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CU scandal ‘out of hand’

Eben Harrell
Aspen Times Staff Writer

When John DiBiaggio stepped down as President of Tufts University in 2002, after a long and distinguished career in various academic institutions across America, he looked forward to a quiet life of semiretirement.

He moved into a house in the hills high above Snowmass Village, a refuge from contention, controversy and debate. The house is located off a street named Faraway Road.

Less than a year after moving to Colorado, however, DiBiaggio finds himself in the middle of a major controversy, one that has dominated headlines around the state.

Last week, University of Colorado officials asked DiBiaggio to help determine whether its tarnished athletics department is corrupt and institutionally sexist. CU athletics is currently at the center of a scandal that includes allegations of alcohol abuse, sexual harassment, and rape.

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“We’ve let this get out of hand,” DiBiaggio says. “We’ve convinced ourselves that college sports have to be played at a professional level to be interesting and of worth. The problems facing college athletics are spinning out of control and we need to address the issue now.”

DiBiaggio, whose resume includes stints as president of University of Connecticut, Michigan State, and Tufts University, is unflappable about assuming a central role in controversy. Everything about him speaks of authority ” the measured cadences of his speech, his neat, almost soldierly appearance, his sharp, quick eyes.

Sitting in his living room, positioned under high ceilings and within oak walls, he speaks of the problems facing collegiate athletics like a man set on change. He envisages a time when athletics is just another aspect of university life, no more or less important than, say, orchestra or the debate club.

“I’ve been to football games at Michigan State and Tufts, a Division I

and a Division III school.” he says. “We’d get 3,000 spectators for games at Tufts, compared to the 50,000 that would attend MSU games. The Tufts guys were probably 50 pounds lighter and a step slower, but when they’d play Williams, it was just as exciting.

“Schools might have to make some academic compromises to be competitive, but I don’t think it should go as far as it has.”

His work on the Knight Commission, a panel formed in 1989 to study problems and recommend improvements in college sports, has led him to believe admissions standards should be relatively the same for athletes and non-athletes. He also vehemently opposes lucrative endorsement contracts arranged by coaches, such as those with shoe manufacturers.

DiBiaggio says he gets his courage from his parents, who were immigrants from Northern Italy. His speech is unaccented, but his heritage remains in his olive skin and his memories of a father who preached a rigorous, work-for-what-you-want attitude.

Although the CU scandal centers around allegations of alcohol and sexual abuse, DiBiaggio says he has been hired to address the broad picture of athletics within the university, considering the allegations of sexual abuse in the context of more endemic problems.

“They want me to look at the entire culture of sports at the institution,” DiBiaggio says. “Are athletes [at CU] so entitled in other dimensions that they can do whatever they want? Is the culture responsible for this, or is it just a few isolated renegades?”

DiBiaggio calls himself a sports fan. He’s an avid skier. A copy of “Fly-fishing for Dummies” assumes a prominent place on his coffee table. He says he’s not the enemy of college athletics, but its friend, someone who cares about it enough to criticize its flaws.

“I’m not a knight on a white horse, I’m just a person that cares deeply about this,” he says.

Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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