BOONE, N.C. -- For much of the school year in this quiet mountain town, Appalachian State University has been caught up in an emotionally wrenching controversy that has stirred unrest on campus and brought unwanted national attention.
Three football players and another student have been suspended from the university for sex offenses, a fourth player is on probation and the local district attorney is considering criminal charges – raising questions about whether the newfound popularity of the Mountaineers team has bred a sense of power and privilege among some of its players.
Now, a sociology professor who lectured about the culture of student-athletes has been placed on administrative leave.
Though different issues are involved – sexual assault and academic freedom – the controversies come at a transformative time for Appalachian, with its reputation at an all-time high and its football team hoping to move up to the NCAA’s top level of competition.
The Mountaineers captured the national spotlight in 2007 after beating the University of Michigan in what has been called one of the biggest upsets in athletic history. The stunning result became a Sports Illustrated cover story and interest in little-known App State soared.
Its athletic department launched a campaign that bragged: “We Stand Atop The Mountain With No Equal.” After two female students accused football players of raping them, a Web campaign set up on the women’s behalf retorted: “No Equal? No More!”
On Thursday, at the Observer’s request, the university released the names of four students found responsible by a university conduct board for sex offenses and sexual misconduct. Suspended for eight semesters: linebacker Justin Wray of Covington, Ga., defensive back Ed Gainey of Winston-Salem, defensive back Dominique McDuffie of Chattanooga, Tenn., and Tavone Spraggins of Winston-Salem, who was not on the football team.
Under privacy guidelines, the university did not release the name of the player on probation.
“If it was any other athlete, or a regular student, these guys would have been kicked out of the university immediately,” said the first victim. “They really put football on a pedestal.”
She said two football players raped her off-campus one night in spring 2011, and two other players and another student sexually assaulted her. She said she did not report the incidents because she didn’t want to be known around campus “as that girl who came forward and got them in trouble.”
In the fall of 2011, she learned that another female student had accused two of the same football players of rape. The first victim said she then told the university and the Watauga County Sheriff’s Department about what happened to her.
“I just don’t understand how football can be more important than someone’s whole life,” she said. “They really put football on a pedestal.”
Liz Willette, who graduated in December, has helped spearhead an effort to persuade the university to re-examine how it handles rape and sexual assault cases. There have been other cases, she said, but the investigation involving football players has been especially troubling.
“They’re champions. The school pays a lot of money to have them there,” Willette said. “They are really popular on campus, and they do get away with a lot of stuff.”
Watauga District Attorney Jerry Wilson said no charges will be brought in connection with the first case, but he said charges may be brought in the second case. Investigators took DNA samples from two players.
“We determined in one of the cases that it was an unwinnable case,” Wilson told the Observer. “In the second case, there’s some more evidence there. It’s a closer case and I think it’s a prosecutable case.”
Wilson said he expects to make a decision next week. “This thing has drug on through the ASU disciplinary hearing thing and so on,” he said. “It’s drug on long enough.”
The university began its investigation last fall and the process was not only long, but messy. The university suspended two players pending the investigation, then reinstated them, then suspended them again after more than 100 students protested in a silent rally.
The first victim is still a student, in her junior year, and said she is escorted to and from classes. She called Appalachian her “dream school” and said she has mixed feelings about whether to stay and graduate.
The victim in the second case has left Appalachian and could not be reached. The suspended students also could not be reached; the fifth student, on probation for harassment, declined to comment.
Chancellor Ken Peacock was quoted in the student newspaper in March as telling trustees: “There are challenges. We’re facing them. We’re not hiding. We’re making changes on campus and in programs.”
A chilling effect
In March, while the sexual assault investigations continued, professor Jammie Price was put on administrative leave in part because of her comments about student-athletes.
Price, 46, has taught sociology at Appalachian eight years and has had run-ins before with the administration. On the day of the silent protest on behalf of the assault victims, Price wore an Appalachian T-shirt to class on which she had written the words “No More.”
“I was talking about racism in athletics in class that day,” Price told the Observer. “I was not talking about the alleged sexual assaults. But I participated in a silent protest on campus, and two students asked me questions about it, and we talked about it for about five minutes.”
Price said she has since learned that one of the accused football players was a student in her class. All four accused players are black.
“I was talking about how we get racist outcomes nationally in education,” she said. “Most people on basketball or football scholarships are black. They’re having to practice all the time, or travel. The outcome is they don’t get the same education.”
According to university documents, student-athletes in Price’s class complained about her comments and about a documentary on the business of pornography she showed at a subsequent class. Price was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.
The Chronicle of Higher Education published a story, and professors around the world signed a petition in her support. The American Association of University Professors and the American Sociological Association, among other organizations, wrote the university.
“I teach gender and sexuality,” said Ed Behrend-Martinez, a history professor at Appalachian. “I talk about what could possibly be considered offensive topics all the time. This could cause a chilling effect on what we teach.”
The university decided to let Price teach again next fall, but told her she must undergo sensitivity training, among other things. Price said she plans to appeal.
“The investigator determined that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that you created a hostile learning environment for a significant number of students in your classes,” the provost wrote Price on Monday. “… Students reported that you often commented about an allegedly racist environment at Appalachian and about student athletes.”
With only a week left before graduation, students and faculty still have questions about both Price’s suspension and the sexual assaults, and how the administration has handled the controversies.
“Nobody knows what’s going on because we’re not being told,” said Matthew Robinson, a professor of Government and Justice Studies. “This is a wonderful university and none of us like to see the name of the university for negative reasons. But this is two negative stories in a row and we’d like some answers.”