CSU athletes, staff say athletic administration covering up COVID-19 health threat
FORT COLLINS, Colo. – More than 20 current and former Colorado State football players and athletic department staff say they have witnessed recurring instances of racial insensitivity and abusive behavior within the department.
In dozens of independently gathered and corroborated interviews with Coloradoan reporters, players and staff within the program claim a pattern of concerning behavior has spanned the tenure of former head coach Mike Bobo and current coach Steve Addazio. They say athletic director Joe Parker and other athletic administrators have turned a blind eye to the issues.
Those who spoke to the Coloradoan include a CSU Athletic Hall of Fame member and former coach, a current mental health counselor at the university and numerous players and staff with firsthand knowledge of the football program’s culture, which some have called “toxic.”
Some spoke to the Coloradoan, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from others within the program.
On Friday, the university halted all football operations and expanded the scope of its investigation into the athletic department’s handling of COVID-19 protocols to include examination of these concerns.
“Today, we learned of some extremely troubling allegations of racism and verbal abuse from CSU’s athletic administration generally and in the football program specifically,” Parker said in a written statement.
“I have consulted with President (Joyce) McConnell about these new allegations, which obviously deeply concern her as well. Effective immediately, and for the best interests of our student-athletes, I am pausing all football-related activities indefinitely.”
In an interview Saturday, McConnell said she “put no limits on what the investigators are looking for. I have confidence if these incidents happened that we will know about them after the investigation is complete.”
The Coloradoan first reported allegations Tuesday that football coaches told players not to report COVID-19 symptoms and threatened players with reduced playing time if they quarantined. McConnell quickly hired an outside law firm to investigate those claims.
Prior to CSU suspending football operations Friday, the Coloradoan sought interviews with the school’s leadership regarding the newspaper’s months-long investigation of the allegations of racial insensitivity and abuse. Also Friday, ESPN reported corroborating allegations in its story about CSU’s suspension of football activities.
Parker told the Coloradoan Saturday that “he had never heard of the specific allegations” presented to him in the interview, but that they will be forwarded to investigators.
“These are very concerning and obviously we are going to ask the outside investigative team to understand each and every one of these,” he said. “And we will take appropriate action when we finish our investigation.”
Self sufficiency ‘Hidden in plain sight’
The Coloradoan’s investigation revealed allegations of racial insensitivity, harassment and verbal abuse that have dogged Parker’s five-year tenure leading CSU’s athletic department, spanning his handling of former men’s basketball coach Larry Eustachy’s documented abuse through the recent investigation of Addazio’s football program.
“In these types of closed systems where abuse is taking place, it’s hidden in plain sight; everybody knows the truth but they are afraid to address it because of the fear of losing their jobs or scholarships or being blackballed,’’ said Jimmy Stewart, a CSU mental health counselor who admitted he feared for his job after speaking out. “Because the people you are reporting the truth to are the very people whose job it is to polish the brand. They are trying to manage the abuse, not stop it.”
Anthoney Hill is a CSU Athletic Hall of Fame member, a Black former quarterback under legendary coach Sonny Lubick and an assistant coach for the Rams from 2008-11. He then served as the football program’s director of player development and community/alumni relations from 2015 until he was terminated earlier this year.
Despite his longtime affiliation with CSU, Hill said Parker didn’t see him as a “good fit” because he voiced concerns about the racial insensitivity and abuse. Hill said he never met with Addazio before his termination.
Parker provided emails to the Coloradoan showing Hill was offered opportunities with the department outside of football, but said Hill didn’t respond.
In an email sent to Parker in February, Hill expressed his concern about the athletic department. It read in part:
“What I have seen from you is a person of privilege who either intentionally or unintentionally isn’t aware of insensitivities of young black men being berated under the guise of coaching. You are allowing that toxic culture to be cultivated and to persist by not addressing the issues. The bottom line, the athletes don’t trust you, Joe.”
Those interviewed by the Coloradoan said the erosion of that credibility started at the beginning of Parker’s tenure when he continued to employ Eustachy for four years after the coach was the subject of a scathing internal report regarding player abuse in 2014.
They said that loss of trust continued when Parker failed to address player and staff complaints involving Bobo, who they accused of making racially insensitive comments and verbally harassing assistant coaches, players and staff during his five years. Parker negotiated a $1.825 million buyout of Bobo, who went 28-35, after the 2019 season.
