I hope that many of you have read at least The Star’s accounts of the ESPN investigation into the case of Sasha Menu Courey, a former University of Missouri student-athlete, who committed suicide in June 2011, 16 months after allegedly having been raped by at least one MU football player.
It is a complex, tragic and disturbing case, and it casts a long, dark shadow over the university and its failure to investigate the alleged assault.
I will comment how The Star has handled the story so far and also on the university’s failure to investigate the case or even report it to campus or Columbia, Missouri, police. But first you need to know the basic facts…if you don’t already.
Several months after the incident, Menu Courey (she used both her mother’s and father’s last names) said that she was raped by an MU football player shortly after having had consensual sex with a football player she had been with on the day in question.
As time went by, it surfaced that she might have been raped by three football players that night, or early morning.
Menu Courey, a Canadian native who was attending MU on a swimming scholarship, acknowledged that she was intoxicated when the events took place. She told a rape crisis counselor and a campus therapist that she and the man she was with were falling asleep when another football player — who told her his name when she asked — entered the room, locked the door and raped her.
Menu Courey had experienced psychological problems before the rape, but they intensified afterward, and she ended up killing herself by getting ahold of and ingesting about 100 Tylenol pills while she was receiving treatment for her psychological problems at a hospital in Boston. She was 20 years old when she died.
She did not report the assault, or assaults, to campus police or to Columbia, Missouri, police. (As it turned out, Columbia police have jurisdiction because the alleged crime took place off campus.
Athletic department officials were aware of the incident at least by February 2012, when The Columbia Daily Tribune ran a long story about Menu Courey and the case. However, at least one athletic department official probably became aware of the rape nearly two years earlier, during a telephone conversation with Courey.
Nevertheless, the MU athletic department did not investigate or report the allegations to campus or Columbia police until this past weekend, when ESPN posted its story.
Chad Moller, associate athletic director in charge of communications, told ESPN that the school had not investigated or reported the allegations because Menu Courey “chose not to report this incident to anyone at MU other than mentioning it to health care providers who were bound to respect her privacy.”
Adding another layer of complexity to the case, Menu Courey’s parents did not respond to a university official’s letter written in February 2013, asking if they wanted the university to investigate. Lynn Courey, Menu Courey’s mother, told ESPN that she and her husband did not follow up partly because they had lost confidence in the athletic department after dealing with it, regarding their daughter, for several months.
Here’s the crux of the matter, however: Despite the fact that neither Menu Courey or her parents asked for an investigation, the university was obligated to report the matter to police. Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, told ESPN that the law requires schools to investigate such cases “based on the potential harm that the alleged rapists” pose.
(Title IX is a 1972 federal law that protects people from gender discrimination in education programs or other activities at schools that receive funds from the U.S. Department of Education.)
ESPN said that another federal law, the Clery Act, “requires campus officials with responsibility for student or campus activities to report serious incidents of crime to police for investigation and possible inclusion in campus crime statistics.”
Here are my observations:
1) You would think that in the Penn State/Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky era, any school would understand the importance of quickly launching an investigation or alerting police to any sexual-assault allegation that it became aware of.
So, why didn’t MU officials do that? In my opinion, the same reason that Penn State officials, all the way up to former university president Graham Spanier, tried to cover up Sandusky’s sexual assaults of dozens of boys:
Fear that an investigation would put the school in a bad light.
What Penn State didn’t realize and what MU should have realized is that a school can end up looking even worse by trying to cover up a crime, or at least avert its gaze.
In my opinion, MU comes off looking very bad in this, and it could well hurt the school in recruiting athletes and regular students.
I mean, won’t the parents of young people, especially women, think twice before sending their kids off to a school where school officials might turn their heads if the kids became crime victims, particularly if athletes were involved in the commission?
2) Where is MU Athletic Director Mike Alden in all this?
Apparently, he delegated the difficult job of dealing with the press to Moller and and another associate athletic director, Sarah Reesman, who is a lawyer.
Alden is only mentioned in ESPN story in a timeline of events and once, in passing, in the text. A Kansas City Star story in today’s sports section said the university had told the paper that Alden was out of town and not available for comment.
Two ESPN reporters, Nicole Noren and Tom Farrey, worked on this story for 16 months. I’ve got to assume they tried to get ahold of Alden. If they did, they should have said so, and they should have said that he referred them to others in the department.
Yet, it doesn’t surprise me a bit that Alden is playing hide and go seek…In 2006, he dispatched MU broadcaster Gary Link to tell then-basketball coach Quin Snyder that he either had to resign or be fired at the end of the basketball season.
Obviously, Alden is a cowardly lion.
3) I didn’t like the way The Star backed into the story.
ESPN posted its initial story about 12:45 p.m. last Friday. That gave The Star’s sports desk several hours to decide how to go about reporting it.
Instead of coming out on Saturday morning with a straightforward story crediting ESPN and laying out the basic facts, The Star ran a sports-section-front story under the headline “MU denies claim.”
The first paragraph of that story, written by sports reporter Tod Palmer, who covers MU said:
“The University of Missouri has rebutted a story published Friday by ESPN’s ‘Outside the Line,” denying that school officials acted improperly by failing to report an alleged sexual assault against a female swimmer who later committed suicide.”
That’s no way to report a story that was 16 months in the making and that had the stamp of ESPN’s credibility. The whole idea in journalism, after all, is to report the news before reporting the response to the news.
But I’ll give credit where it’s due: The Star came back with an excellent column by Vahe Gregorian on Page 1 today. Gregorian, who spent many years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before joining The Star’s sports department last year, showed his experience by writing a thoughtful and nuanced commentary on the case.
Gregorian set the right tone when he talked about “the depressing haze that lingers over Sasha’s death.”
If it had chosen to, the University of Missouri could have done a lot, starting two years ago, to clear the air about this case. But because it chose to sit on its hands and hope the story went away, we’re all left to wonder if MU is just another head-in-the-sand-to-protect-the-athletes kind of school.