College coaches willing to take risks on players despite growing sexual assault scandals

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“Why did you let two prospects who were accused of that come onto your campus?”

That is the question posed by Gary Parrish of CBS Sports on a podcast last week, after news broke that Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo had allowed at least four players and a student assistant to remain with his program while and after they were accused of and investigated for violence against women.

“You couldn’t do it now,” Parrish continued. “If there were two recruits in the country who were accused of what Adreian Payne and Keith Appling were accused of, you could not enroll them at a University.”

And that is a beautiful sentiment, one I wish was true.

But it’s not reality.

On the same day that the ESPN published a report detailing what appears to be a system in place to cover-up sexual assaults by athletes in the Michigan State athletic department, LSU accepted a commitment from a five-star prospect that was accused of rape just over three months ago. If that player does end up enrolling at LSU, he will be the second player on that roster with a highly-publicized sexual assault allegation in his recent past.

Emmitt Williams is a five-star prospect from Florida that was, at one time or another, being recruited by the likes of Kansas, Duke and Oregon. NBC Sports broke the news that he was arrested on Oct. 18th on accusations of sexual battery and false imprisonment which stemmed from an incident that happened a week earlier. His accuser told police that Williams was at her house but that he would not let her leave, even when she tried to go pick up her friend. Williams began touching her, she said, despite the fact that she told Williams she was not interested in sex. Williams ignored that, pulled down her pants and raped her while her attempts to stop him were unsuccessful, she said.

In the arrest report it states that a friend of the victim, in the presence of police officers, had a text conversation with Williams where he acknowledged being told “no”.

Charges were filed.

They were dropped on Dec. 21st.

Williams committed to LSU on Jan. 25th.

Emmitt Williams, Orange County Incarcerations

If he eventually enrolls at LSU, he’ll team up with Kavell Bigby-Williams, a former Oregon player who played the entirety of the 2016-17 season while under investigation for forcible rape. In mid-September of 2016, Bigby-Williams, who transferred to Oregon from Gillette College in Wyoming, returned to his previous school to visit for a week. On the night of Sept. 17th, according to the police report, the victim drank whiskey and vodka and blacked from from 10 p.m. until 3:30 p.m. the next day. Her roommates, who were in the suite the night of the incident, told police that she was throwing up in a trashcan at midnight and passed out in her bed afterwards. She woke up the next morning, naked with a large bruise on her neck and soreness and bleeding in her vagina. There were dark stains on her bedsheets.

The roommates told police that Bigby-Williams admitted to having sex with the victim but that he insisted it was consensual. He had already returned to Oregon by the time police in Wyoming contacted him, and a Sports Illustrated investigation determined that Oregon failed to follow its Title IX policies during the investigation. The University, just two years earlier, was at the epicenter of a scandal that should have cost head coach Dana Altman his job, when three players were accused of a gang rape — including one player that has been under investigation for sexual assault while at Providence.

Bigby-Williams helped Oregon get to the Final Four. He was never interviewed by police in Wyoming or Oregon. He was never charged with a crime. He announced his commitment to LSU in June of this year. LSU did not make his enrollment official until August.

“The university conducted a responsible and comprehensive review before approving the transfer,” a release posted on LSU’s Athletics site read at the time, “including close coordination with Title IX officials, multiple discussions with Gillette and Oregon officials and a thorough examination of available public records.”

All of this is and was public.

If LSU head coach Will Wade or his coaching staff are surprised by any of this, they should be fired for an inability to do their job.

It’s a risk they are taking, bringing players like Williams and Bigby-Williams to their campus, and one that I’m not sure is wrong to take.

Kavell Bigby-Williams (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

In the eyes of the law, neither of these men committed a crime. This is still America and we are all still considered innocent until proven guilty. Sexual assaults are unbelievably difficult to prosecute because they all end up being ‘he said, she said’ cases. Proving beyond a reasonable doubt that one person is telling the truth while the other is lying is not easy. When charges are not brought in a sexual assault case, it usually means that the charges are not provable, not that prosecutors believe the person being accused is innocent.

While they are exceedingly rare, there are cases where false allegations do occur. The settlement that Dez Wells received from Xavier for their reaction to a false allegation made against him was roughly the same as what Oregon paid out to the woman that was allegedly raped by the three players in 2014.

Should a player never again allowed to be a part of a team because of an accusation that was never proven in court?

I don’t believe so.

