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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.

Christian Vital going back to UConn for junior season

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Dan Hurley is keeping his roster intact at the top.

Christian Vital, UConn’s second-leading scorer a season ago, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, he announced Monday via social media.

“Great Talk Today Coach! Appreciate The Wisdom You Have Let Me In On!” Vital wrote “I Think It’s Time To Get Back To Winning Ways In Storrs! I’m Going To Need That #1 Back ASAP! WE GOT (UNFINISHED) BUSINESS!”

The 6-foot-2 junior-to-be Vital joins Jalen Adams, who was the Huskies’ top-returning scorer, back in Storrs in Hurley’s first year. Vital averaged 14.9 points on 38.3 percent shooting. Adams previously announced he would return to school without declaring for the draft.

The return of UConn’s top two scorers underscores an even bigger trend under Hurley as the Huskies appear to have avoided any major defections from last year’s roster despite the coaching change.

UConn is coming off a 14-18 season that proved to be the last of coach Kevin Ollie’s six years with the Huskies that included a national championship but also back-to-back losing seasons.

Chris Silva returning to South Carolina for senior season

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South Carolina is getting an first-team all-SEC performer back.

Chris Silva, who led the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding last season, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, the school announced Monday.

“I’m thankful for the experience of going through the draft process,” Silva said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the teams that gave me the opportunity to workout for their organization. I’m excited to announce that I’m returning to South Carolina for my senior season. I can’t wait to get back on the court with my brothers and continue to work on my game.”

The 6-foot-9 Silva, who did not get an NBA draft combine invite, averaged 14.3 points and 8 rebounds per game as a junior.  He shot 46.7 percent from the floor.

“Going through the evaluation process was an unbelievable experience for Chris and us,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said in a statement. “He comes back to a place he loves with some knowledge on some of the things that we have to help him improve on in his efforts to one day fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.”

In addition to being South Carolina’s leading scorer, he was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season after averaging 1.4 blocks per game. His return to Columbia gives the Gamecocks a potential contender for SEC player of the year in 2018-19.

Kansas fires athletic director Sheahon Zenger

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Kansas has fired athletic director Sheahon Zenger, effective immediately, citing a lack of progress in key areas within the athletic department.

“Sheahon has been a loyal Jayhawk, and our athletics department has improved in many areas under his leadership,” Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod wrote in an email to KU faculty and staff. “But athletics continues to face a number of challenges, and progress in key areas has been elusive. To achieve the level of success we need and expect, I have determined a change in leadership is necessary.”

Zenger had been in the role of AD since 2011.

The issue, of course, is not the play of the Kansas basketball program. The Jayhawks have won every Big 12 regular season title since 2004, and head coach Bill Self has taken the program to two Final Fours since Zenger was hired.

The football team is still a disaster, but one can’t help but wonder whether or not the real issue at hand here is Kansas’ getting tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball.

The Jayhawks were not mentioned in the initial indictments that were handed down, but Kansas was a central figure in the superseding indictments that were dropped after the national title game. The mother of Billy Preston, who did not play for the Jayhawks this season, was alleged to have been funneled $90,000 by Adidas, while Silvio De Sousa’s status is currently in question after the FBI alleged his guardian was paid at least $20,000 to help offset money that the family had already accepted from a rival shoe company.

All of that came in the aftermath of dealing with Cheick Diallo and Cliff Alexander, both of whom had their one season in Lawrence reduced due to off the court issues.

“Since becoming chancellor, I have spent countless hours with higher education peers and Jayhawks to hear their perspective on KU,” Girod wrote. “A common thread in these conversations is that, as a major public university with national aspirations, we must continue to strive for excellence in all areas — including athletics. As I have said many times, a successful athletics department is inextricably linked to our broader mission as a flagship research university.”

Louisville, ex-AD Tom Jurich reach $4.5M settlement

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The University of Louisville has reached a $4.5 million settlement with former athletic director Tom Jurich, who was fired in the wake of a national federal corruption investigation of college basketball.

Jurich disputed his Oct. 18 firing for cause after nearly 20 years as AD and had considered suing the school. The University of Louisville Athletic Association and Board of Trustees on Friday approved the settlement. Jurich’s employment ended “without cause” as a result of his resignation, also described in the settlement as “retirement.”

He’ll also receive another $2.6 million in accrued employment benefits, along with home game tickets and parking for Louisville football and basketball for 20 years.

An audit of the University of Louisville Foundation released last June showed that Jurich averaged annual compensation of more than $2.76 million from 2010-16, including more than $5.35 million in 2016.

Then-interim president Greg Postel had placed Jurich on paid administrative leave in September after the school’s acknowledgement of its involvement in the investigation. Trustees voted 10-3 to fire Jurich, two days after the ULAA unanimously fired Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.

The former AD said in a joint statement that he “spent the better part of my career” working with dedicated athletes, coaches and staff to elevate Louisville. He added, “I am proud of what we accomplished, which is well documented.”

Jurich’s legal team had stressed that the ex-AD did nothing illegal and hadn’t violated NCAA rules.

Trustee chairman J. David Grissom said in the statement that “Everyone is pleased that this matter has been successfully resolved. All parties can move forward to begin the next chapter.”

Jurich played a major role in Louisville’s success on the field and how the school handled issues off it. He led the school’s 2014 entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference and oversaw numerous program and facility upgrades, including a $63 million expansion of the football stadium due for completion by fall.

He also hired several successful coaches including Pitino, who guided the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship. Louisville ultimately vacated that title in February as part of NCAA penalties for a sex scandal after an escort’s book allegations that former basketball staffer Andre McGee hired her and other dancers to strip and have sex with players and recruits.

Pitino has filed a $38.7 million federal lawsuit against Louisville, alleging breach of contract.

Georgia Tech’s Okogie to sign with agent

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Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie, one of the big winners from this past weekend’s NBA combine, announced on Monday that he will be signing with an agent and remaining in the NBA Draft.

The 6-foot-4 Okogie finished his sophomore season averaged 18.5 points and shooting 38.4 percent from three. The numbers he posted during the athletic testing at the combine, as well as his 7-foot wingspan, makes Okogie an ideal 3-and-D wing at the NBA level.

“Josh is a tremendous young man and an excellent student-athlete,” said head coach Josh Pastner. “He has set a tremendous example, making the Dean’s List this past semester, and deserves a lot of credit for making himself a much better player over the course of his two years here. We will miss him in our program in many respects, from his performance on the court to the energy he plays with and brought to our team. We fully support his decision to take this next step, and wish him all the best.”