GLENDALE, Ariz. — It takes a lot to get to the Final Four. Talented players, of course. Mental toughness. A few breaks along the way.
And in the case of Oregon’s Dana Altman, a willingness to put wins ahead of what’s right.
The pinnacle of Altman’s career has brought renewed scrutiny to his handling of an alleged sexual assault by three of his players in March 2014. No matter how blase Altman tries to sound about it, there’s no way to see it as anything other than calculated callousness.
Altman allowed two of his players, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis, to play in the NCAA tournament, despite knowing they were being investigated by police. The third player, Brandon Austin, was redshirting after transferring from Providence — a transfer prompted by sexual-assault allegations against him and another Friars player just a few months earlier.
No surprise, Altman and Oregon conveniently found ways to explain away all of the ugliness. They said the Eugene police had asked them to delay discipline until the investigation was complete. Altman had no idea — None! — that Austin was facing allegations in Providence.
“I’m comfortable with the way we handled it,” Altman said. “It was three years ago but, in retrospect, everything was handled correctly.”
If by handled correctly he means it ensured that Oregon wouldn’t be embarrassed on the national stage as he was trying to rebuild the program, sure. But there’s no way to view what he did objectively and not be appalled.
Other schools manage to discipline players all the time without interfering in investigations, often hiding it behind the purposely vague “violation of unspecified team rules.” Creighton, where Altman coached before going to Oregon, suspended Maurice Watson Jr. in February after he was accused of sexual assault. Florida did the same with quarterback Treon Harris in October 2014, pending an investigation into sexual-battery allegations against him.
Even Baylor, not exactly the moral compass of college athletics, suspended Sam Ukwuachu while he was being investigated for rape.
The Office of Civil Rights specifically addressed this issue in its “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011 — three years before the Oregon incident, mind you. Yes, there might be times when criminal investigations take precedence, the OCR said, but it doesn’t give schools an excuse to sit idly by.
And it certainly doesn’t mean they should give out free passes to play basketball, football or whatever other activity it is that will bring fame and fortune to the university.
As for Austin, Altman’s claim simply defies reality. There are few, if any, secrets in the insulated world of college basketball, particularly when you’ve been immersed in it for as long as Altman has. If he didn’t know about Austin’s checkered past in Providence, it’s because he didn’t want to.
“Everything that I did in that situation was with the advice of the university. I didn’t make any decisions. The university was involved in everything,” Altman said Friday. “So I think if we were ever in the situation again, I look to my athletic director and the people above me to make any decisions.”
Coaches love to talk about how they are as much teachers as they are coaches. How it’s just as important, if not more so, to instill values and life lessons as Xs and Os.
“I have a great deal of respect for [Altman] and the way he coaches,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Friday. “He’s a family guy. He appreciates the right things and good things about college athletics.”
Except that when Altman was presented with the opportunity to do the right thing in 2014, he chose expedience over integrity.
None of the players were ever charged in the alleged assault, with prosecutors citing the conflicting statements of the accuser and the players. But after the graphic police report was released, Dotson, Artis and Austin were all kicked off the team.
“It was very clear to us,” Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said at the time, “that those were individuals we didn’t want representing our organization.”
There were many at the time who thought the same of Altman. But here he is three years later, having taken the Ducks to their first Final Four since 1939, proof that winning can excuse all manner of sins.
Follow me on Twitter @nrarmour.