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Friday, December 6, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: WSU fumbles response to crime issue

In response to a startling number of student-athlete arrests, Washington State University President Kirk Schulz said he didn’t want to comment on incidents that occurred before he assumed the office (in June).

So he spoke about the four most recent arrests and said he’s confident in the way they were handled by the athletics department. He did say the university may need to reconsider its responses to allegations of crimes, but that such a review could wait until the football season is over.

It really can’t wait.

The university has been damaged by the revelation that 29 of its athletes have been arrested over the past five years. That leads the nation, according to a website that keeps track. These criminal allegations – some for violent acts – cast a pall over a university in the midst of commendable effort to boost its image as an academic institution.

Like it or not, President Schulz has inherited this problem, and it deserves the kind of concern he rightfully expressed with the athletic department’s deficit. The seeds of that problem were also planted long before he took over, but he hit the issue head-on shortly after taking over.

He should do the same with this issue. WSU’s brand has been damaged, and he should at least say that something is seriously wrong when so many athletes are running afoul of the law. If the university is handling this issue well, then why so many arrests?

Football coach Mike Leach cast aspersions on the Pullman Police Department, wondering aloud whether his players were being unfairly targeted. He offered no evidence. Athletic director Bill Moos supported the coach and the police chief. They both can’t be right.

Police Chief Gary Jenkins denied Leach’s assertion but said he understood the frustration. President Schulz said he didn’t believe Leach’s “targeting” claim, but that he also understood “where he’s coming from.”

This sympathy for Leach is misplaced. Rather than focus on the arrests, the coach questioned the integrity of police officers. He tried to shift the blame and has yet to apologize. This puts the police officers in an untenable position.

We understand the fishbowl circumstance of WSU athletics. It’s a small town, and the football players are easily recognizable. The pressure to succeed is great, especially given the athletic department’s financial hole. All the more reason to question whether the current guidelines for athletes and the protocols for handing criminal allegations need to be examined.

Plus, the athletic department and the president must understand how controversy in football undermines the university’s reputation. Members of the faculty have called Leach’s response embarrassing.

WSU is not alone in facing the issue of athletes and crime, but the sheer number of arrests shouldn’t be played down.

Chris Marr, a former WSU regent, is also concerned. On Facebook, he urged the current regents to “seize leadership on this.” He concern is that a “just win, baby” attitude in athletics will damage academic excellence.

The first step is a forthright statement from WSU leadership saying, “We have a problem.” The second step is to lay out a plan of action.

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