BOZEMAN — College football’s offseason has been tainted by grim storylines.
In May, an independent investigation revealed Baylor coach Art Briles and members of his coaching staff deliberately withheld information from authorities regarding allegations of sexual assault by players.
It continued this week with the latest report surrounding the child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, in which unsealed documents allege that coach Joe Paterno, embattled even in death, was aware of Jerry Sandusky’s misdeeds as early as 1976 and failed to report what he knew.
Those documents also allege that former Penn State assistants Greg Schiano and Tom Bradley — now high-ranking coaches at Ohio State and UCLA — never divulged their knowledge of Sandusky’s crimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Paterno and Briles, of course, lost their jobs. But that seems inconsequential in the aftermath. Penn State and Baylor, after all, are hardly the only college football programs that have faced such scrutiny.
Reacting to those developments Wednesday during an interview with The Gazette, first-year Montana State coach Jeff Choate took a hardline stance.
“There’s just no way,” Choate said of assertions that coaches weren't aware. “Football coaching is so unique. You’re with each other from 5:30 in the morning until midnight. If somebody has a pretty serious character flaw, whether they drink too much or they’re not faithful to their wife, or if it’s something as serious as what happened with Sandusky, you’re going to at least have suspicions about it.”
The malfeasance at Penn State is unprecedented in college football. What’s been alleged at Baylor is more within the parameters of the larger conversation about campus sexual assault and how it relates to the sport.
Several studies, including an April 2014 report by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, have indicated that the contemporary college campus isn’t a safe haven for young female students.
The statistics are eye-opening. According to data contained in the Task Force’s initial study, one in five women is sexually assaulted while in college.
Choate takes this crisis — and the microcosm of its connection to college football — to heart. In the aftermath of the developments at Baylor and Penn State, he has made it a priority to educate and empower his players.
“Sexual assault has reared its ugly head way too many times on college campuses, and it’s been that way for a long time,” Choate said. “It’s an important conversation. Situations like that, though they’re tragic for the victims, it gives us a talking point and a platform to address that issue. It’s a larger, broader societal issue. We can talk about it a lot. But unfortunately talking doesn’t always work. We have to be hypersensitive to it, and I am. I lose sleep over it as a head football coach. You know things are going on at college campuses, and that’s the phone call you don’t want to get.
“I think the broader lesson for me in a position of authority is that you have to be 100 percent honest. No football game is worth breaking the law or not protecting victims’ rights. If you see something, you say something. Call somebody. Report what you’ve heard and let the authorities investigate it. I take that obligation very seriously.”
MSU isn’t immune to the realities of campus sexual assault, but what school is?
Specifically the Bobcats football team has steered clear of such controversy, and Choate is bent on keeping it that way, not just for the health of his program but for the well-being of the university — and beyond.
“We talk in pretty explicit detail to these young men about what consent is, and it’s a completely different world than it was when I was going to college,” he said. “We talk specifically about knowing who this individual is, having a relationship … that a ‘hook-up’ isn’t worth it.
“We talk about making decisions with the help of our community at large. That if alcohol is involved you don’t have sex. That’s a hard thing for college kids to figure out, but that’s the bullet in the gun. If there’s alcohol involved, hey, sleep on it, get her number, call her the next day and take her to breakfast.
“But don’t put yourself in a position where you can make a bad decision, and don’t put that individual in a position where they have to defend themselves.”
As Choate indicated, it’s not his job or the job of his coaching staff to be judge, jury and executioner in response to any disciplinary issues serious enough to require police involvement. But it is their job to speak up, he said, adding that it’s a responsibility too many coaches — Briles is the best, most-recent example — have shirked.
“You have to have a really strong moral compass," he said. "I do not think Art Briles is a bad person. I’ve met Art Briles — I know his son — and I think he’s a really good football coach and I think he’s probably a pretty good man who made some bad decisions. It came down to the fact that he didn’t report what he knew.
“If we hear something that we think is out of line, whether it’s a young man that got arrested for a potential DUI or a young man being accused of sexual assault, our job is to make sure that the authorities know about it and put it in their hands. We have an obligation to make sure that we protect every member of our campus community.”
Choate is also entrusting his team and challenging his players to be the difference when it comes to thwarting potential criminal activity from within.
The goal is proactive prevention that is group-oriented, from top to bottom.
“We use the term ‘Protect Her.’ Be a protector,” Choate said. “We try to touch their hearts in terms of humanizing it and making it real to them, and encourage them to be leaders in our campus community in protecting ‘her.’ That’s an important thing.
“Like I told our football team, if 100 guys in this room say, ‘We’re not going to allow (campus sexual assault) to happen anymore; this is done,’ then that changes the culture of our entire campus. If the 100 guys on the football team say, ‘No. You’re not taking her home tonight,’ or ‘No, she’s had too much to drink,’ or ‘No, we’re not going to allow her to be in that situation,’ can you imagine how powerful that is for Montana State University? Or if that happens at 100 college campuses across the country? It’s about somebody stepping forward and making a decision that you’re going to rise above it.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s about making the right decisions on a Friday night or a Thursday or whenever, or if it’s fourth-and-2 and the game’s on the line. If you have guys that are going to rise up and defend each other and work hard together and make good decisions, then you probably have a chance to be a pretty good outfit.”