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HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — Whether in college or the pros, athletes are revered nationwide; their training, dedication and discipline widely praised, their performance often earning some pros millions of dollars.
But away from the spotlight, there’s a dark side to the world of sports.
During her freshman year at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, a female student learned just how dangerous that could be.
In January 2013, she decided to stay the night in a friend’s dorm room after a night of drinking. Later that night, she said a stranger woke her up. The man told her that it wasn’t safe there, she said, and that she had to leave. Disoriented and groggy, she left with him.
“It was really scary,” she said. “The whole thing was terrifying, and I hope it never happens to anybody else.”
Her compact frame began to tremble when she was asked what happened next. A little over two years since the incident, the woman, speaking to “America Tonight” on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, still struggles to describe some details from that night.
“It was awful,” she said. Once in his room, she said, the man proceeded to kiss and grope her before raping her.
“I just kept saying, ‘Who are you? Who are you? Like, who are you?’” she said. “The word ‘no’ never even crossed my mind. It was just, ‘Who are you, and what the heck are you doing?’”
The man, she would later find out, was Lasse Uusivirta, a standout hockey player at the school.
Then, she said, something unexpected happened. She received a call from the campus police sergeant overseeing the investigation, who explained that Uusivirta confessed to raping her.
Relieved he confessed, she believed her case would be open and shut. But things didn’t end there.
After an investigation, the school’s student conduct board recommended taking away Uusivirta’s scholarship and expelling him immediately. But because he appealed the decision, he was allowed to remain on campus. Worse, she said, was running into him between classes.
“He looked at me like he just absolutely hated me,” she said. “The look in his eyes was terrifying.”
During the appeal, Uusivirta was also allowed to play out the rest of the season for the hockey team. He never missed a game.
Then on March 21, 2013, she received an email informing her that the university’s associate provost, Brent Wren, had overturned the expulsion. Uusivirta would instead face suspension and potentially be allowed to return to campus in less than six months.
She immediately went to the dean of students’ office and then to Wren, seeking an explanation. “I walked in and I just started crying,” she said. “I said, ‘Tell me why this doesn’t matter.’”
She said she asked Wren what Uusivirta said in his appeal that contributed to the expulsion’s being overturned, but Wren wouldn’t tell her. “He said, ‘I’m just going to tell you that I’m following precedent and that the only thing that we’ve ever expelled someone from this university for is academic misconduct,’” she said. “I said to him, ‘Well, thank God you got the cheaters off the streets.’”
‘I just kept saying, ‘Who are you? Who are you? Like, who are you?’ The word ‘no’ never even crossed my mind. It was just, ‘Who are you, and what the heck are you doing?’’
The overruling left her incensed and wondering how a student could get away with a violent crime he confessed to committing.
“There was no question of what happened because there’s two sides of the story,” the woman said. “There’s usually three sides — his, hers and the truth. But our sides pretty much hit together at the point that matters.”
Not satisfied with the school’s final decision, she went to the local magistrate. Uusivirta was then arrested and charged with first-degree rape. But he fled the country, returning to his native Finland, and avoided an indictment. He continues to play hockey.
The woman has since filed a federal Title IX lawsuit against the university, two administrators and a campus police officer. It claims that the university delayed and then reduced punishment for her attacker.
“I want to make sure that it doesn’t happen to anybody again and that they can’t do that to people ever again,” she said, attributing some of her luck in filing the suit to knowing the right people. “Had I been just a regular college kid that didn’t know anybody … it would have all just been swept under the rug. No one would have ever known anything about it, and that’s not right.”
Athletes are ‘the kings’
Jeff Benedict, a writer for Sports Illustrated and the author of “The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football,” said the reasons many accusers don’t come forward are magnified when the accused is “the most famous guy on campus.”
“Now, you also have to be aware that, because of who you’re accusing, you might be on ESPN, your Twitter feed is going to blow up,” he said. “People on campus are going to hate you because you’re hurting the team.”
Benedict was the lead researcher of one of the few studies on student-athletes and violence against women in the 1990s. The data found that while student-athletes made up roughly 3 percent of the male student population on campuses, they were responsible for 19 percent of the reported incidents of violence against women on those campuses.
