The Air Force Academy’s athletic program will get an ombudsman to deal with complaints and a new system for cadets to anonymously report concerns after an independent review of the program that stemmed from two hazing incidents since late 2016.
Cases are pending against a pair of cadets on the academy’s swimming team after freshmen complained about a hazing ritual that included eating to the point of sickness and a rite that involved naked upperclassmen and threatened — but phony — demands for oral sex. Another incident involved the school’s men’s lacrosse team. Details of that case haven’t been released, but the team’s head coach left the school in the wake of an investigation.
The review, by North Carolina consulting firm Collegiate Sports Associates, found the academy had strong programs in place to instill military values and prevent sexual assault. But confused lines of communication and a rigid command structure allowed misconduct, the report found.
“There is no documented alternative for reporting outside the chain-of-command for unacceptable behavior that resides within the hierarchy,” the report said.
In a written statement from Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, the academy said it is moving quickly to address the issues found in the report.
“While we are heartened by the review stating that our program is in many ways ‘a model for NCAA programs with high standards for behavior and performance and specific training protocols for developing future leaders,’ we also have opportunities to improve our culture and climate, and we are committed to implementing programs to address these areas,” Silveria said.
In addition to the ombudsman and anonymous reporting system, the academy also is reinforcing its athletic code of conduct, which will be taught to coaches and teams.
“Our mission at the United States Air Force Academy is drastically different than other civilian universities,” Silveria said. “We train, educate and inspire leaders of character — leaders of Airmen — who will directly contribute to our nation’s security.”
The review follows a criminal investigation that led to the first court-martial charges for hazing in the history of the school. The court-martial proceedings have yet to proceed to evidence hearings, a necessary step to determine whether the cases will head to trial.
Former Academy Athletic Director Jim Knowlton ordered the review before he departed the school last spring. The academy announced last month that it hired Nathan Pine, who led the athletic department at Holy Cross University, to the post. He’s the academy’s first athletic director who hasn’t served in uniform.
More than 1,000 of the academy’s 4,000 cadets are in intercollegiate sports, making the athletic department one of the most influential at the school. Yet the athletic program has had a series of misconduct issues over the past decade that have prompted repeated changes as leaders sought to shore up programs to prevent bad behavior.
Knowlton’s hiring in 2015 coincided with an academy push to eliminate what former Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson called toxic subcultures in sports programs.
A 2014 Gazette investigation found that academy athletes had engaged in a pattern of misconduct that included drug abuse, sexual assault and cheating in class.
Knowlton and Johnson were credited with cleaning up most of the misconduct, but hazing emerged as a new issue.
The investigation found that milder hazing rituals had existed on academy teams for decades but over time grew extreme.
“What once may have been acceptable ‘initiation’ behavior has evolved over time to be inappropriate or hazing,” the report found. “Often these activities are built into the lore of a program and passed-on from each class by upper-class cadets who had recently gone through the same ritual.”
The report also found that the academy needs to keep a closer eye on coaches, who operate with a great deal of autonomy.
“In many ways, coaches are the most influential Academy figures in the lives of cadet-athletes,” the report found. “Yet, there is no formal training or certification to be a Division I coach regarding all aspects of their roles and responsibilities.”
Silveria pledged that the school will continue its work to stamp out misconduct in sports.
“Given the importance of this mission, we must be dedicated to ensuring the very highest standards across our entire organization,” Silveria said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240 Twitter: @xroederx