Eye of the Beholder

Two CU groups feel burned by a fiery sports column.

At some point in the not-too-distant past, being likened to Republican senator Trent Lott might have been a compliment, depending upon one's party loyalty and fondness for fussy hairstyles. But these days, any comparison to the man from Mississippi, who resigned under pressure as Senate majority leader last year after getting wistful about the 1948 segregationist campaign of presidential aspirant Strom Thurmond, is to be avoided like anthrax. So it's not a happy turn of events for Dave Krieger, a sportswriter for the Rocky Mountain News, when one of his critics drops this name when discussing "Houston Won't Play CU Game," a Krieger column from January 16.

"I think a lot of the words he used are code words, and that's the same kind of thing that got Trent Lott into trouble in the South," says Milton Branch, president of CU's Black Alumni Association. "Down there, they've used code words for a long time to say certain things publicly in a way that makes them seem acceptable, because they disguise what the person really means. And in this case, these code words helped to perpetuate negative stereotypes about blacks."

"It was full of subliminal messages," adds Kerry Kite, president of CU's Black Student Alliance. "They're the kinds of things that certain people don't question, because supposedly, subconsciously, they already know they're true. And that's a problem."

Views like these are at the heart of a letter signed by Branch and Kite as representatives of their respective organizations and sent to News editor John Temple on January 20. The missive suggests that Krieger and the paper for which he works "owe an apology to all the hard-working, dedicated student-athletes of the University of Colorado. We expect, at least, that, if not also an explanation of why a paper of the Rocky Mountain News's caliber and influence would choose to run such a heinous, not to mention dangerous, piece."

As of February 11, the News had printed several letters critical of Krieger's piece, but not the Branch-Kite salvo, even though Dave Plati, CU's assistant athletic director for media relations, included it in his online notes column (accessible at http://cubuffs.ocsn.com/genrel/012503aaa.html) late last month. Still, the Rocky can't be accused of ignoring their comments. Because the letter arrived at the paper when Temple was out of town attending his father's funeral, it went instead to managing editor Deb Goeken, who reacted by coordinating a February 6 get-together aimed at discussing the column. Goeken and sports editor Barry Forbis were in attendance, as were Kite, Branch and Krieger, who has a reputation for going where his peers are too timid to tread. When then-Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis was mentioned in a trial that revolved around the Gold Club, a pricey Atlanta strip bar with reputed mob links, Krieger was the only local sportswriter to risk retribution from the onetime Super Bowl MVP by writing about it ("Stripped Down," May 31, 2001).

In a conversation that took place prior to his trip to the principal's office, Krieger had no apologies to make for his January 16 effort, describing the controversy as "a conflict between political correctness and the truth." He didn't offer any sorries after the get-together, either, but his tone was considerably more moderate. "I need to find a balance when I want to make a strong statement, so I can avoid a variety of other implications," he says.

The Krieger offering that spurred this debate concerned Marcus Houston, a running back who'd just left the University of Colorado Buffaloes in favor of the Colorado State University Rams. Houston, a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School who entered CU as part of its 2000 freshman class, was among the most highly touted Buffaloes recruits in ages. Moreover, his extracurricular projects, including "Just Say Know," a program he created that's intended to foster academic and personal achievement among young people, earned him steady praise and status as a parent-friendly role model. But he was beset by injuries during his years at CU, and even after returning to apparent health this past season, he saw little on-field action.

Houston's extended pine time fueled speculation about friction between him and two members of the Buffaloes coaching staff: head coach Gary Barnett and running-backs coach Eric Bieniemy, who as a player was a key component of CU's 1990 national championship squad. (Bieniemy recently left CU in favor of a similar position at UCLA.) Krieger explored these issues against the backdrop of the CU football program as a whole, which made the wrong kind of news following a December 7, 2001, recruiting party at which a woman says she was raped. Authorities didn't accuse anyone of the crime, but four CU footballers received wrist slaps for drug- and alcohol-related violations. Nonetheless, the situation hasn't been put to rest. In December, the woman, officially identified as "Jane Doe," filed a lawsuit in Boulder district court that seeks to hold the university accountable for allowing sexual favors to be used as a recruiting tool.

In his column, Krieger sees the 2001 event as symbolic of the dubious ways CU attempts to lure African-American recruits to a campus and a town, Boulder, that's overwhelmingly Caucasian. But he also declares that "racial identity plays a part in this story, although you won't get any of the antagonists to admit it. At its root was a black-on-black culture conflict, all the more pronounced in the minuscule black enclave along the Flatirons." Krieger subsequently contrasts straight-arrow Houston with Bieniemy, who "twice pleaded no contest to criminal charges stemming from angry outbursts while a CU student and player. Three months after Barnett hired him in 2001, he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence."

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