And they said a toxic culture was perpetuated when Parker hired Addazio in December, less than a month after Addazio was fired at Boston College.
Others within the program have strongly denied any implication of impropriety within CSU football. Multiple members of the football team and coaching staff came out in support of Addazio on Saturday in a statement shared on Twitter. It read in part, “the last number of days has created an unfair and unstable environment within our football team.”
The statement denies allegations of racism and verbal abuse by current staff.
“The seniors and our football team unequivocally support our Coach and his staff. They have acted professionally, respectfully and are committed to fostering an inclusive and supportive football program,” the statement read.
However, several members of the team contacted by the Coloradoan on Saturday said they did not support the statement.
Self sufficiency Football above all else
A member of CSU’s football staff said Addazio has downplayed the COVID-19 health threat and Black Lives Matter movement, which have dominated public discussion in recent months, calling both a “distraction from football” to be managed.
Adazzio declined the Coloradoan’s interview request Saturday, but agreed to review emailed questions about the allegations. He later declined to answer the questions. He released a statement Tuesday after allegations from players that coaches were not following COVID-19 protocols.
“The health and welfare of our student-athletes on the Colorado State football team is our top priority, and I fully support President McConnell’s investigation into concerns about whether these protocols were properly followed by everyone involved with our program,” Addazio said in a statement released by the university.
“We want every student-athlete to have confidence that we are taking every possible measure to ensure their safety, and we will continue working with the training staff, the athletic department and the University to evaluate and implement any additional steps necessary to live up to our high standards.”
Stewart, who was hired at CSU six years ago by former AD Jack Graham to help student-athletes address their mental well-being, said he decided to go public with his concerns after an encounter with Addazio in June.
During that encounter, Stewart said he witnessed humiliation, denigration and intimidation of a Black player over academic issues. Stewart said the incident felt eerily similar to Minneapolis police officers’ treatment of George Floyd before a white officer knelt on the back of Floyd’s neck until he died.
“After watching George Floyd being humiliated before he died, it triggered in me the times I saw or heard about certain coaches humiliate student-athletes and the fact that not going public made me complicit and compromised my integrity,” said the 65-year-old Stewart, who is white. “I also became conscious that racism is about being a bully. In that encounter with the Black student-athlete, Coach Addazio had this attitude that he’s bigger and more powerful than the student-athlete. The student was enslaved.”
Stewart said after Addazio’s berating of the student-athlete that, in a subsequent call from Addazio to Stewart, the situation worsened. During the conversation, Stewart said he felt Addazio’s demeanor was “domineering, threatening and intimidating (in) manner, as if he owned me.”
A football staff member said Addazio later “bragged” to coaches at a meeting about berating the player, who the staffer described as a sensitive kid who was sobbing after the encounter. The staff member said Addazio used expletives when describing the incident to others.
When asked about the incident Saturday, Parker said, “If that proves to be true, that is not acceptable. Not what I want represented in our program.’’
Stewart said despite such incidents being known within the department, Parker claims plausible deniability, walling himself off from witnessing instances of racial insensitivity, harassment and humiliation.
“When these administrators allow or ignore student-athletes being harmed, it makes them just as culpable as if they had actually participated,” Stewart said. “What became real for me was the fact that much of what gets hidden and accepted as coaching really is systemic bullying and it’s happening here at CSU, and Joe Parker isn’t going to stop it because he has a vested interest in painting a pretty picture.”
Parker denied that, saying he has a cultural expectation of “never passing a problem.”
Self sufficiency Concern grows for Black athletes
Stewart said it became more clear to him after experiencing the abusive nature of how Eustachy, Bobo and Addazio run their programs that the athletic department’s culture is hurting student-athletes and staff, who are too afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation.
Hill echoed those concerns in a February email to Parker, which was copied to McConnell, Hughes and Albert Bimper, senior associate athletic director for diversity and inclusion.
“Bringing in a new head football coach who tells the graduate assistants within days of knowing them that he ‘doesn’t give a (expletive) about their feelings’ is contradictory to being ‘committed to the holistic development of student-athletes … and of crafting a culture where students thrive.’ As a dedicated former student-athlete and confidant/mentor to the current players, I know that’s not the type of representative that we want in CSU athletics. It doesn’t fit our mission statement: To educate, engage, and excel.”
