By Julie DiCaro–
(CBS) I was raped while a senior at Indiana University. But that’s not what this letter is about. It’s actually about basketball. But it’s not really about that either. It’s about more.
You see, ever since Tom Crean was fired as men’s basketball coach at IU, rumors of his replacement have been at a fever pitch among fans and media. This is about one of those names: Steve Alford.
I’ve seen dozens of individuals calling for Alford to come back at IU. The fans, the boosters, maybe even the athletic director. After the disappointment of the last nine years, it’s understandable. Alford is more than just a former player. He’s a homegrown Hoosier, a former Mr. Basketball and the star of the last IU team to win a national championship in 1987. Alford is the native son gone on to make good, the golden boy chosen to follow in the hallowed footsteps of John Wooden at UCLA. Apparently impervious to aging, Alford even looks the same as he did while at IU. So it’s easy to see how fans equate the return of Alford to IU with the return to basketball glory.
There are plenty of basketball reasons why Alford may not be the best option for the Hoosiers, but let’s set those aside for the moment. I won’t pretend to be a master strategist of the hard court. I can’t tell you what to look for in a coach when it comes to Xs and Os.
What I can tell you is what it feels like to stay silent about rape out of the fear you won’t be believed. I can tell you what it feels like to wait, frantically, for the results of an STI test. I can tell you about the shame of keeping a secret. But first, let’s talk about Alford’s time coaching at the University of Iowa, a time that has been conveniently left out of the conversation any time Alford’s name is breathlessly mentioned by those advocating for his hire at IU .
On Sept. 7, 2002, a female student at the University of Iowa reported that she had been sexually assaulted by a member of the basketball team, Pierre Pierce. Though Alford was given ill-advised advice by the university to show support for his player, he went much further, essentially using his platform as head basketball coach to call the victim a liar.
From the university’s report in April 2003:
Coach Steve Alford was asked for comments by the press numerous times in the Pierce matter. He was advised by (athletic director) Bob Bowlsby that he should show support for his player but indicate that he was awaiting the resolution of the legal matter. The distinctions required in the direction he received were difficult to draw, however, and on at least one occasion, the Big Ten media day, he stated with regard to Pierce that “I totally believe he’s innocent. I believed it from Day 1 and I still believe it.”
While the victim was still determining whether she wanted to proceed with criminal charges against Pierce, she was contacted by Athletes in Action, a Christian sports organization that had worked closely with Alford and the Iowa basketball team. Per the university report:
In addition to these formal contacts, some contacts with the female student were initiated by persons who were not University employees, but who have an informal University relationship. In particular, individuals affiliated with Athletes in Action, a religious organization, contacted the victim to seek an informal resolution of the matter by asking the victim to meet informally for prayer with the perpetrator. One of those individuals had a longstanding relationship with the basketball program and its coach, which included traveling with the basketball team and conducting voluntary chapel and Bible study activities for the team and staff.
That 2003 report commissioned by the University of Iowa details the myriad of ways the school failed the victim, but it’s Alford’s attempt to induce the victim to attend a prayer meeting with Pierce as a method of resolution that’s most galling. Rape victims are frequently wracked with guilt over their perceived role in their assault. It’s difficult to see prayer session with their attacker as anything other than an attempt to manipulate a traumatized party into choosing to decline criminal charges based on some antiquated notion of “forgiveness.” Moreover, absent legal advocates and a whole lot of crisis counseling, an amateur mediation between a victim and rapist is inherently unfair, given the perpetrator’s ability to instill fear in his victim. Pierce and the victim eventually reached an agreement that allowed him to plead guilty to a lesser charge and issue a public apology.
It’s worth mentioning that Pierce was again accused of assault in 2005, this time by a woman he had been dating, who claimed Pierce choked her, stripped her and held a knife to her throat following an argument over the woman’s new boyfriend. Later, it was discovered that despite a no-contact order, Pierce had placed more than 200 calls to the woman. Despite facing 56 years in prison, Pierce eventually pleaded guilty to lesser charges and would serve less than a year, even though he was sentenced to four. He was also required to register a sex offender in the state of Iowa.
After witnessing the fallout at Baylor, Penn State and other schools involved in with rape scandals, it should surprise no one that almost everyone involved in the Pierce matter escaped unscathed. Pierce played for Golden State in the 2007 Summer League, then left to play overseas. He played professionally in France as recently as 2015. As for Alford, he moved on to New Mexico and then a big-time job at UCLA. Now, his sins in Iowa City forgotten, some fans, boosters and sports talk radio hosts are clamoring for his return to Bloomington.
Yet Alford’s lack of contrition whenever Pierce is brought up is apparent. He’s clearly irritated by the questions and seems to feel answering for his actions while at Iowa is beneath his dignity. When introduced at UCLA in 2013, Alford attempted to shift the blame for the Pierce fiasco to the University of Iowa:
“All I can tell you with that situation is that I followed everything that the University of Iowa, the administration, the lawyers that were hired, I did everything that I was supposed do at the University of Iowa in that situation,” he said then. “I followed everything that I was told to do.”
