Colorado State athletes criticize administration for handling of sexual misconduct cases
FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- Current and former female athletes at Colorado State, angered by what they call mistreatment of sexual misconduct victims by the university's athletic department, are making their grievances public in a show of solidarity.
They assert athletic administrators have repeatedly failed to notify the university's Title IX compliance office within 24 hours after a reported incident, as required by federal law and university protocol related to sex discrimination protections.
They also claim those same leaders have delayed Title IX investigations by meeting with claimants multiple times and attempting to persuade them against filing a report to CSU police or Title IX, which places the victim at continued risk, while promising to handle the situation and make reforms that haven't come.
The women said there is a growing mistrust among athletes of the athletic department's handling of these cases. They added the recent external investigation of the athletic department and the university's response to student Katie Schiller's sexual assault civil lawsuit against the university prompted them to come forward after administrators failed to address their concerns.
About 20 CSU athletes are sending letters of support to Schiller, according to Emma Corwin, a senior tennis player who is on the executive team of CSU's Student Athletic Advisory Committee. That committee serves as a liaison between athletes and athletic administration.
Corwin said athletes also are considering wearing uniforms inside out, staging sit-ins and making public statements in protest of the administration's handling of sexual misconduct complaints.
"Athletes are angry,'' Corwin said. "We will no longer tolerate being part of a system that has continually shown complacency for harm. Administration has built a culture that compromises the safety and well-being of their students, whom they swear are their top priority. We cannot afford to keep dealing with these issues in-house because clearly this administration doesn't do their housekeeping.''
Colorado State University denied the Coloradoan's requests to interview President Joyce McConnell, Athletic Director Joe Parker and Deputy Assistant Director Steve Cottingham. In an email, the university said it cannot comment on any specific matter addressed through its Title IX office due to privacy protections by federal law.
"However, we can share that all sexual misconduct and interpersonal violence complaints referred to our Title IX Office are addressed promptly,'' the statement read.
The Coloradoan requested information from CSU regarding Title IX cases for the past 10 years to understand how many athletes have been impacted and accused in the five years before Parker became athletic director and during his tenure. CSU provided the data only for the past five years, all of which came while Parker was the athletic director.
The number of athletes affected and accused of misconduct has generally increased. In those five years, 22 athletes have been affected, according to the data, and 40 athletes have been accused of misconduct.
Campus-wide, 24% to 25% of Title IX reports resulted in an investigation in 2016-17 and 2017-18 but those percentages steadily declined after that, with 11% of reports resulting in an investigation in 2019-20. This year through Nov. 1, there have been 276 reports received, with 28 open reports and investigations and 23 investigations completed.
Experts say large percentage gaps between reports and investigations in sexual misconduct cases can be due to perpetrator pressure or athletic staff pressuring the impacted party to discontinue the process.
'We deserve action. We deserve respect. We deserve support.'
The Coloradoan generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual misconduct, but former CSU athletes Ida Donohue and Stephanie Bess and current student Katie Schiller agreed to the use of their names as a sign of solidarity.
Former CSU swimmer Donohue, who graduated last year, said she feared for the safety of her peers during her time at CSU. Donohue, who was the impacted person in a sexual harassment case she filed against a fellow athlete, wrote a letter to athletic administration her senior year, addressing issues related to the systemic issues involving the manner in which CSU athletic administration handles sexual misconduct cases.
She alleges that in multiple meetings, some of which were recorded, that included Parker; Shalini Shanker, senior associate athletic director for compliance and senior woman administrator; former head football coach Mike Bobo and others regarding complaints in her letter, she faced the same gaslighting pattern she says administrators continue to use.
Donohue's case led to the dismissal of the player from the football team and eventually his being expelled from CSU for harassing Donohue.
Donohue said CSU's continued lack of protection of impacted parties was evident after she read the university’s public response to Schiller's sexual assault lawsuit.
That response prompted Donohue to demand that Parker, Shanker and Cottingham be replaced.
"I feel that I have exhausted every avenue to instigate change besides seeking legal recourse,'' said Donohue, who has been in communication with legal counsel representing Schiller. "If they have no motivation or desire to be forthright about the reality of what's going on, and they are actually putting a large amount of energy and resources towards covering it up, the only route I see toward transparency is through subpoenaing documentation and employees.''
