“Our goal is to not have any incident happen,” says UM Athletics Director Jim O’Day. “But I can’t guarantee something won’t when you’re dealing with students ages 18 to 22.”
The Sept. 19 alleged assault of a University of Montana student by three Griz football players has resurrected criticism on campus and in the Missoula community of how UM Intercollegiate Athletics monitors its student-athletes.
Athletics Director Jim O’Day and UM Vice President Jim Foley say UM has no plans to modify its mentoring program in response to the recent arrests, but that the university is always exploring better ways to help student-athletes.
“These young men and women should know better, because they have more at their disposal than most students on campus,” O’Day says. “We spend a lot of time, money and resources to try and help these young men and women make better decisions.”
O’Day is referring to a complex network of guidance resources available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to UM student-athletes, all at considerable cost. These resources include academic advising, performance counseling and lectures on proper behavior. As O’Day says, student-athletes have more at their disposal than the average UM student.
“And still it’s not perfect,” he says.
Last month’s incident comes at a sensitive time for UM, with the memory of the Nov. 5, 2007, break-in involving four former Griz players still looming over Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Details of that scandal unfolded over a months-long period and included shocking details. According to victim accounts, five men in ski masks broke into a house near campus brandishing guns, allegedly looking to steal drugs and money. One victim was pistol-whipped and repeatedly Tasered while another was duct taped.
District courts handed down sentences to Greg Coleman, Mike Shelton, Jeremy Pate and Qwenton Freeman successively over the spring and summer of this year. Two others involved in the house raid were sentenced and two more arrested this summer, including Ronald Powell Jr., initially known to detectives only as “Dirty.”
The high-profile break-in piggybacked several other off-field charges that marred Griz football last year. For instance, authorities arrested former cornerback Jimmy Wilson in June 2007 on a charge of murder after shooting and killing a man in Lancaster, Calif. Wilson’s trial began Monday, Oct. 6, in Los Angeles Superior Court.
In the latest incident, redshirt freshmen Andrew Douglass, Cody von Appen and Big Sky High School graduate Justin Montelius all face felony charges for the September confrontation that left fellow student Jesse Johnson with chipped teeth and a broken jaw.
O’Day explains that student-athletes must subscribe to multiple layers of conduct codes provided by local law enforcement, UM’s administration, Athletics and individual coaches, in that order. Suspension at the university level leads to suspension from Athletics. Expulsion from school renders the lower layers moot.
Douglass, von Appen and Montelius are currently on student-athlete conduct probation. According to O’Day, they will continue as members of the football team but their participation in team activities will be limited. That probationary status could swing, one way or the other, as the felony cases develop.
Coaches are often the first link in this network. Wayne Tinkle, head coach for men’s basketball, says student-athletes can often be too embarrassed or afraid to come forward with problems. Breaking down that wall is his first order of business.
“Sometimes we don’t know there’s an issue until something happens,” Tinkle says.
And when an incident does occur, it can impact coaches as much as the community. Tinkle knows two of the three students involved in September’s incident, Montelius in particular.
“We just kind of advise our kids to avoid hostile situations,” Tinkle says. “Unfortunately, some people make this sound like a new problem and it’s not.”
Student-athlete guidance is a university-wide effort, and responsibility is farmed out to a number of departments. Charles Palmer, a performance psychologist with Health and Human Performance (HHP), teaches a number of courses popular with athletes. He helps students design strategies for competition on the court or the field, including relaxation tech-niques, energy activation and goal setting.
“It’s kind of a buffet style,” Palmer says. “Just throw it all out there with the realization that they’ll pick and choose.”
Palmer, in his third year with HHP, now receives a grant from Athletics to fund a replacement professor for one of his courses. The idea is to free up Palmer for additional 200-level performance courses and outside counseling for students.
And that’s not all. Athletics pays $25,000 a year jointly with Student Affairs to fund the salary of Murray Pierce, a mentor for minority students campus-wide. Pierce, a former Griz player, was hired after black students expressed concern over transitioning to life in Missoula and was singled out by President George Dennison as part of the administration’s response to last year’s break-in.
“Our goal is to not have any incident happen,” O’Day says. “But I can’t guarantee something won’t when you’re dealing with students ages 18 to 22.”
O’Day says he feels no sympathy for the men involved in last year’s marijuana burglary. However, he’s not as quick to vilify the three student-athletes involved in the alleged assault. He acknowledges they made a wrong decision, but argues against the “chuck ’em off the team” philosophy in favor of working to help them.
“They’re bad kids until they’re your own kids,” O’Day says.