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Asking Tough Questions

July 5, 2006

When former athletes of college teams get in trouble with the law, the institutions they attended usually react minimally if at all. Someone in sports information will confirm the dates that a person was on a team or enrolled, stress that the recently arrested person is no longer a student, and pretty much leave it at that.

Montana State University might have had a hard time just moving on in that way when news broke last week about the arrests of two of its former athletes. The charge was murder and the body of the victim, reportedly a cocaine dealer, was found on a campus farm. But whether it was the nature of the crime, the fallout from the Duke University lacrosse scandal, or some combination of factors, the university's response has been striking.

While stressing that anyone who committed murder is responsible for such an act, the president of the university started acting within a day of the arrests, issuing statements and giving interviews, announcing plans for an outside review of athletics, focusing on recruiting practices, and insisting that Montana State "take a serious look" at itself.

On Monday, President Geoff Gamble sent an e-mail to all students and faculty members, telling them that the arrested ex-students could face the death penalty and that more arrests are possible. While his note did not say so, several sources said that those additional arrests are likely to involve other former athletes at the university.

"This incident is the most serious one I've encountered in my many years of higher education," Gamble wrote. "It troubles me and I felt a responsibility to communicate with you about this. I have felt a range of emotions in the last several days -- sadness, distress, disappointment and disbelief. I suspect that each of you may have experienced many of the same feelings."

The two men arrested -- Branden Miller and John LeBrum -- are both 22 and both are being held in jail. They and their lawyers have not commented on the charges. But Montana newspapers have been full of reports, since their arrests Thursday, about how police linked them to Jason Cody Wright, whose body was found in one of Montana State's agronomy fields. He had been shot. Papers filed by law enforcement officials indicate that Wright was a cocaine dealer -- and the scandal may grow in part because police recovered detailed sales records from Wright's home.

Miller enrolled at Montana State in the fall of 2004 and was one of the top players on the basketball team until he was forced to leave the team in December 2005 because his academic performance fell below minimum requirements. He withdrew from the university in April. LeBrum was a student and a member of the football team during the 2003-4 academic year, but left the university after he was dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons.

Montana State may not be a sports powerhouse nationally, but fans in Bozeman and throughout the state care deeply about how the Bobcats fare. Off the field, athletes perform well, with their graduation rates exceeding those of the student body as a whole. Team rosters are split between Montana residents and those from out of state. Miller and LeBrum are from out of state.

In an interview Monday, Gamble said that one of the areas he most wants to focus on is how and why athletes are recruited, and whether enough emphasis is placed on their non-athletic skills and qualities. "When we bring an athlete to campus, does he or she have a high chance of success academically? It makes no sense to bring someone who has a low chance of success," he said.

Gamble meets with the coaching and athletics staff at Montana State at least annually to talk about university priorities, and he said he has made it clear that -- if the cost of winning is recruiting students who can't perform academically -- he's willing to take more losses.

With 60 percent of athletes having grade-point averages above 3.0 -- and a good number of averages in the A range -- Gamble said that he thinks the system "is working well at the high end." His worry, he said, is that for some students being recruited, there may not be enough emphasis on "fit" with the university's academic requirements and values.

Athletics staff members say that they already pay a lot of attention to those issues. In an interview with the Associated Press, the basketball coach who recruited Miller said that he had no indications of any problems and that current recruiting practices are sufficient.

Gamble said that he had no evidence that anything wasn't being done properly -- except for the rather glaring evidence of the last week. "Having former students arrested for murder is unprecedented," he said. "You have to step back and ask if we are doing everything we should," he said. Part of that process, he said, needs to be "fresh eyes," which is why he is planning to bring in an outside consultant to review the situation.

Then there is the question of drugs. Gamble said that the fact that former students may be involved in a "drug culture" is of great concern. In March, eight freshmen at Montana State -- none of them athletes -- were arrested on charges including distribution and possession of cocaine, ecstacy, hallucinogenic mushrooms and marijuana. The students were all suspended and evicted from their dormitory rooms. While meth is not a problem at Montana State, Gamble said he has served on a state task force looking at its growing prevalence in in the state -- including some of the most rural areas.

"When you see an underlying drug culture, you have to ask whether you are sending a strong enough message," Gamble said.

Montana State may be facing the first serious scandal involving athletes' behavior to emerge since the Duke lacrosse scandal, and Gamble said that he has read all of the reports Duke put out about how it responded to the situation (or in some cases, failed initially to respond). A Duke report criticized many at the university for failing to fully inform the president there of the incident and the nature of the allegations -- and Gamble said that there has been no holding back at Montana State, from the day the arrests were made. Gamble has also stressed the importance of making it clear to athletes that they need to cooperate fully with law enforcement and to talk to coaches and senior officials about any problems they see.

Raising that issue early may sound like a response to Duke, where lacrosse players were accused early on (before many doubts surfaced about the allegations) of protecting one another.

In fact, Gamble said he has been influenced by a previous athletic scandal, but not the one at Duke. Before he came to Montana State, he was provost at the University of Vermont, where hazing allegations involving the hockey team in 1999 were determined to be true -- and an attorney general's report documented the way players worked together to lie about what had happened. "I've seen how quickly these things can get bolluxed up," he said.

Another issue at Montana State -- one people are talking about quite a bit privately, but not much publicly -- is race. Both of the ex-students who were arrested are black. The black population in the state of Montana is so small (less than 1 percent) that there are very few black students at the university -- totals vary from year to year and can be measured in the dozens -- and the overwhelming majority of black students at Montana State are athletes.

Asked about the message sent on a campus where most black students are athletes, Gamble said that was "an intriguing question," but added that "the issue about racial and cultural background isn't as important to me as probability for success as a student and then success as a student athlete."

Peter Fields, the athletics director at Montana State, said he knows that 'there are people who will make race an issue -- but for me it's a larger issue." To those who suggest that Montana State not recruit in certain kinds of communities (defined in various socioeconomic terms), Fields noted the growing meth problem in Montana. "Do we stop recruiting in areas where there are some people who choose to make meth?" he asked. "We need to make sure that we are recruiting students who happen to be good athletes."

At the same time, Fields said there are more pressures on black athletes at Montana State, even if those are a reflection of the pressures on all athletes in a state where the programs at Montana State and the University of Montana are the big time. "Whatever happens in this town of 30,000, we live in a glass house. If you are an African American and you live in this glass house, it's even more magnified," he said.

And that may exacerbate the difficulties. "I'm so saddened to think that these two made such a horrendous decision and that it may reflect on the many good minority students we have here," he said.

Field said it was too early to outline reforms the university might make. But he said that there is already discussion of recruiting practices, the level of academic support and monitoring of athletes, and some questions being asked about doing background checks on prospective athletes.

Having read the Duke reports, Field said he was anxious to be sure everyone knew that the university was taking this seriously, listening to everyone, and committed to making any needed changes. "One of the things I took away was a disconnect between when the university responded and when the event happened and was seen as important in the community," Field said. "We want to be pro-active."

At the same time, he acknowledged, it can be hard for people to focus when everyone is still so stunned by the murder and the arrests.

Field met with basketball players right after the arrests. "They had been diving on the floor with Branden Miller for almost two years," he said. "I don't think they ever considered that this could be part of his make-up. Our whole department has been in shock."

 

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