For six weeks in late summer, the student-athletes at Eastern Washington University are athletes first.
Until classes begin in late September, they eat, sleep and breathe soccer, volleyball, cross country and football. Their only books are playbooks dispensed by the athletic department; so are the food and the housing arrangements for all incoming freshmen athletes, which until a year ago were all contained at Dressler Hall – located just across Washington Street from the school’s athletic facilities.
That arrangement had been in place for decades, mostly because it worked: male and female athletes housed on separate floors of the same building.
That changed overnight on Aug. 20, 2012. Through a toxic mix of alcohol and opportunity, a freshman volleyball player was assaulted in her dorm room in the middle of the night by a football player who had arrived on campus only the day before.
Dalis Bruce, a freshman wide receiver from Compton, Calif., who had missed the first three weeks of fall practice while waiting for the NCAA to approve his high school transcripts, was arrested the next day on charges of second-degree sexual assault.
The school moved swiftly, suspending Bruce and moving the remaining student-athletes to separate dorms.
Its larger task was rebuilding trust, and by all accounts it moved thoughtfully and deliberately in reaching a permanent solution.
Complicating the decision was the added cost to house student-athletes in separate facilities for at least six weeks, compared with only two weeks for semester-based schools; segregation would lessen the chance of another incident, but not eliminate it.
“We analyzed some of the things we could do differently, and re-engineered how we did that,” athletic director Bill Chaves said. “In any scenario where something occurs, you analyze, and we’ve done that analyzation.”
“We just view it as student safety,” Chaves said. “Obviously, this is a living environment that you’re trying to manage at the university level, and there’s not one perfect university in the country.”
But in the end, student safety easily trumped the increased cost and logistical issues of preparing multiple dormitories for transition to regular student housing. This year, incoming football players are housed at Pearce Hall, while female athletes remain at Dressler.
By all accounts, all have moved on partly because the school moved quickly to separate football players from female athletes, then implemented a permanent plan that placed student above the higher costs.
“Separation, I think that’s better,” soccer coach George Hageage said. “It’s one less thing to worry about, so I think we’ve done a great job in addressing the issues.”
The other issue – accountability – has been emphasized by coaches in all sports. Beau Baldwin, the head football coach, said he’s stressed self-discipline with all his players, and said the current group “has been very disciplined about being in (their rooms) when they need to be in.”
Ashton Clark, a senior wide receiver, says he has reminded the younger players through texts and spoken word to “stay out of trouble when it comes to days off.”
And what of the volleyball team, which was staggered after the assault with the abrupt resignation of head coach Miles Kydd?
As it turned out, Kydd left for unrelated reasons, but those details went unrevealed because it was a personnel issue within the athletic department.
Injury was heaped upon insult; two veteran setters were sidelined, and the Eagles endured a 22-match losing streak as they tried to rally behind interim coach Lisa Westlake.
“One thing I’ve learned about these girls is they’re fighters,” Westlake said at the time. “All you can ask is that they work hard and they’re doing that.”
That included the victim, who remained with the team and is back this year.
The payoff came last Oct. 22, when the Eagles swept Sacramento State. They went on to win five of their last nine matches.
“It was pure joy in the lockerrom,” Westlake said after the win over Sacramento State.
Meanwhile, Bruce’s case worked its way through Spokane County Superior Court. In a plea agreement that his attorney Bevan Maxey said would “avoid the risk and embarrassment of a trial for everyone,” Bruce pleaded guilty to second-degree assault. He is currently serving a nine-month sentence in the Spokane County Jail.
After the season, the school hired Wade Benson, who also coached the Eagles from 2000-6.
“I don’t know a lot about what went on last year,” Benson said. “I just know that my understanding is that the school has done a lot to make sure things make sense.”
“I think this group is really ready to move forward, and the thought process on that is 100 percent positive,” Benson said.
It’s the same for the female athletes.
“We basically just have rules, and they’ve always been in place; there’s no boys allowed on your floor, we’re not allowed to be on boys’ floors,” said senior volleyball player Ashley Wright, a middle blocker from Leavenworth, Wash.
“It’s all behind is now, and it’s not really something we think about any more,” Wright said.