Facing pressure from an athlete advocacy group, the University of Illinois took a bold step seldom seen in the high-stakes world of big-time college sports: the school called for an independent investigation of itself.
The investigation became necessary following a flurry of damning, finger-pointing Tweets from former Fighting Illini offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic, who has accused Illinois coach Tim Beckman and his staff of withholding medical information, telling him his physical injuries were imaginary, and requesting that he stop taking his antidepressant medication. Cvijanovic's family also has alleged that Beckman mistreated Simon's younger brother, Peter, who suffers from diabetes and was taken off the team.
A four-year starter and team representative at Big Ten media days, Cvijanovic can't be dismissed—as college sports whistleblowers often are—as a whiny malcontent, disillusioned with his school and disgruntled over a lack of playing time. Moreover, other players have come forward alleging abuse. Former Illinois defensive back Nick North called Beckman "the worst coach I ever met," accusing Beckman of making him practice when he was injured; pressuring him to surrender his scholarship; and subjecting him to daily drug tests in order to "find something to kick me off the team." Another former Illinios player said Beckman made it hard for him to go home to see his cancer-stricken father, while athletes who played under Beckman at the University of Toledo claimed that he would routinely threaten to pull players' scholarships.
Confronted with so much smoke, Illinois had little choice but to act. But how? And for whose benefit? Initially, the Illini athletic department planned to review Cvijanovic's allegations in conjunction with the office of the school's chancellor—essentially, an internal review—despite the fact that athletic director Mike Thomas seemed to prejudge the outcome by stating that Beckman "always put the welfare [of Cvijanovic)]above everything else."
In response, the National College Players Association (NCPA), a California-based college athlete advocacy group, sent a letter to Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise calling for an independent investigation of the allegations, noting that:
- Thomas appeared biased toward Beckman and the school's coaches and medical staff;
- Asking players who may have been abused and/or witnessed abuse to cooperate with (read: snitch to) investigating athletic department and university officials is unreasonable, because they may fear retaliation;
- Media reports indicated that Thomas planned on keeping the results of the school's internal probe private.
The NCPA letter raised an important (if obvious) question: Why should Illinois be put in charge of an investigation into allegations that could damage the school's athletic reputation and/or cost it serious money? Would federal regulators allow a Wall Street investment bank to self-investigate accusations of financial crime?
"It's really difficult for students to go up against the university, even for college athletes," NCPA president Ramogi Huma told VICE Sports. "Simon used his social media microphone to make sure he did all he could to make sure that didn't happen.
"There's always an internal mechanism to keep things in house, and as a result, often times players never get justice."
Of course, it's not surprising that a closed internal investigation was Illinois's preferred solution. Self-probes are standard practice when things go sideways in the college sports industry. And that's a serious problem. On one hand, Illinois and other schools have every right to rifle through their own dirty laundry. (In fact, you could reasonably argue that they have a duty to do so). On the other, universities are historically awful at investigating themselves—in part because they seldom have the necessary training and experience; in part because there's no way to self-police without creating an enormous, unavoidable, and utterly corrosive conflict of interest.
Why would a university—especially one susceptible to a potential lawsuit from an injured or mistreated student—aggressively pursue every lead and overturn every rock, just to find itself and its employees guilty of wrongdoing? Particularly when they know they'll be the only entity to really look into the issues, and will never need to release their findings to the public?
To wit: The University of Montana and University of Missouri failed to properly investigate athletes who were accused of rape. The University of Notre Dame essentially led a smear campaign against a girl who committed suicide after alleging that she had been raped by a football player. Cases like these are why schools are required by federal law to report sexual assaults to the proper authorities in the actual criminal justice system.
The trouble with internal investigations goes beyond sex crimes. The University of Notre Dame concluded that mistakes made in "good faith" killed one of its football video staff members during practice. The University North Carolina used an internal investigation into academic fraud not to get to the bottom of a massive cheating scandal, but as a way to stave off the NCAA.
Of all the problems in college sports, the biggest one is a power imbalance between institutions and individual athletes. Schools and coaches have the power to mistreat players by using scholarships as collateral. The industry as a whole can use its power to collude and not pay its labor. Illinois has the power to investigate itself, clear its employees of any wrongdoing, and allow any possible abuse to continue, knowing very well that it will be difficult for future players to speak out—not when they see how the system works, with the benefit of the doubt going to universities instead of the students they are tasked with protecting.
Unsurprisingly, self-empowerment—and defense—is one of the reasons Northwestern University football players pushed for unionization last year through the College Athlete Players Association (CAPA), and Cvijanovic has been tweeting support for the idea:
According to Huma, Cvijanovic reached out to him before sharing his story on Twitter. However, the former player currently is only working with Huma's advocacy group, the NCPA, and not the Northwestern-based union that currently is awaiting the outcome of a federal appeal by the school.
For now, Huma said, there is no effort to unionize Illinois players. Which isn't to say that future efforts won't happen, both at Illinois and elsewhere. Under the current power imbalance, schools like Illinois don't really have to answer to players like Cvijanovic. They only have to answer to themselves, which essentially means that athlete abuse only takes place when schools say it takes place.
"It's definitely not isolated," Huma said. "Having said that, I don't know how rampant it is. If some players are being abused, you can have other players who have no idea that that's taking place. But I don't know at what rate. It's almost impossible to say what percentage of coaches force players to play injured or threaten them with taking their scholarships away."
Worth noting: The firm Illinois hired to investigate Cvijanovic's claims prides itself on being "a powerful advocate for employers and a formidable adversary to unions." Power seldom yields without a fight. Perhaps Beckman really did put Cvijanovic's welfare "above everything else." Maybe the other players speaking out simply have axes to grind. Or maybe not. Whatever the truth happens to be, Illinois shouldn't be trusted to suss it out. Not unilaterally.