After running back Lance Smith was suspended for five road games this fall, questions were raised about the discipline policy within University of Wisconsin Athletics, and the school in general, regarding athletes.
Smith’s ultimate road suspension was out of UW head football coach Bret Bielema’s hands at the direction of the Offices of the Dean of Students, due to Smith’s alleged violation against his girlfriend, another UW student. Bielema has since sought to reestablish his control over team reprimands publicly.
"The one thing I wanted to establish in this program is ‘I’ll handle discipline on my own, very, very, well,’" Bielema told reporters this September. "I don’t need outside people coming in and determining what happens."
According to Athletic Board Chair Walter Dickey, student athletes have not only the team’s rules to adhere to, but also those established in the Student Athlete Discipline Policy — along with the University of Wisconsin System Chapter 17 and 18 misconduct policies.
Smith’s suspension, along with Bielema’s appeal to Dean of Students Lori Berquam, raised questions of the relationship between the two systems.
"[UWS 17 and the Athletic Department policy] are independent processes — Berquam was on the committee that drafted the discipline policy," Dickey said.
However, Dickey said the two entities, although working for the same educational goals, "need to relate to each other better than we have in the past."
Associate Dean of Students Kevin Helmkamp said his office runs independent investigations and judgments on "students as students," regardless of their status on athletic teams.
"The Athletic Department policy is handled through their department and is separate from what we do — they don’t ask us what we think," Helmkamp said. "It’s two very separate things, but on occasion work on the same incident. Our decision isn’t influenced by what they may or may not do."
Dickey said the UW Athletic Department follows a precedent setting policy in the Big Ten where it suspends athletes immediately upon word of a violation of its code.
"There are many schools that are now doing it, [and] the Big Ten commissioner complimented Wisconsin for what he thought as a very thoughtful and complete approach to this," Dickey said.
According to the policy, once the student is removed from competition a "prompt factual inquiry" is conducted to gather the facts of the case. At the conclusion of the investigation, a decision is made by the athletic director, chair of the athletic board, designated member of the athletic board and chancellor’s designee.
Dickey said the fact-finding portion of the policy was recently added, replacing the old policy where they were suspended until they decided to appeal.
"We don’t want to impede the prosecution, but we have an independent need to know," Dickey said.
When asked about the cases when athletes are reinstated to the squads immediately before competition, Dickey said it is done deliberately to give students the opportunity to defend themselves.
"If you punish somebody when you don’t have the facts and it turns out they weren’t deserving, then that’s unjust," Dickey said. "Therefore, if you don’t know, then some of us are inclined to err on the side of letting them participate until we know what actually happened."
If students violate UWS 17 or 18, the dean of students’ office conducts its investigation and decides what, if any, sanctions are handed down.
Helmkamp said the punishments include reprimand, denial of specific privileges, disciplinary probation, suspension or expulsion.
Included in the privilege denial is also the removal from the athletic teams, or any other student organization on campus.
"They are privileges rather than rights," Helmkamp said. "It’s important to hold students to high standards. We should expect it from students — our community demands it."
As ambassadors and visual symbols of the school, Chancellor John Wiley said athletes are justifiably held to a higher standard by the school and the community.
"They’re so visible and the consequences of this behavior are so serious," Wiley said in an interview with The Badger Herald. "There’s no inherent right to be a student athlete, so if you have the privilege of being on the team, it’s appropriate for us to set expectations on and off the field and have sanctions when those behaviors aren’t satisfactory."
Dickey also acknowledged an added pressure from the public eye for athletes, compared to weekly crimes committed by the average UW student.
With high-profile teams being nationally recognized, Dickey said it is a constant challenge to protect students from undue criticism from media and the community.
"People don’t realize these are young people who can be badly damaged and hurt by all the publicity," Dickey said. "It’s true that the high-profile teams tend to get more publicity, but I think we try to walk a line in which we’re at least responsive to public interest in knowing, but holding paramount the privacy of kids."
Helmkamp said he personally believes scrutiny of college athletes has grown out of control, and that ESPN is "the worst thing that’s happened in the last 25 years."
"ESPN has taken something that, at best, should be a pastime, and made it a 24-hour event," Helmkamp said. "These are students, they are students that make errors in judgment, and to have these errors vocalized is way overboard."
Although athletics provide a valuable addition to the college experience, Helmkamp said it is out of balance nationwide — in part due to the monumental and growing amount of money involved.
UW linebacker DeAndre Levy said when players step onto campus they’re under a bigger microscope and are aware that if they get into trouble the coaches and university will come down on them.
"Guys have to stay out of trouble. We have too much to lose, you have to keep it in the back of your head," Levy said. "I think a lot of guys realize what they have in front of them and try to stay out of trouble — a lot of guys realize the importance of them being on the field."
UW soccer team captain Nick Caronna said he feels he is held to a higher standard through the athletic policy.
"It is and it isn’t fair. It’s harsh because you can get arrested and get suspended until the case plays out, but at the same time everyone sees this as a privilege," Caronna said. "You just need to take extra care in what you do."
UW football defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said the team’s discipline policy, and the importance of avoiding negative situations, is something they address early in camp.
"They need to be a man about what they do and understand everything they do will be under the spotlight," Cooks said. "You need to tell them to make the most of their situations and tell them not to disappoint their family. If you can’t say your mom would approve it, then you should avoid it."
Caronna said the added pressure of being on the UW football team, though not as extreme with soccer, comes with the benefits of having a scholarship and making the team.
"There’s still is a bit of extra scrutiny, but that’s part of the territory. You know what you’re getting into," Caronna said.
Head soccer coach Jeff Rohrman said his athletes are aware of what they are getting into when they join the team, and he tells them, "You’re a soccer player 24/7, 12 months a year," and within the scrutiny of the community.
"I don’t know if we’ll ever protect the students enough, especially in Madison, but that’s what makes Madison great," Rohrman said. "They hold the athletes to a high standard, and there’s no way of getting around it."
With media and public scrutiny on coaches growing for off-the-field conduct, some wonder if the essence of "the game" is being changed.
Last week Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno was repeatedly asked at a press conference about player misconduct, driving him into a flustered outburst to reporters.
Rohrman said at UW the athletic policy takes the pressure off coaches to handle serious misconduct so they can focus the team on preparation for competition.
"With anything of a serious nature, it takes the responsibility off of us and lets us focus on the game and getting ready for the next opponent," Rohrman said.
Once a student athlete is being investigated, Dickey said coaches have little to no influence on the process besides providing background.
"We’ve turned to the coach to find out how the kid behaved generally," Dickey said. "There is a whole bunch of discipline handled by coaches only."
Helmkamp said their office takes coaches’ input into consideration just as they would any other individual providing information for their decision.
"We understand that sometimes coaches clearly have a desire to see their players succeed and this is difficult for them," Helmkamp said.
— Ben Voelkel contributed to this report.