The Joke's on Us

The voice of experience speaks to CU.

So, did you hear the one about how the commission investigating the University of Colorado recruiting program hung on every word of testimony...from an official at the Air Force Academy, the institution that raised the bar for sex-assault scandals?

But Colonel Debra Gray's appearance Tuesday before the Independent Investigative Commission was no joke -- even though the commission's report may not be much more than that when it's finally delivered to the CU regents next week. Gray was the last, if far from least, in a long line of witnesses to address the panel charged with investigating whether alcohol and sex played a part in CU's football-program recruiting.

Laugh here.

The Air Force Academy knows all about alcohol and sex. Fifteen months ago, a Westword story recounting how victims of sexual assaults at the academy were revictimized by Air Force officials who punished the female cadets rather than their attackers (Julie Jargon's "The War Within," January 30, 2003) blew up into a national scandal, one that resulted in four federal investigations, a complete turnover of the academy's top personnel and the start of Colorado's reputation as the sex-assault capital of the world, a title made stronger by Kobe Bryant's sex-assault charge this past summer and etched in stone after the football-recruiting controversy exploded at CU.

Did you hear the one about the Air Force Academy commandant of cadets who compared partying female cadets to people who walk down dark alleys?

No joke.

In an e-mail responding to Westword's questions about one cadet's sex-assault claims, Brigadier General Taco Gilbert said this in January 2003: "She did engage in some very high-risk behavior that night. Again, the behavior in no way justifies what happened to her, but when you put yourself in situations with increased risk, you have to take increased precautions to mitigate those risks. For example, if I walk down a dark alley with hundred-dollar bills hanging out of my pockets, it doesn't justify my being attacked or robbed, but I certainly increased the risk by doing what I did."

Two months later, Gilbert was out of there, replaced by Colonel Gray, one of a trio of top officers brought in to clean up the academy.

The Air Force Academy is exactly one year beyond CU in dealing with its sex-assault scandal -- and light-years ahead in acknowledging just how badly the early claims were handled. Speaking before the commission, Gray offered calm testimony laced with military and business jargon. Best practices. Integration. Communication. And the panel members lapped it all up like thirsty college kids at a keg party -- in Boulder, Colorado Springs or Kathmandu.

Earlier that morning, they'd heard from the mother of Lisa Simpson, who claims that she was sexually assaulted by football players who'd attended a CU recruiting party on the night of December 7, 2001 -- and whose federal lawsuit against the university that initially dismissed those claims led to all of CU's desperate damage control, including the independent commission. The details of that alcohol-soaked party don't stray far from so many of the stories that female academy cadets tell. Nor do their tales of official indifference -- or worse.

And the commissioners heard from Jeannie Dixon, a former university employee who conducted the Athletic Department's Gender Equity Study (and subsequently charged CU with race and sex discrimination). "Don't ask, don't tell" was standard operating procedure when it came to bad behavior, she said. "What goes on the road stays on the road."

So after those discouraging words, yet another round in a disparate collection of testimony that's supposed to somehow add up to a coherent whole, it wasn't surprising that the commissioners seized on Gray's testimony as a ray of hope. "Thank you for the opportunity to come forward," she began, a novel enough start, since CU administrators past and present have been coming forward with little but accusations -- against their accusers, against their predecessors, against each other. But the academy had a major motivator for change, Gray acknowledged: "In big organizations, it usually takes a crisis. It was, in this case."

Gray was brought in to deal with that crisis. "Since the new leadership of last April, we've been looking at a systems approach," she continued. Those systems stretch down to every cadet and up to the top, since "leadership is responsible." More rare language in this hearing room.

Gray brought all the organizations dealing with "climate" and "culture" together at the counseling center, to facilitate better communication and faster response. But, she noted, "these sorts of things do not change overnight."

By now, she was preaching to the choir. The allegations of bad behavior by CU football players stretch back decades, to the days of coach Bill McCartney, who prayed on the field while a few thuggish athletes graced the pages of Sports Illustrated, and whose teenage daughter later bore the child of the dying quarterback. After leaving CU, McCartney founded Promise Keepers, the Christian ministry aimed at making men better leaders of their families. More than a decade later, Bishop Phillip Porter, a former Promise Keepers chairman, is a member of CU's Independent Investigation Commission.

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