Skylar Williams, a senior diver, said hearing what her former teammate Donohue has gone through is a reflection of CSU administrators routinely prioritizing monetary gain over the safety and well-being of students.
“I have seen the impact of our administration's actions, or lack thereof, and how that has harmed not only my former teammate but other students as well,'' Williams said. "Issues have been brought to our administration time and time again, and nothing is done. We deserve action. We deserve respect. We deserve support. We deserve better.''
Former CSU pole vaulter Bess said she had a similar experience with the athletic department regarding what she called an abusive relationship with star basketball player Gian Clavell. He was arrested in 2015 and 2016 for incidents involving Bess, one of which prompted Bess to obtain a restraining order. Criminal charges filed against Clavell were later dropped, but Clavell was suspended by CSU for nine games during the season.
Bess wanted harsher discipline for Clavell but said CSU opted to put "money before morals.'' Clavell's coach at the time was Larry Eustachy, who was the subject of an abuse investigation and eventually suspended before Parker settled with Eustachy on a $750,000 buyout for the coach to leave.
"I believe the athletic department had a lot to do with trying to fight for his name and the school's image,'' Bess said. "It was heartbreaking that (Clavell) was being put on a pedestal, and I was left in the dark with no support.''
She believes Parker and other athletic department administrators continue to conspire against victims.
"It's wonderful that all of us women are linking arms and standing up for what is right,'' she said. "But it's unfortunate that a multitude of females have had to suffer because of the corruption in the athletic department. That ignites a fire in my heart to help stand for the truth, seek justice and hope for change.''
Schiller case in focus
In early September, Schiller filed a civil lawsuit against Colorado State; Spectra, the company contracted to serve food and drinks at Canvas Stadium; booster Michael Best, and Scott Schell, a friend of Best's.
The lawsuit claims that while Schiller worked as a server during three football games (Sept. 7, Sept. 21 and Oct. 5, 2019) at Canvas Stadium, an intoxicated Best touched the then-19-year-old's body "in an aggressive and sexual manner,” and "dragged the plaintiff around the (loge) box, calling her and her co-worker 'bitch' on several occasions.''
It says Schiller reported the incidents to Spectra, which notified CSU, including Parker, of the accusations Sept. 7, 2019, and after each ensuing game.
Birk Baumgartner, attorney at Baumgartner Law, the Denver law firm representing Schiller, said the first time Schiller had communication with CSU's Office of Title IX Programs and Gender Equity was Nov. 4, 2019, about two months after Parker knew of the accusation and well beyond the 24-hour mandatory reporting period.
Schiller's claim says that in an Oct. 23, 2019, meeting with CSU and Spectra, "Cottingham repeatedly minimized the seriousness of the behavior of Defendant Best and Defendant Schell. He repeatedly challenged Ms. Schiller on the level of Defendant Best’s involvement, and implied that Defendant Best’s intentions could not be known.''
The claim says that during an Oct. 30 meeting with Spectra and members of the CSU athletic department, Cottingham informed Schiller that Best would be upgraded from a loge box to a presidential suite for future games. Schiller said that continued to put her at risk because Best could still have contact with her while she worked future games.
The suit also claims that Best's wife, Susie Wargin, a Denver media personality and CSU alumna, used "financial pressure to force the University to take illegal retaliatory action, which it eventually did take."
The suit alleges that Schiller was demoted at Spectra to a job that offered less ability to make income, and she eventually quit because of it.
It goes on to say Larimer County Deputy District Attorney Amanda Duhon said "the SVU team unanimously felt that while we do find the victim credible and that she was subjected to unwanted sexual contact, we do not believe the case can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt if the case was filed and proceeded to trial.''
Duhon said the reason a conviction was not likely is because there was a delay between the dates of the offense and the reporting of the incidents by CSU to the CSU Police Department and that "despite the fact that the athletics department was aware of the complaint, any possible video of the incidents had not been retained.''
The claim alleges Cottingham’s "failure to preserve and/or report the incidents of sexual assault and harassment to CSU police resulted in the District Attorney’s decision to not file charges against Defendant Best and Defendant Schell.''
