't going anywhere."

Two days later, Gary Barnett resigned to take the job at Colorado.

The Buffaloes job was a dream position for Barnett: a high profile job at a football powerhouse where he apprenticed as an assistant coach under Bill McCartney. McCartney himself was no stranger to seeing his football players implicated in criminal behavior at Colorado; the rap sheet of criminal behavior of players under McCartney's charge range from shoplifting to- surprise- sexual assault (McCartney's own daughter was impregnated by one of his quarterbacks.) McCartney went on to become a "born again" Catholic and found the fundamentalist group Promise Keepers, effectively pulling a Pontius Pilate with regards to the CU football program.

The CU scandal is the most glaring example of the blurred line between college athletics and big business/entertainment. Powerhouse college football programs constantly deal with a melange of shady outside influences- boosters who never truly left campus after graduation, street agents offering star athletes everything from phone cards and clothes to cars and loose women, a governing athletic body in the NCAA that reaps billions in revenue for the universities it represents while treating student athletes like indentured servants- and the CU campus was recently named the nation's top party school by The Princeton Review. CU also wasn't taking the charges seriously until the governor of the state practically ordered an investigation into the allegations.

But I don't think for a second that Gary Barnett did not know the severity of the allegations when this behavior was happening for over twenty years at CU. At the very least Barnett is guilty of turning his back and ignoring the situation. He'll be the first one to lose his job in the scandal, but he shouldn't be the last.

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