In late December, while the University of Arizona was quietly investigating a sexual harassment complaint against football coach Rich Rodriguez, several school officials met with the Star to discuss the measures they take to prevent such issues within the athletic department.
Rodriguez was fired on Tuesday, the same day the news broke of a $7.5 million notice of claim filed by former administrative assistant Melissa Wilhelmsen. In it, she details years of hostility and sexual harassment.
The UA’s third-party investigation into Rodriguez, which concluded Dec. 28, determined that the longtime football coach didn’t do enough to be fired for cause. Athletic director Dave Heeke terminated Rodriguez anyway, citing a constellation of factors — including the investigation.
In the claim, Wilhelmsen says that Rodriguez made comments about how “Title IX doesn’t exist in this office,” referencing a federal law that protects students and employees from sex discrimination.
While the claim has yet to be substantiated, school officials told the Star that Title IX education is a priority for student athletes and coaches. The UA required training for years before the NCAA decided in August that such education was mandatory and will be regulated.
The UA schedules guest speakers and shows videos and slideshow presentations to student-athletes, said senior associate athletic director Erika Barnes. Former Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard delivered a powerful message to female student-athletes recently, Barnes said.
“We try not bombard them too much with mandatory meetings, because it can start falling on deaf ears at times, so we try to make those specific and meaningful,” Barnes said.
All athletes are required to attend the back-to-school barbecue, where they are shown the school’s Title IX contacts and resources. A video called “Tea is Like Consent” is also shown, according to a list provided by school officials. Athletes are also introduced to the Step UP! bystander intervention program, which was designed by Becky Bell, the UA’s associate athletic director for the CATS Life Skills programs.
The athletic department’s Title IX training — which Barnes says they’ve prioritized — is part of the Life Skills program.
Title IX training is also mandatory for all athletic department staff, but especially important for members of the department’s CATS support services, which includes trainers, academic counselors, life skills office employees, strength coaches, medical trainers, team physicians and the department’s clinical psychologist, Barnes said.
“We really make sure that those that have day-to-day interactions (with student athletes) have those trainings as well,” she said, adding that they have them more frequently than other staff members. “We want to create a sense of familiarity and comfort level for the employees to be comfortable having the student athletes share information or voice concerns.”
In November, former running back Orlando Bradford was sentenced to five years in prison for choking two of his ex-girlfriends. Police documents released in December said four of Bradford’s teammates witnessed him abusing women but mostly failed to intervene.
While Bradford was kicked off of the team immediately following his arrest, none of the players in the report were suspended from the team or disciplined for their failure to step up. One of the bystanders remains on the football team.
School officials are unable to talk about the Bradford case due to a federal lawsuit filed by one of the victims but said that Step UP! is an educational program and not part of the code of conduct.
“You can’t enforce anything like that; people have free will,” said Kendal Washington White, the UA’s assistant vice provost of student affairs.“It’s no different than those of us who’ve had speeding tickets and have to go to traffic school. Does it stop you from speeding?”
In addition, UA students and athletes are adults and can’t be forced to do anything, said spokesman Chris Sigurdson.
“There’s lots of reasons why people don’t speak up,” he said. “To the public, it looks really straightforward, but these are people who come from different backgrounds with different rules and different expectations across the board.”
Step UP! is designed to get students talking about different ways to deal with situations, including who to talk to and how to report incidents, said Mary Beth Tucker, the UA’s Title IX coordinator and assistant vice president of equity compliance. The program doesn’t necessarily state that student-athletes should put themselves in harm’s way.
When asked if Rodriguez had the ability to suspend the players for failing to intervene or report, Barnes and athletic department spokesman Jeremy Sharpe weren’t able to provide a clear answer.
“In this situation I would think … we would look at it as a way to try to educate young people about their options, about the benefits of being a positive influence in those situations,” Sharpe said. “The coach doesn’t have complete control over who is and who isn’t on the roster. A lot of that comes from student-athlete welfare and policies and practices we would follow.”
Student-athletes who witness acts of violence are provided with counseling and support services, Barnes said, adding that the department has an in-house counselor that’s available around the clock.
With that counselor comes doctor-patient confidentiality, Barnes said.
Who reports —
and who supports
All UA staff and faculty are mandatory reporters when it comes to Title IX issues and must report incidents to the Dean of Students or Office of Institutional Equity, Tucker said.
“They have an obligation to hear that student and to respond to that student and to make sure that student is connected to resources,” she said. “That’s really what that call is about, letting us know so that we can outreach to the student and make sure that we’re providing the right resources.”
After a faculty member or student reports a Title IX issue, it’s up to the student to decide how they want to handle it. A number of options are available, including filing a police report, having the school initiate an investigation or simply receiving counseling.
The UA can take steps to separate an accuser from the accused. If a student files a complaint against a person in the same dorm or a section of their class, the school can move one party during the course of the investigation.
“We can take intermediary measures to help that student stay in school and remain successful,” White said.
“If they don’t know about resources, sometimes these students will just drop out of school and leave campus.”
School officials don’t notify police.
“Because it’s up to the victim to decide whether they want to report to police,” White said. “We remind them they can report the incident to the police, but we don’t make that phone call.”
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, prohibits officials from notifying coaches or teachers about the complaint unless the investigation reveals that the student violated the law or code of conduct.
“Coaches don’t need to know about that one incident. We need to do an investigation,” White said. “We’re not going to tell the honors college, house moms. That’s not the right thing to do. We need to protect their privacy.”
Most of the Title IX cases that the school investigates receive no publicity and are often not even reported to the police, White said.
“(In most cases) we’re the only ones who know, aside from the people involved. And that’s the right thing for us to keep it closed,” White said.
“It’s not that we’re trying to hide anything. We’re trying to protect the integrity of the person who's been victimized, as well as the accused. Because just because someone’s been accused doesn’t mean it happened in the way it was reported.”
By definition, Title IX is about equity and the school’s investigations focus on treating each student involved equitably, Tucker said.
“That’s a challenging burden to meet the needs of someone who's presenting as a victim … and someone who's been accused,” she said. “We haven’t done the investigation yet, so we don’t know if that allegation is true or not — and they’re both our students. Ensuring that we’re doing our very best to do a thorough investigation that’s fair and equitable to both of the students is really key.”
Coaching the coaches
The athletic department holds mandatory all-staff meetings and has been tailoring Title IX trainings to smaller groups of coaches and staff, Barnes said. There are “a lot more questions asked if it’s a small setting,” Barnes said.
The UA is facing a lawsuit in Pima County Superior Court by a former athlete who has accused former assistant track and field coach Craig Carter of assaulting and stalking her following a sexual relationship.
The school has specific policies forbidding such relationships, which officials say is woven into online training. Carter was terminated shortly after his arrest.
“The rules for employees are very clear-cut,” Sigurdson said. “With Carter, once we knew he was in violation of a workplace policy and information was given to police, we began proceedings for dismissal.”
Rodriguez has not been arrested, and denied Wilhelmsen’s charges in a statement released Tuesday night. Rodriguez did admit to having an extramarital affair, however, and on Tuesday described her with nine words: “a woman who is not affiliated with the University.”