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Air Force Academy to remain silent on athletic department issues

October 21, 2014 Updated: October 21, 2014 at 12:50 pm
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photo - Air Force quarterback Kale Pearson celebrates with teammates after scoring during the first quarter against New Mexico Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014,  at Falcon Stadium on the Air Force Academy. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Air Force quarterback Kale Pearson celebrates with teammates after scoring during the first quarter against New Mexico Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014, at Falcon Stadium on the Air Force Academy. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

The Air Force Academy says leaders have said all they can about a review of the school's athletic department that came after a player misconduct scandal.

A spokesman, Lt. Col. Brus Vidal, says Air Force regulations mandate that the review, called an "inspection" in the service's language, be kept secret. Vidal said superintendent Lt. Gen Michelle Johnson went above and beyond last week by talking about the athletic review.

"She, as a commander, did not have to put out anything beyond the overall grade, but despite that we released information and provided additional context," Vidal wrote in an email.

The academy released a summary of the report Tuesday, a week after it was given to Johnson. That isn't quieting critics who say the academy, by not releasing an the full Inspector General's report on athletics, may be hiding problems that have led to athlete misconduct.

"It's a masterpiece of obfuscation," said Bob Goldich, who worked as a congressional researcher for three decades and studied athletic programs at military service academies.

"Calling it an inspection rather than an investigation and declining to give specifics of either the problem of the jock subculture or the actions taken to address it would not meet anyone's definition of transparency," said Eric Zurbrugg, a 1965 Air Force Academy graduate from Georgia.

"Tax dollars should equal transparency."

The two-month review of the academy's athletic department was ordered by Johnson amid a Gazette investigation into athlete misconduct and oversight of teams. The Gazette report showed athlete conduct issues included allegations that surfaced after a Dec. 2, 2011, party in Manitou Springs. A cadet confidential informant told agents of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations that cadets used drugged rum to incapacitate women for sex.

Those claims led to "Operation Gridiron," which resulted in the court-martial convictions of three athletes. Five other cadets received administrative punishment that resulted in their dismissal, a half-dozen cadets resigned and three were kicked out for unrelated misconduct. Johnson issued a statement shortly before the investigation was published in August that pledged transparency. Goldich says the general missed the mark with her statement on the Inspector General's review, which lacked detail.

"I don't think there is anything to be said about it, given the total lack of specifics," he said.

Johnson also has strong defenders. Colorado Springs U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn said she is handling the situation well.

"General Johnson seems to be striking an appropriate balance between transparency and the privacy necessary to conduct a full investigation," Lamborn said in a statement.

Colorado U.S. Sen. Mark Udall issued a similar statement of support for Johnson while saying the academy "should transparently face its past and take decisive action for the benefit of all current and future cadets."

The academy said the review gave the athletic department a passing grade of "effective." The meaning of that grade is under debate.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Wes Clark of Colorado Springs says the grade, in the middle of a scale where the top grades are "outstanding" and "highly effective", is still good. Grading scales are tough in the military and passing implies the ability to meet high standards, he said.

"These ratings imply a pretty good report card for the Academy Athletic Department," Clark said.

Retired Army Col. Dave Hughes of Colorado Springs, a distinguished graduate of the Military Academy at West Point, said a passing grade isn't good enough at a service academy.

"For a military academy, which is held up as the custodian of the highest qualities within a military Service - mission accomplishment, discipline, morale - to get an effective IG rating, three levels below the top rating, is poor indeed," Hughes said.

Vidal said the academy is working to move ahead. "What can we do to put the appropriate focus on the 99.5 percent of our faculty, staff and cadets who live honorably, meet standards and abide by our core values?" Vidal wrote.

But Marcia Fields, an academy observer in Colorado Springs, said the school needs to release the inspection report to move on.

"We don't want just their spin on it without actually seeing that report," she said.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

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