College sports have missed important priority

Students hold candles during a memorial for University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love.
(Steve Helber/AP Photo)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – As dusk fell on a gentle, slow, southern night, the women stepped quietly down the concrete steps of the amphitheatre in the middle of the University of Virginia campus on Wednesday. They came first in a trickle and then by dozens and eventually hundreds; some from sororities, others from dormitories, dressed in shorts and T-shirts and flowing summer dresses. They were no longer divided by caste or wealth or color, but pulled together by a disquiet that has settled here.

Their sandals clicked against the pavement. Otherwise, they made no sound as they gathered tiny white candles from a pile along a wall. They found seats on the concrete blocks and stared into the gloaming, waiting for the proper signal to set their candles ablaze.

Charlottesville police say there had been a killer among them. And the fact he was an athlete, a player on the men’s lacrosse team which is ranked first in the nation and the woman he is accused of killing a member on the women’s team, also among the nation’s best, only heightened the unease. He was not a drifter. Not a crazed loner killing for attention. He was a piece of the school’s gentry. A leader.

As the day went on more facts about George Huguely came spilling out: he had been Tasered by a police officer in 2008 after threatening her in a drunken rage. The Washington Post reported that recently Huguely had been pulled away from the woman he would eventually be charged with killing, his former girlfriend Yeardley Love, by some North Carolina lacrosse players after yelling at her at a party. Charlottesville police removed a crimson-stained jersey and a letter to Love from his apartment.

Yeardley Love

The conclusion seemed clear.

She had been in danger for some time.

Blame for this is still being assessed. In the hours before Wednesday’s candlelight vigil, Virginia’s president John Casteen said he did not know about Huguely’s other incidents, that the police in Lexington, Va., more than an hour away, did not share with the school the details of Huguely’s 2008 arrest. Whether Virginia should have been more aggressive in monitoring its lacrosse players will likely be determined in the coming weeks.

What lingered in the still night air was a problem college sports everywhere has been loathe to address for years. For all the talk about expanding NCAA tournament fields and coaches’ salaries and scholarship limits and all the things that affect the torrent of money flowing through the NCAA sports machine, nobody ever talks about the most important thing of all: the trust that a college campus is safe.

Somehow the conversation is always about what’s best for those outside the campus. What will please the boosters. What it might take to keep a coach around. How can football have a playoff.

At Virginia, athletes who have been arrested are supposed to report their crimes to their teams. And yet who is going to call the coach or the athletic director and volunteer that he is facing charges of disorderly conduct if there’s a good chance the school will never learn of the arrest in the first place? Virginia is far from alone in this. Such policies exist on most campuses. Information on athletes’ misdeeds, especially in non-revenue sports, is rarely gathered. And even when it is collected, the facts are often tucked away in hopes no one will notice. College presidents hire coaches who constantly make poor decisions in the name of winning.

George Huguely

Years ago, when he ran the University of Connecticut, Casteen hired Jim Calhoun to coach his men’s basketball team. Years later, according to a Yahoo! Sports report, Calhoun and his staff were working to bring back to UConn a player who had been expelled for violating a restraining order brought by a female student.

It is unfair, of course, to blame Casteen for what happened at Connecticut more than a decade after he left, just as it’s unfair to hold him accountable for Yeardley Love’s death. There is a culture that is bigger than any school administrator. Until college sports as a whole choose to make curbing violence a priority by creating clearinghouses for monitoring criminal databases the way they do academic eligibility and then instituting an NFL style conduct policy, policing will be left to the coaches, many of whom aren’t willing or able to make rational decisions.

Casteen said in a news conference that Virginia is going to start running public records checks on all of its students. It’s too late for Yeardley Love but not for everybody to learn from her death.

Mourners hold candles during the memorial service for Yeardley Love.
(Steve Helber/AP Photo)

For years the NCAA has danced around its obligations to the colleges it is supposed to serve by pretending sports is only a sliver of campus life while simultaneously courting a corporate base that treats athletics as the only thing that ever mattered. Sports does matter at most schools. It matters a lot. And if the message was delivered that conduct was a priority, not something that could be brushed away by a coach saying he will wait until the courts make their decisions on a player’s arrest, an example will have been set. A new culture defined. And chances are the student body will notice.

“Violence and abuse left unconfronted will destroy the culture we all love,” Casteen told the crowd at the vigil.

In the silence of the twilight the women stared back knowing this was true. Knowing their world had been made a little less safe.

And after the tears had been shed, the songs sung and the moments of silence honored, a strange thing happened at the amphitheatre. Nobody left. Nobody spoke. It stayed like this for several minutes until the crowd finally began to shuffle quietly into the night. Suddenly a shout rose from two rows down in the front. This is where Love’s teammates on the women’s lacrosse team sat.

“For Yeardley,” one screamed.

Then “one-two-three-four Hoos!” they yelled, a team chant incorporating a team nickname.

They hugged and wept. They laughed at their tears then cried again.

And when they left they did so in small groups. Nobody alone.

With the knowledge that a place that should be the safest in the world was a little more uncomfortable.

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, May 6, 2010