Many of those interviewed said they wouldn’t call Bobo or Addazio racist, but said they are racially insensitive, insulting and ignorant.
Brandon Summer, a backup punter from 2015-2018 who was recruited by Bobo’s staff, said he explained his concerns about the football program’s culture under Bobo during a 90-minute in-person exit interview with Parker.
“Under Bobo and (former defensive coordinator) John Jancek, it was like an angry white man society and they come into college football to take it out on the players,” said Summer, who is white. “They were racially insensitive but players were concerned about their scholarships and playing time, so many didn’t say anything and that’s not right.”
Self sufficiency Examples of abuse extend to Eustachy era
Examples of racial insensitivity and verbal harassment within CSU athletics were corroborated by multiple people who witnessed the events in meetings, locker rooms, practices and on the sidelines.
Bobo and Jancek called Black football players “boy,” a derogatory term aimed at Black people. One assistant coach under Bobo said Jancek quit using the term after being told it was insensitive.
Bobo, who is the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at South Carolina, did not respond to the Coloradoan’s interview requests through South Carolina’s athletic department.
• • •
Nathan Lucas, a long snapper and holder, played three seasons for Bobo. Lucas, who is white, said Bobo would look at Black players and say, “I know a lot of you don’t have daddies, so I’m going to be your daddy.’’
And while meeting before a game, the lights went out, prompting Bobo to make a demeaning remark to a dark-skinned player.
“There is dead silence and Coach Bobo says ‘(Name of player omitted) smile so everyone can you see you,’ ” Lucas said. “(Name of player omitted) is one of the most kindhearted men you will ever meet. I don’t care who you are, you shouldn’t be called out like that.”
• • •
Those interviewed said Parker began to lose credibility with staff, coaches and student-athletes during his handling of Eustachy’s departure.
“When you talk about an individual tied to injustice to student-athletes, Larry is a pure reflection of that,” said Nick Longo, a former CSU athletic trainer who worked under Parker. “Yet at a head coaches meeting, Joe tells the coaches, ‘When you see Larry, pat him on the shoulder because he’s having a rough week.’ How do you think that made the rest of the coaches who were making much less money feel?”
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Jack Graham, who preceded Parker as AD and hired Eustachy, wanted to fire Eustachy after a 2013-14 investigation uncovered the coach “created a culture of fear and intimidation and emotionally abused his players.”
Graham told the Coloradoan in 2017 that he advised then-President Tony Frank that Eustachy should be terminated, but Frank didn’t believe the university had the basis to fire the coach. Frank instead told Graham that Eustachy was to be placed on a personal improvement plan that included “zero tolerance for the negative behaviors.”
As part of Eustachy’s improvement plan, starting in February 2014, he was no longer allowed to be alone with his team and was required to have Graham or a staff member present at meetings, practices and games.
In February 2018, Parker placed Eustachy on administrative leave. Eustachy and CSU agreed to part ways a month later. CSU paid Eustachy $750,000 as a buyout with a non-disclosure clause that precludes Eustachy or CSU from commenting on his departure.
Self sufficiency Athletics lags behind diversity efforts
Black athletes and staff also point out there have been only one Black head coach in CSU’s 150-year history and few people of color in top administrative positions within the athletic department.
They pointed to CSU overlooking Tony Alford — a Black Ohio State assistant who is considered one of the nation’s top recruiters, a former CSU star running back and a Colorado native — after he openly expressed interest in the head coaching job as evidence of lingering institutional racism.
Stephanie Johnson, a CSU athletic trainer who is Black, said the athletic department missed an opportunity to provide action on its mission of growth through diversity and to elevate the consciousness to serve the needs of a diverse population by not hiring Alford.
“Like the athletics department’s mission statement, he was just a name put out there for optics,” she said. “When something like this happens, it’s a good representation of how CSU athletics sees the importance of Black representation in their athletics department.”
Stewart said there is a heavy long-term cost to the CSU athletic department’s current culture.
“If a person fears retribution for telling the truth, especially as it concerns the welfare of our student-athletes, what does that say about the system?” Stewart asked. “Universities are supposed to be about integrity, honesty, freedom of thought and leadership.
“But athletics is about power over people, not power with people. What the collegiate athletic departments have largely become is an industry that sees protection of the brand as more important than protection of its people.”
Follow Blumhardt lon Twitter: @MilesBlumhardt.
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