There's an old college cheer: "Lean to the left, lean to the right, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight!" For former Montana Democratic Congressman Pat Williams, it seemed that no matter which way he leaned, he found himself smack in the middle of a controversy, one that had been building on the University of Montana campus in Missoula for several years.
Blame The New York Times for starting the flap. In February, the paper asked Williams what he thought about the rash of alleged crimes attributed to some college football players. He replied, "We've had sex assaults, vandalism, beatings by football players. The university has recruited thugs for its football team, and this thuggery has got to stop."
Whatever the truth of that opinion, Williams apparently forgot that football is one of the most sacred of sacred cows in Montana, and his comment immediately raised the hackles of supporters of the wildly popular Grizzly team. Williams was accused of giving the university a black eye, and a petition circulated online demanding that Gov. Steve Bullock remove him from the Board of Regents. Williams had been appointed by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer during the biennial Legislature's off year in 2012.
It probably didn't help matters that Williams' comment was published while yet another trial was under way - this one to determine whether the team's star quarterback was guilty of rape. He was later acquitted of the charges and reinstated to his position on the team, though trial testimony pointed to, at best, less-than-gentlemanly behavior on the part of the gridiron hero.
Williams' straight shooting actually began shortly after he was appointed to the Regents board, as he told The New York Times: "I'm very sorrowful one of the premier universities in the Rockies has been scandalized by a few knuckleheaded students."
At the time, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Education were all investigating the university's handling of student crimes. National attention was focused on the community's apparent tendency to sweep athletic stars' misdeeds under the rug, and some online comments at the time chastised Williams for being too soft on the perpetrators.
At a hearing conducted by the state Senate's Montana Education and Cultural Resources Committee this past March, Williams sought to clarify his "thuggery" comments by saying the Times only asked for his opinion on some football players - not all of them. He was referring, he said, to those who had already been convicted of various crimes, including rape, assault, vandalism and robbery.
But the committee members were not mollified, and passed the confirmation decision to the entire Senate without their recommendation. Williams sent a letter to all the senators, apologizing for not anticipating that his remarks would be taken out of context by the Times reporter and for not realizing that they would be published during an ongoing rape trial in Missoula. And though he had widespread support, the criticism of Williams also continued strong.
On April 4, Senate members voted 26-23 against confirming Williams to the Regents board. Since then, reaction to his rejection has been heated, ranging from support for his ouster on the grounds that he's been "divisive," to fierce anger at his punishment: "It just goes to show you that if you criticize the criminal thugs on the sacred football team, their apologists and enablers will do what it takes to destroy you."
In any event, the brouhaha has led to the removal of a highly qualified advocate for the quality and integrity of Montana's university system.
Meanwhile, investigations continue into how the Missoula community and university administration have handled the alleged crimes of student athletes. One former football player has pleaded guilty to rape, and another has been charged with viciously assaulting a convenience store clerk with a baseball bat. The head football coach and the athletic director have been fired. The university has resorted to television advertising touting students' academic accomplishments in an attempt to focus attention away from the unsavory details broadcast by the news media.
The University of Montana's situation, however, is hardly unique. Talented student athletes are often allowed to get away with bad behavior - even during their high school years - and some never learn the hard lesson of accepting responsibility for their actions. Fans are also reluctant to jeopardize the success of their teams by setting high moral standards for the best players. Pat Williams, by recognizing the danger of this approach, paid dearly for speaking the truth.
His parting words were: "I also hope that this vote will not chill the voices of all administrators from speaking clearly about obvious excesses of much of college football and the criminality of some players."
Wendy Beye is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Roundup, Montana.