But there has to be responsibility for those that consent to bringing a player like Williams or Bigby-Williams — or Reggie Lynch, or Brandon Austin — to campus. It’s why I believe that Altman should have been fired back in 2014. It’s why I believe that Richard Pitino should lose his job over the way that Minnesota has handled Lynch. And it’s why I believe that Wade and his coaching staff should be fired if either Williams or Bigby-Williams has anything even close to an accusation of violence against women or sexual assault while on the LSU campus.

If there are no serious repercussions for taking a risk that the kid you are bringing onto a college campus, where sexual violence is an epidemic, might actually be a serial sexual predator, then nothing is ever going to change.

College coaches that NBC Sports spoke with agreed for the most part. They were granted anonymity in exchange for honesty.

“We’ve missed out on some all-league guys because of background checks from guys in high school or transfer,” said one head coach that has reached the NCAA tournament. “We do a lot of background work.”

That coach also added that he’s stepped up the amount of effort he puts into educating his players about sexual violence on campus. His school has two seminars a year trying to educate students about the epidemic, and he has made his players read the police report from the alleged gang rape at Oregon, out loud in the locker room in front of the team.

One coach from a top 25 program that initially tried to get involved in the Williams recruitment said they would not even have been able to recruit the player once the arrest went public.

“If you were arrested for rape, I don’t trust your judgement,” said a high-major assistant coach. “I don’t want anyone associated with the word rape around my program.”

Which leads me back to Izzo.

The crux of the problems the Hall of Famer is currently facing isn’t necessarily with Payne and Appling. They were accused of sexual assault by a Michigan State student during one of their first weekends on campus as freshmen. In an interview with police, Payne said that his victim had indicated she wanted to leave, and that he could “understand how she would feel that she was not free to leave.” Neither Payne nor Appling appear to have been punished at all by the basketball program, athletic department or the University.

Keith Appling and Adreian Payne (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

There are questions that Izzo needs to answer about that situation. Why there was never any punishment? Why were they immediately allowed back into the program? Why didn’t the University start a Title IX investigation into the allegation until, according to Outside The Lines, a representative of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alerted them that not doing so broke federal law?

To be crystal clear, the way that was handled — by Izzo, by Mark Hollis, by the athletic department, by the school — was wrong.

But that is also old news that was a major story locally at the time that it happened. It did not draw anywhere near the national media attention it’s generating now. This happened before the scandals that plagued Baylor and Oregon and Penn State, before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. The very reason that those two things exist, that so many men in power are having to pay for their actions, is because it has become abundantly clear that we, as a society, did not take sexual harassment and sexual assault seriously enough for far too long. No one is denying that, but it’s fair to question whether or not we can hold Izzo to a 2018 standard for an incident that occurred in 2010.

Where Izzo may be in real trouble is in the way that Travis Walton was handled.

Walton played for the Spartans until 2009. He was a three-time captain. He spent the 2009-10 season as a student assistant with the program as he finished his degree. He told The Lima News, in a story published two days before this news broke, that he lived in Izzo’s basement that year.

In February of 2010, Walton was accused by a woman of punching her twice in the face at a bar, knocking her unconscious and giving her a concussion. A judge ruled that Walton was “OK to travel with the MSU basketball team,” according to Outside the Lines, and he was with the team when they reached the Final Four that season.

Student assistant coach Travis Walton looks on during practice prior to the 2010 Final Four (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

That charge eventually was reduced to a civil infraction for littering, which Walton plead guilty to, but his name came up in another accusation. Walton and two players on that 2009-10 team were named in a sexual assault report given to the Michigan State athletic department and obtained by Outside The Lines. That incident occurred in April of 2010. “None of the players were reprimanded in anyway,” according to the report, although it does allege that Walton was fired. Walton told Outside The Lines that he left Michigan State after the season to pursue a pro career in Europe.

And this is Izzo’s biggest problem.

He believed in a member of his program that he had known for at least seven years. He trusted a former player, student assistant coach, a three-time captain of his program when he said that the allegation against him was a lie. That is understandable; you never want to believe the worst about a person, especially a person you care about. Hearing a judge allow that person to travel out of state while there is an investigation into those charges confirms what you already want to believe.

But Izzo also must understand that allowing someone that has been accused of that kind of violence around your program and on your campus means that you are, in part, culpable if they strike again. Walton is alleged to have struck again, possibly more than once.

You cannot control what the people you trust do in their free time.

What you can control, however, is who you trust.

Tom Izzo is finding out the hard way that he shouldn’t have trusted everyone. Just like Dana Altman should have, just like Richard Pitino has and just like Will Wade will if the players he recruited make headlines again.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.