“Athletes are … different on campus. They’re the kings,” he said. “It’s why it’s not surprising to me that there are as many cases as there are. What surprises me is there’s not more.”
According to campus police records, UAH police never reported the rape to Huntsville Police or the Madison County district attorney.
University officials denied giving Uusivirta special treatment. In a statement issued to “America Tonight,” they said, “The university defendants are contending that they responded to plaintiff Doe’s complaint in an expeditious and reasonable manner, as called for by its policies and applicable law.”
After Uusivirta’s arrest, Kurt Kleinendorst, UAH’s hockey coach, tweeted a cryptic note, seemingly offering his support for the player.
Things are not always as they seem. Be careful to judge.
Kathy Redmond Brown knows this dynamic all too well. In 1995 she filed the first sexual-assault-related Title IX lawsuit, alleging that the University of Nebraska mishandled her allegation of rape by former football player Christian Peter, a charge he denies.
As the founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, she now works with both athletes and victims to change the culture of sports. She said the current culture of rabid sports fandom nationwide is making it harder to improve these matters.
“For many people, this is a religion,” Redmond Brown said. “So to call out some of their teams is like you’re personally attacking them.”
Finding the strength
A number of recent high-profile cases around the country have underscored the charge that athletes get special treatment.
Florida State’s Jameis Winston, a Heisman Trophy winner and national champion, was cleared of sexual assault charges from 2012 despite questions about whether the university and local police did their due diligence. In response to a Title IX suit, the U.S. Department of Education is investigating the school’s handling of the case.
The department is also investigating the University of Oregon’s handling of a 2014 gang rape of a student by three male basketball players. All of them were allowed to finish the season. They were ultimately found guilty, and at least one is now playing ball at another school.
Jamil Cooks, a cadet and football player at the Air Force Academy, was found guilty of sexual assault in April 2013. He transferred to Alcorn State University, where he’s also playing ball without consequence. In a statement given to America Tonight, Jamil Cooks’ lawyer maintained his client’s innocence and his right to attend Alcorn State.
“Alcorn State determined Jamil should be given an opportunity to attend their University and he has been a positive student athlete there since enrolling," he wrote. "That is a success story that should be applauded rather than being blindly or politically ridiculed.”
‘For many people, this is a religion. So to call out some of their teams is like you’re personally attacking them.’
Kathy Redmond Brown
National Coalition Against Violent Athletes
Benedict said at the core of these cases is the fact that these are talented student-athletes who are able to contribute to their teams on the field.
“The reason coaches can’t resist the temptation sometimes to give them a so-called second chance is because they’re really good athletes,” Benedict said. “You don’t give second chances to guys who are going to sit on the bench and not play. You give second chances to guys who can help you win.”
We wanted to talk to the NCAA about why it has no sanctions for its players found guilty of sexual assault. The NCAA wouldn’t sit down with “America Tonight” for an interview, but we caught up with NCAA President Mark Emmert at his annual press conference during the men’s Final Four in Indianapolis earlier this month.
“So when a student, whether they’re a student-athlete or not, is engaged in behavior that’s inconsistent with the values of that university, then every university and college has a set of protocols for handling disciplinary matters,” Emmert said on April 2. “So the members of the association, all the universities, have decided that those decisions first and foremost must be handled by the institutions themselves. If it’s a criminal offense, then by the legal system of that state.”
Redmond Brown said the NCAA’s responsibility on matters involving sexual assault cases is not up to Emmert alone. It is also up to all the college presidents, many of whom have Title IX lawsuits filed against their schools.
“What would be the reasoning for them to put anything on the books if this is something directly affecting their universities?” Redmond Brown asked.
In Huntsville, the woman in the Uusivirta case said she finds strength in knowing she’s right. She said she understands a lot of people in her situation might not be able to find that strength.
“One day, you just have to say, ‘It wasn’t your fault. You’re not a victim.’ You have to be a survivor, I guess, for a lack of a better term,” she said. “I mean, it’s pretty much like having someone break into your home and beat you up, except for when people beat you up, people believe you.”