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University of Montana Athletic Director Jim O’Day, shown at a community forum in late 2011.

As the University of Montana’s rape scandal began to unfold late last year, athletic director Jim O’Day was involved with another controversy, one partly of his own making.

Email after email blasted the decision by an NCAA committee, chaired by O’Day, to suspend a Lehigh University player from a postseason game for retweeting a post with a racial slur on the social media site, Twitter.

O’Day’s own football players also tweeted racial slurs, those emails pointed out. Yet no Griz player was pulled from postseason play.

“Glad to hear you were focusing on Lehigh Twitter accounts when clearly everything in your own house was in order,” one critic wrote O’Day on Dec. 16. “I’d be expecting a pink slip very soon, O’hypocrite.”

The flurry of correspondence, obtained in a public records request filed jointly by the Missoulian and the Wall Street Journal, took place at about the same time UM administrators were learning of allegations that two female students had been drugged and gang-raped.

The NCAA announced wide receiver Ryan Spadola’s suspension from Lehigh’s football team in a Dec. 8 news release that included a statement from O’Day:

“This was a very unfortunate incident, but racially insensitive characterizations are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. The offensive language of this nature by Mr. Spadola, whether intentional or not, was unsportsmanlike and discredited the championship overall,” O’Day said in the statement.

Six days later, UM announced it had hired an outside investigator to examine the gang-rape allegations. O’Day spent some of the time in between fielding strongly worded objections to the decision by the Division I Football Championship Committee he chaired.

They included a Dec. 9 email reading: “Please note that University of Montana players (names redacted) have recently used the same offensive word in their own recent tweets. Since the NCAA is impartial, I assume you will also be suspending those two players in their game against Northern Iowa.”

O’Day’s emails, along with those of then-coach Robin Pflugrad and UM President Royce Engstrom, were released to the Missoulian this week. Names and other confidential details were redacted from some of the emails. O’Day did not return a Missoulian call for comment.

On Friday, Dec. 9, Engstrom wrote to O’Day after receiving an email reading, “Please look into why your athletic director is making new interpretations of NCAA rules to punish other teams competing in the NCAA FCS.”

“Thanks,” O’Day responded the following Monday. “NCAA not at all concerned, as we have followed all proper protocol.”

By then, Lehigh had already lost its game with North Dakota State, which beat Lehigh, 24-0. That same weekend, the Grizzlies defeated Northern Iowa, 48-10, but later lost to Sam Houston State, 31-28, in a semifinal game.

The exchange between O’Day and Engstrom does not reflect O’Day’s own question, also emailed on Dec. 9, to other committee members about the complaints he’d received.

“I have similar notes from others. ... And one person who has recent Twitter messages from almost every team still in the playoffs. In this case, the difference was that it occurred during the championship ... yet the next question: When does the championship start for players on the home team?”

Damani Leech, NCAA football director, wrote O’Day on Dec. 9 that he could reply to such emails by saying that “their message has been sent to the NCAA national office for review and consideration.”

Leech referred a Missoulian call this week to the NCAA’s public relations office. That office emailed a copy of the December news release announcing Spadola’s suspension, but did not address follow-up questions.

Engstrom fired Pflugrad and O’Day in March, giving no reason other than that he sought change. In May, both the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education announced investigations of how UM handles sexual assaults; more recently, the NCAA revealed it has been investigating UM’s football team since January. The Education Department review also focuses on the football team.

***

Nearly all the criticisms O’Day fielded about Grizzlies football players concerned their own use of racial slurs.

One writer presumably included a list of similar tweets – a big block of type was blacked out of the emails given to the Missoulian – and wrote that “since Mr. O’Day is the chair and the one who made the statement in the press release, I have researched some of his own players’ Twitter comments.

“Keep in mind these are comments made by the players ... which is much worse than quoting someone else’s comments. ... I found these comments in about 10 minutes of searching and could probably find the same tweets from players from every team in America.”

That writer, too, suggested that the Montana player or players quoted likewise be suspended from the weekend playoff game.

Another email referenced the October arrest of Grizzlies quarterback Gerald Kemp and cornerback Trumaine Johnson, both of whom were tased by Missoula police trying to break up a postgame party. Other Grizzlies players, that email noted, had been arrested on DUI charges.

“Are we setting the precent that ‘re-tweeing’ someone else’s words is a more severe offense than driving under the influence or shoving police officers?” said the email sent to all committee members.

Kemp and Johnson each sat out a quarter of the first Grizzlies game after their arrest.

***

An NCAA spokesman told the Missoulian in December that the governing body of intercollegiate athletics didn’t plan an official policy punishing student-athletes for the misuse of social media sites.

Ironically, Grizzlies team members decided last month to refrain from tweeting, according to interim coach Mick Delaney. Interim athletic director Jean Gee said then that Twitter posed too much risk of having “things lifted that while they think they are innocent, may be perceived as not innocent.”

At the time, O’Day himself was still tweeting as @UMAthleticsAD, even though he’d been fired six weeks earlier. He said he just hadn’t gotten around to changing the name, but did so immediately after being contacted about it.

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com or @CopsAndCourts on Twitter.

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