Jon Krakauer book cover

Jon Krakauer book cover

Tuesday's release of best-selling author Jon Krakauer's latest project, "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town," had many locals anxious if not uneasy.

Not among them was University of Montana athletic director Kent Haslam, who called the latest account of several highly publicized sexual assault allegations against UM football players in 2012 and 2013 an "opportunity" not to be shied away from.

"You look at a book like this and it really does give you one more opportunity to talk about the subject (of sexual assault)," Haslam said, "and then see how it is we can help improve.

"I think if you bury your head in the sand and pretend it's not there, you're not going to accomplish anything."

"Missoula," which chronicles the legal proceedings surrounding, among others, three sexual assault accusations involving Grizzly football players, including former running back Beau Donaldson's guilty plea in September 2012 and the acquittal of former quarterback Jordan Johnson the following March, paints a picture of a Wild West-like atmosphere in the Garden City.

Student-athletes, football players in particular, could run rampant and sexual assault verged on epidemic because of the university's sometimes confusing policies regarding the handling of such crimes.

The intense following of the Grizzlies football program in the community did perhaps equal harm, the author asserted.

"A much thornier and more vexing problem was the popularity of the university's football program, along with the millions of dollars it contributed to the local economy," Krakauer wrote. "The adoration of the Griz football team created a pernicious atmosphere of entitlement."

And while Haslam didn't comment directly on Griz fans' part in creating a difficult environment for sexual assault victims, he said he wouldn't want their zeal to disappear, just perhaps be directed more appropriately.

"The passion we have here, it's what makes this place so unique and makes it fun," Haslam began. "It was something that attracted me to the job and something that attracts student-athletes to this university.

"But I do think that my job as the athletic director, it's to make sure we have perspective with that passion."

***

Haslam was hired as Montana's 17th athletic director on Sept. 17, 2012, less than a week after Donaldson pleaded guilty to a sexual assault charge that would result in a 30-year prison sentence, with 20 years suspended.

Haslam previously served as UM's associate AD for development, managing fundraising activities for the athletic department, before taking over for Jim O'Day, who was fired as AD earlier that year along with head football coach Robin Pflugrad.

During his 2 1/2-year tenure, Haslam has helped reshape Griz athletics with the hire of five new head coaches and by cleaning up the department's own policies regarding student-athlete sexual assault.

Expectations for conduct are more clearly stated in the student-athlete handbook, and Grizzly athletes are better informed of the resources UM provides for sexual assault victims and also those struggling with substance abuse.

Student-athletes are also required to attend more educational seminars with notable local speakers, Haslam added.

And then there are the responsibilities of coaches and other athletic department employees:

"All university employees, including all employees of the athletic department, are required to report information they have about sexual misconduct involving students ... within 24 hours of receiving the information," the handbook reads.

"I certainly don't think that sexual assault has its origins or resides solely within athletics. You're missing the point if that's where we're trying to compartmentalize it," Haslam said. "However, we're leaders on campuses. We're leaders among the students and take a role that's highly visible."

Such leadership was important as UM sought Pflugrad's replacement in the summer of 2012. Then-70-year-old coach Mick Delaney "was the perfect coach at the perfect time," Haslam praised, and again this past winter when Delaney retired after three successful seasons on and off the field.

Bob Stitt, the eventual hire last December, has a history as a disciplinarian and leader who holds players, coaches and staff members accountable.

"That was at the top of my list," Haslam said.

Stitt, who said he knew some about the football team's recent brushes with scandal but didn't press for details during his interviews with UM, declined to comment further regarding the release of Krakauer's book.

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