The lawsuit includes civil and Title IX implications, which covers interpersonal violence cases as well as gender equity in collegiate athletics.
Schiller said her goal from the beginning was for CSU to act appropriately and to remove Best and Shell from the stadium for the rest of the season and said that would have been the end of it.
"It's super scary to come forward, and now that I'm fully aware of who I'm going up against, it's even scarier because I'm sure CSU will try and villainize me,'' Schiller said. "I feel deeply saddened and gutted that other students are possibly feeling similar emotions that I’m feeling that the school I chose to go to has blatantly told us they don’t care about you.''
Craig Silverman, the attorney for Best and Wargin, refuted claims in the lawsuit.
"No sexual misconduct happened here,'' Silverman said. "No financial pressure was placed on the university. The media blitz from Ms. Schiller and her lawyer in this civil lawsuit are an attempt to ruin the fine reputations of my clients while seeking financial gain from deep pocket entities. We expect our side, and truth and justice, to prevail.''
In an email, CSU wrote: "While CSU generally does not comment on pending litigation, regarding the Schiller case, we can confirm that some allegations against CSU regarding the university’s response to this matter are factually inaccurate. CSU took appropriate measures to protect the student before its formal investigation into her allegations even began. CSU’s first priority is the safety and well-being of our students.''
Defense teams for those named in the lawsuit have until Nov. 30 to respond to Schiller's claims. No responses had been filed with the court at the time of this story's publication.
CSU's current links to past cases
Cottingham resigned under pressure as the athletic director at Marquette in June 2011 over concerns about the way his department handled sexual assault allegations against athletes. The Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office said the investigations into athletes' behavior were "impeded because Marquette's public safety department didn't tell authorities.''
CSU hired Cottingham in October 2012.
McConnell, Parker and Blanche Hughes, vice president for student affairs — in consultation with Urban Meyer — were responsible for hiring a new football coach in December.
McConnell previously told the Coloradoan the university's first choice prior to hiring Steve Addazio was Butch Jones. The university was in negotiations to hire Jones until realizing he was the head coach at Tennessee during a widely known 2016 case in which Tennessee reached a nearly $2.5 million settlement in a lawsuit regarding sexual assaults involving student-athletes and eight women.
CSU then hired Addazio, who like Jones, has ties to Meyer.
Meyer, who was an assistant coach at CSU in the mid-1990s and still has ties to Fort Collins, was head coach at Ohio State in 2018 when he was suspended three games for his handling of domestic abuse allegations against former wide receivers coach Zach Smith.
Meyer, who has won multiple national championships, no longer coaches but is Ohio State's assistant athletics director in athletics initiatives and relations and a Fox Sports analyst.
Williams, the CSU diver, said McConnell’s support for the current athletic administration is a slap in the face to women on campus, adding that it runs counter to the feminist rhetoric that the university utilized when promoting McConnell as the first female president of CSU.
"She has made it OK for the athletic administration to sweep things under the rug,'' Williams said. "As an athlete in this environment, it has become clear that the athletic department is not in compliance with Title IX. President McConnell is enabling this toxic environment and condoning the abuse of students. As a leader, it is her responsibility to set the tone; what you stand for and what you tolerate is how you establish culture.''
CSU Title IX cases
Here is the data provided by CSU regarding Title IX cases the past five years. The information included regarding student-athletes is based on reports received, not investigations conducted.
543 reports received, 131 investigations completed
2 reports where the impacted party was identified as a student-athlete
6 reports where the responding party was identified as a student-athlete
697 reports received, 178 investigations completed
7 reports where the impacted party was identified as a student-athlete
12 reports where the responding party was identified as a student-athlete
776 reports received, 154 investigations completed
5 reports where the impacted party was identified as a student-athlete
9 reports received where the responding party was identified as a student-athlete
758 reports received, 85 investigations completed
6 reports where the impacted party was identified as a student-athlete
12 reports where the responding party was identified as a student-athlete
2020-21 (as of 11/01)
276 reports received, 28 open reports and investigations, 23 investigations completed
2 reports where the impacted party was identified as a student-athlete
1 report where the responding party was identified as a student-athlete