Give-and-take between AD, faculty pair hints at tension

Give-and-take between AD, faculty pair hints at tension

CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois will review its policies for reporting allegations of coaching abuse and the roles of various athletic oversight boards following a recent investigation of men's basketball coach Brad Underwood.

Two faculty members on the UI's Athletic Board had complained in a January memo that the investigation clearing Underwood was "flawed" and called for stronger policies for reporting mistreatment of players, according to documents released Friday.

In the memo, Michael LeRoy and Michael Raycraft said they believe the current structure contains some conflicts of interest, and that certain kinds of problems — including allegations of medical maltreatment or racial harassment — should be automatically referred to an outside, independent investigator.

"We are skeptical that the investigation was thorough, objective and skillfully conducted," they wrote in a Jan. 10 memo to Athletic Director Josh Whitman.

Their memo also said changes recommended by two 2015 investigations into alleged abuses in the football and women's basketball programs have not been effectively implemented.

Whitman strongly disagreed, and said the review of Underwood followed "standard protocol" for investigating claims against any member of the coaching staff. But he also said he would review the department's reporting policies for possible "tightening up," as well as the roles of various oversight committees for athletics, documents show.

'Afraid to report'

Two faculty members led the review of Underwood — education Professor Chris Span and business Professor Tiffany White, who are the UI's representatives to the Big Ten Conference — in conjunction with two members of the athletic department's executive staff. The latter included Ryan Squire, the DIA's long-time head of compliance who was promoted by Whitman to chief integrity officer, a new position he created in 2016.

The position is structured to be "objective and unconflicted," Whitman said. Squire meets regularly with the chancellor's staff and legal counsel's office and has no direct relationship with coaches.

The other DIA staff member was Keiko Price, a senior associate athletic director who works with Whitman on day-to-day supervision of the men's basketball program.

The four-person review team consulted with the campus legal counsel to develop interview questions about the health, wellness and experience of the student-athletes and culture within the program, Whitman said. He and Squire also talked directly to the source of the original allegations to build those concerns into the process, he said.

In their memo, LeRoy and Raycraft complained that no former players were interviewed by the review team, and that current players might not have been willing to divulge information to department staff who led the investigation.

"These student-athletes have a vested interest in keeping quiet about problems," they wrote, adding they were told players were "afraid to report their harmful experiences internally."

"The rapid succession of interviews was to mitigate the possibility that subjects would tip-off each other to the interview questions and answers. We are concerned that this tempo precluded the possibility of talking to players and parents of players who left the program," they wrote.

(NOTE: News-Gazette Media's Steve Kelly and Loren Tate will interview Illinois AD Josh Whitman during 'Illini Pella Saturday SportsTalk' on WDWS 1400-AM, starting at 9 a.m.)

'Left in the dark'

LeRoy and Raycraft, who chairs the Athletic Board's Academic Progress and Eligibility Committee, also expressed disappointment that they had no knowledge of the investigation before bringing their concerns to Span and White in December. They said previous faculty representatives had given them general information on a confidential basis during the 2015 investigations.

They said Span and White told them the claims had been investigated in September, that most were unsubstantiated or had been recanted, and the matter had been resolved. LeRoy and Raycraft, who are appointed by the campus Academic Senate, said they were surprised that they had been "left in the dark."

White and Span could not be reached for comment Friday.

LeRoy and Raycraft pointed out that the latest complaints came after the investigation concluded in September, and that the unnamed source went to "considerable lengths to identify and contact us" after the DIA's investigation had concluded. They wondered if the person, who expressed "anger and disgust" and came armed with photos and other materials, might share potentially damaging information with other teams or the media.

LeRoy and Raycraft recommended more "transparency" in the relationship between the two faculty representatives and the Athletic Board, which oversees academic matters related to intercollegiate athletics and reports back to the campus Academic Senate.

They eventually met with Whitman but then drafted the January memo "in the spirit of suggesting proactive improvements to benefit student-athletes," according to an email from LeRoy.

'Outside the bounds'

In a strongly worded response on March 18, Whitman said the Athletic Board plays an important advisory role but added, "we are concerned that, while well-intentioned, you stepped outside the bounds of your respective responsibilities."

Investigations and personnel matters are the responsibility of the faculty athletic representatives and other units within and outside the DIA, he said, including the in-house compliance staff, the UI legal counsel and the UI ethics office.

Whitman said it's not appropriate to share information about the investigations outside those units.

In an interview, he said the faculty representatives have "ably" filled that investigative role "for a long, long time."

He also said the information LeRoy and Raycraft had received was "incomplete and uncorroborated."

Chancellor Robert Jones wrote to Raycraft and LeRoy on April 2, saying the review was "thorough and completed through appropriate, standard processes," and he was confident in its findings.

Jones also said he has asked the campus legal counsel to review the policies and practices of the Athletic Board, including the role of the faculty representatives, relative to those at other institutions.

"Please know that anytime we learn of a potential issue involving the experience of our student-athletes, we address them swiftly and thoroughly using the appropriate processes. Not all of these processes do, or should, include the involvement of the Athletic Board, which remains an advisory body to the AD and the Chancellor on various issues, with a longstanding focus on academics and educational objectives," Jones added. "I appreciate your leadership in these areas, and I ask that you allow the faculty and administrators responsible for other aspects of our athletics programs to lead in their areas as well."

Policies 'ineffective'

In their memo, LeRoy and Raycraft said the DIA's student-athlete handbook policies for reporting complaints does include options for students to report problems externally — to the UI's ethics office or Title IX office, for example — a change recommended in the 2015 investigations. But they said that had proved "ineffective" in the case brought to their attention in December.

The policy lumps in complaints about coaches with those involving staff or other athletes and encourages students to take their complaints to the coaching staff first, which doesn't account for fears about retaliation, they noted.

And members of the men's basketball and football teams are instructed to report problems directly to the athletic director, which could be seen as a conflict of interest by students rather than a commitment to oversight, as it was intended, they said.

Whitman acknowledged some of those points. But he said it's the responsibility of any supervisor to get feedback about their employees, positive or negative, and said students have lots of options.

"Student-athletes aren't going to report concerns to us because it's written in a policy manual," he said in an interview. "They're going to report to us because that's the culture we've created and it's made them feel comfortable and we've provided a number of outlets to voice those concerns."