In protest

Protesters made their signs against sexual assault visible Monday to members of the athletics committee of the Jacksonville State University Board of Trustees. 

For two weeks, Jacksonville State University’s script about Landon Rice hasn’t changed. School officials conducted a thorough investigation, they say. They learned “all of the facts,” they’ve written.

But how thorough? What facts?

We don’t know. And we won’t, if JSU has any say on the matter.

Some may make this about Rice, the former Auburn University football player who left that campus after a 2016 Title IX investigation found him responsible for violating that school’s Policy on Sexual and Gender-based Misconduct and is now a JSU student and Gamecock. I won’t.

Instead, this is about JSU’s tone-deaf response to enrolling a player Auburn still considers responsible for sexual misconduct. What’s worse, it’s happening amid a sea change in the nation’s attitude toward sexual misconduct that’s uncovered numerous high-profile cases of rape and harassment on the campuses of Baylor, Michigan State, Vanderbilt, Penn State and Montana, not to mention the #MeToo movement rolling on into 2018.  

In fairness to JSU, Rice’s situation happened at Auburn, where a Lee County grand jury did not indict Rice on a charge of first-degree rape. JSU has merely imported another school’s PR mess. Plus, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act does limit what information schools can release. But from the president’s office to the athletics department to its legal counsel, JSU’s silence and vague statements are telling everyone — its students, its faculty, its alumni, the media — not to question it, but to blindly trust it.

Should we?

Without details, it’s tough. Assurances from Athletics Director Greg Seitz and JSU Counsel Sam Monk say they investigated Rice’s time at Auburn and found no reason to prevent him from enrolling and playing. JSU acknowledges working with Kelley Taylor, Auburn’s Title IX coordinator. But how can the public know JSU has adequately handled a delicate and controversial matter if officials won’t better describe their efforts?

Let’s assume JSU talked to Gus Malzahn, Auburn’s coach, and coaches at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, where Rice played last year. Let’s also assume JSU would have wanted to speak with officials in Lee County and the victim’s attorney. Let’s assume JSU, as President John Beehler says, did its due diligence.

Phillip Tutor: It's on JSU to explain its decision

Well, Brandon Hughes, the Lee County district attorney, says JSU didn’t contact him.

“I have not heard from nor spoken to anyone from JSU about Landon Rice,” he wrote Monday in an email. “It’s unlikely they would have contacted my office without my knowledge.”

It’s a glaring omission. It also opens the door to wonder if there are others.

JSU, of course, won’t say much, citing student privacy laws and client privileges.

“I worked with University Counsel Sam Monk during our investigation and you are welcome to contact Sam if you want specific details,” Seitz wrote in an email.

“As University Counsel, I interviewed and had conversations with persons internally and externally, including attorneys. My work in this matter was either attorney-client communications internally or legally protected confidential work product with persons outside JSU,” Monk wrote in an email.

“The young man in question is currently a JSU student and therefore it would be improper to make any comments other than to say that his rights as a student must be protected and that we feel that the matter was handled appropriately!” Thomas Dedrick, chair of the JSU board of trustees’ athletics committee, wrote in an email.

In other words, just trust us.

Down in Lee County, remnants of Auburn’s Title IX investigation linger. Last weekend, Auburn Director of Public Affairs Brian C. Keeter responded by issuing a university statement confirming Rice’s suspension had been reduced to one year and that Auburn considered Rice to be “in good standing.” However, the statement said, “the finding of responsibility remained” and Rice had “agreed not to apply or otherwise seek readmission to Auburn, nor be on campus without providing prior notice if he has a specific need or reason to come to campus.”

Those two pertinent points — that Auburn stands by its finding of responsibility and that Rice has agreed not to be on campus without prior notice — aren’t included in JSU’s official statements.

Why? Ask Seitz, if he’ll tell you. Or Monk. (They won’t.)

Instead, consider the bigger picture that JSU apparently doesn’t get. Conferences across the country — the Southeastern Conference, the Pac-12, the Big Ten — and several schools have in recent years installed restrictions on signing players found responsible for violating student-conduct policies or banned from campus for similar reasons. Criminal indictments and guilty verdicts are inherently different from university Title IX investigations, but the national trend shows school administrators nonetheless steering away from importing players soiled by these findings of responsibility. It’s not worth the PR hit, and it sends an awful message to victims of campus sexual assault who already feel their voices are purposefully ignored, which they often are.

JSU faces no such mandated restrictions, yet that’s the standard JSU should espouse. The Gamecocks have won too many games recently and nearly claimed a national championship without opening themselves to this kind of invited and self-imposed scrutiny.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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