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Is dealing with athletes’ criminal activity really ‘a team matter?’

WSU head coach Mike Leach fields questions from reporters after a closed practice on Wednesday, Sep 14, 2016, in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

When a Washington State football player is accused of a crime, the response from coaches and staff is almost always the same: “It’s a team matter.”

But is it?

Universities grapple with this question when responding to allegations, such as those leveled against several WSU players in recent weeks. Violence can trigger strong emotions in the court of public opinion, but it’s often the coaches who decide when players will play.

Some observers call for immediate action: Kick the player off the team, or at least suspend him.

Others question why the assault made headlines: What if the accused weren’t a football player, but a member of the chess club?

“I think it’s important to note that our code of conduct applies to all students equally,” said Adam Jussel, the director of WSU’s Office of Student Conduct. “There’s no special treatment for anyone.”

But Shawn Klein, a sports ethicist at Arizona State, said it could be justifiable to impose a stricter code of conduct on student-athletes. In exchange for representing the university on the field, they receive various perks, he said.

“They are more in the public light, and if they do something wrong, it’s more likely to be found out,” Klein said. “And it’s more likely to rebound to the institution in a negative way.”

WSU athletic director Bill Moos expressed a similar sentiment Friday during a joint news conference with the Pullman Police Department: “Student-athletes have chosen to become representatives of our university. With that comes a certain responsibility.”

Recent allegations come at a time when new President Kirk Schulz is spearheading an effort to revamp WSU’s image and improve its standing among public research universities.

Coach Mike Leach has taken a public stance on the off-campus activities of his players, but Schulz has declined repeated requests for comment. A university spokesman, Rob Strenge, said Schulz would comment Monday – after The Spokesman-Review publishes a story on a string of felony arrests of WSU football players.

Strenge also made a distinction between the athletics department and the university as a whole, saying Leach “speaks on behalf of the football team. President Schulz speaks on behalf of the university quite frequently. I think he expects the department heads to take responsibility for their areas.”

Leach has accused police and news outlets of targeting his players, although two non-players also face charges in connection to a July 23 assault at a house party on College Hill.

Two players, Robert Barber and Toso “T.J.” Fehoko, are accused of starting a brawl by punching two other students from behind, leaving one with a concussion and another with a fractured jaw.

Pullman police Chief Gary Jenkins stood by his detectives’ work on Friday, saying they interviewed more than 60 partygoers. Jenkins also acknowledged that football players “are very recognizable in the community, and it makes it much easier to identify than students not involved in athletics.”

Klein, the ethicist, said it’s important to have firm protocols in place to avoid facing tough decisions when players get into trouble.

Typically, the university and the police department conduct separate but overlapping investigations. Federal law prohibits the university from giving some information to law enforcement, unless the victim or “complainant” gives permission, Jussel said.

Accused students are given extensive counsel and the option to appeal decisions by WSU’s conduct board. Robert Barber was given three weeks to appeal his expulsion; per Leach’s decision, the defensive lineman continues to practice with the Cougars. He played in Saturday’s game against Idaho and blocked a field goal that was returned for a touchdown. Shalom Luani and Logan Tago, two other players facing felony charges, also played.

“The challenge with the student conduct process is that it’s supposed to be anonymous,” Strenge said. “We don’t comment on what’s going on, and so a lot of time people assume nothing is going on.”

When student-athletes are involved, the Pullman Police Department has a policy of notifying the university president and athletic director, Moos said Friday. He refused to elaborate on that policy but said “there were a couple glitches” following recent arrests.

Klein said schools should strive to avoid conflicts of interest, partly because boosters might pressure teams to keep star players on the lineup.

But the case of Emmitt Su’a-Kalio, a linebacker who broke another player’s jaw in 2013, shows the athletic department plays a role in steering university investigations: Leach submitted a letter to the conduct board saying the freshman player had simply misinterpreted coaches’ advice on dealing with other players.

“It’s better, I think, to take that out of the coaches’ hands,” Klein said. “Their incentive is warping their perspective on it.”



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