The 2003 report issued by Iowa, though, shows that this isn’t true. The university never directed Alford to emphatically declare Pierce innocent, nor was Alford instructed to get Athletes in Action involved in an attempt to influence the victim’s decision on pursuing criminal charges.
In 2003, Alford lamented to Boers & Bernstein that “two lives have been affected” but was still loathe to admit Pierce’s role. Though Pierce had at the time of the interview already pleaded guilty to assault causing injury to the victim, Alford continued to back his player:
“He’s done a tremendous job of handling things and he’s working awfully hard,” Alford said then.
“Pierre is a great kid. He’s from a great home and this is a very unfortunate situation for him and the victim.”
When asked why he had such strong support for Pierce, Alford responded with: “This is already behind us. I already told you, two lives have been affected. Now, they’ve gotta move on … You can’t keep dwelling on something that’s already happened … What I’ve tried to do with Pierre and his family is really support him in every way I can.”
It was only after after UCLA came under fire for Alford’s hiring that both Alford and athletic director Dan Guerrero issued statements regarding the Pierce incident.
Over the past week, questions have arisen about my handling of an incident involving a charge of sexual assault made against a student-athlete in 2002, while I was coach of the University of Iowa men’s basketball team. At that time, I instinctively and mistakenly came to his defense before knowing all the facts. I wanted to believe he was innocent, and in response to a media question, I publicly proclaimed his innocence before the legal system had run its course. This was inappropriate, insensitive and hurtful, especially to the young female victim involved, and I apologize for that. I have learned and grown from that experience and now understand that such proclamations can contribute to an atmosphere in which similar crimes go unreported and victims are not taken seriously. It’s important for me personally and professionally to make sure Chancellor Block, athletic director Dan Guerrero, all of my student-athletes and the entire UCLA community, including our fans, understand that today I would handle the situation much differently, with the appropriate regard and respect for the investigative process and those impacted by it. I look forward to being a Bruin and leading a program that everyone will take pride in, both on and off the court.
The problem is that Alford never said anything remotely this remorseful until backed into a corner and then only in a carefully-worded statement, undoubtedly constructed with the input of university officials, 11 years after the fact. Since this time, Alford has refused to comment further on his handling of Pierce, including when asked about it by Ellie Lieberman of SB Nation this week.
While it’s understandable that Alford doesn’t want the Pierce incident to define his career, it seems as though the truly contrite would at least apologize verbally once, as opposed to in a written statement. In a glaring omission, Alford never mentions involving Athletes in Action among his wrongs. I wonder, if questioned, could Alford identify his mistakes specifically? Or if he just has some vague understanding that he should have done something differently, though he’s not sure what? We may never know.
Further, I’m not sure the errors Alford made in Iowa City are the kind one can be educated out of. They seem to be mistakes of arrogance and conscience, rather than ignorance. The decision to speak out against a student rape victim isn’t one of simply not knowing; it’s a choice born out of enmity and the desire to destroy one’s opponent in full view of the townsfolk. Does Alford still see those who accuse his players of misconduct as his enemies? Would he use his pulpit at Assembly Hall to shame another powerless student? Would he attempt to do the same, but through university back-channels? How would we know?
I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why Alford’s past doesn’t matter to some, and I think it comes down to this: If you’re lucky enough not to have been touched by violence, it’s easy to disregard. The fans, the boosters, the talk show hosts clamoring for Alford are, almost exclusively, men. If you’ve never hurried through a parking garage with your keys protruding between your fingers, if you’ve never quickened your pace when followed by a stranger, if you don’t carry pepper spray, if you’ve never had to submit to the humiliating invasion of a rape kit, it’s easy to have Steve Alford and Pierre Pierce not matter to you.
This attitude may not be intentionally dismissive of rape and its victims, but it is a privileged compartmentalization of rape culture and the role sports plays in it. When fans attack victims of sexual assault and domestic violence for accusing athletes, we have only to look to universities, coaches and teammates to see why they believe such behavior is sanctioned by their team. We need only look at the ongoing rape scandal at Baylor to see how far athletic programs and those invested in them will go to protect players and silence victims.
Despite his canned apology, there’s no evidence Alford truly grasps the errors of his time in Iowa City. Until he’s shown he does, he had no place in Bloomington.
In firing football coach Kevin Wilson this past fall for allegedly mistreating student-athletes, Indiana athletic director Fred Glass had some notable comments.
“What might be OK at other places, what might be OK in an industry, isn’t necessarily OK here,” Glass said, according to the Indy Star. “That doesn’t make me right or wrong, but I can tell you that I came at this earnestly and with the best interests of Indiana University at heart. I’ll tell you that I’m proud to be part of an institution that puts doing what it thinks is the right thing ahead of competitive success.”
I know I’m far from the only IU alum hoping Glass stays true to his word.