When an Elmhurst, Ill., police officer rolled up on a red Honda Civic around 2 a.m. early in June 2012, she shined her spotlight in the car's backseat and captured Spiro Lempesis, the former baseball coach at Concordia University-Chicago, with a frail teenage boy, his sweatshirt hood pulled tightly around his face. The coach had tucked his car, its windows now heavily fogged, in the back of a Korean church's parking lot. His blue Fruit of the Loom boxers lay behind the passenger seat.
Lempesis told police he was counseling the teenager about colleges, suggesting the two first met at a baseball camp. He mentioned providing the 5-foot-9, 128-pound youngster private baseball lessons, though the teenager told police he wasn't on a team. According to the police report, the teenager later said he and the coach had been engaged in oral sex in the car and had carried on a sexual relationship for more than a month.
The allegation led to the coach being arrested on suspicion of aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving a minor. Ultimately, Lempesis, 47, walked free of charges after it was determined the 16-year-old had misled the coach about his age.
As this scene played out in the Chicago suburb, NCAA president Mark Emmert and key advisers in Indianapolis were preparing to learn the fate of another former college coach: Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, whose trial for sexually abusing at least 10 boys was about to begin. Sandusky, of course, would be convicted amid immense media attention. A damning investigation -- the Freeh report -- into how Penn State handled the Sandusky saga would be released the next month. The report prompted Emmert to put himself into the spotlight and announce unprecedented sanctions -- enacted a year ago Tuesday -- that many people believe came just short of shutting down the Nittany Lions' once model football program: a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban, scholarship losses and the vacating of wins.
NCAA officials could say they were appalled and even shocked by what transpired at Penn State. Not so much when it came to Concordia and its former coach.
Two years prior, when Lempesis was still Concordia's coach, top NCAA enforcement officials were informed by the university of alleged inappropriate sexual conduct on his part involving at least one of his college athletes -- as well as potential NCAA rules violations -- but were content with the school's prompt firing of Lempesis and walked away without ever investigating, "Outside the Lines" has found.
The "Outside the Lines" investigation of the Concordia issue is not about comparing sex scandals involving university athletic programs -- the Sandusky case is incomparable, after all -- rather, it provides an example of what has led to fans' and university administrators' angst and confusion about the state of the NCAA enforcement process, about the mixed signals of what rises to a potential violation and what triggers an investigation. Consider the findings:
• Concordia self-reported suspected violations to the NCAA.
• Allegations of on-campus sexual impropriety did not draw the interest of the NCAA, which was satisfied enough with the school's prompt firing of the coach and the fact that no minors were involved.
• The NCAA did not pursue the matter, despite a blatant failure to adhere to the association's Principles of Student-Athlete Well-Being: providing a safe environment for student-athletes, fostering a positive coach-athlete relationship, and coaches exhibiting fairness and honesty with athletes.
• There was no law enforcement or NCAA investigation despite initial allegations the coach boasted of selling videos filmed in his office to a friend in the porn industry in California. A video collection was found in his office after he was fired.
• Campus security did not ask the River Forest Police Department to investigate, but rather sought the counsel of a deputy chief who was a Concordia graduate and former campus security staffer.
The scandal at Penn State was headline news for the NCAA. The situation at Concordia, a private Lutheran university of almost 1,500 undergraduates, never registered.
Videos paid for equipment, team travel
Anthony Collaro, a right-handed pitcher who graduated from Concordia in 2011, told "Outside the Lines" that Lempesis approached him at the end of his freshman year with a proposition to perform in porn videos in exchange for paying off baseball-related debts such as equipment and travel, and a promise that the coach would ensure pro scouts would take notice of him as a player. He said the coach told him, "I have a guy in the porn industry in California. If you help me do this and do this for me and help me make extra money on the side, you'll make some, too."
Given that Collaro's dream was to get drafted by a pro team, his coach's access to scouts was the real draw, he said.
Over the next year or so, Collaro estimates he participated in "between 20 and 25" on-campus video shoots in the coach's Geiseman Gym office. "He would put a sign on his office saying: 'Filming session in progress, please do not disturb,'" Collaro said. Behind the closed door, Collaro said he performed individual sex acts recorded by the coach. Collaro, an all-conference pitcher, said he called it quits when the coach told him his porn friend "wanted to watch him have sex with me."
According to Collaro, the coach's porn operation was exposed after a teammate, upset about being approached by Lempesis to participate, told an assistant coach. Shortly after, in September 2010, Collaro said he told the dean of students, during an interview in the president's office, everything, including allegations of a handful of potential NCAA violations. All of it was passed along on to NCAA investigators by the school: the free pitching lessons received on campus while in high school; the coach forgiving debt incurred for equipment and team trips to Arizona in turn for his video performance; and the coach running Concordia baseball finances through two separate accounts, including one outside the control of the university, the type of financial operation that routinely gets the attention of investigators.
Collaro said school officials didn't offer him counseling or provide any information other than that they planned on firing Lempesis.
"Spiro told me he had other people in the past make money doing this," Collaro said. "He helped them get ahead in their careers and everything. … Basically, he would say, 'OK, well, I'm getting $700 from [the video]. You owe me X amount of dollars. So I am going to keep $600, and here is $100 for spending money.' I'd have to turn around and give the money right back to pay off my debt."
Lempesis told "Outside the Lines" that he made a "huge mistake in judgment," but broke no laws or NCAA rules.
"There were no NCAA violations, per se, that would be worth noting at Division III," the coach said. "Was there a videotape that was made between two consenting adults in a relationship? That there was, yes. Was there something that was being sold for profit? Absolutely not. That never happened and that was a joke."
When Lempesis was fired, he left campus with the most coaching victories in school history. His last team was nationally ranked after posting a 31-9 record, its third straight season of 30-plus victories. These days, he is bitter about the way the school cast him aside in 2010 without even an offer of counseling. And he's guarded about any comparison to Sandusky or Penn State.
"I'm not going to get in a discussion about Penn State and my situation," he told "Outside the Lines." "It is not even in the same universe."
Neither the coach nor Collaro has ever heard from NCAA investigators, though, and with good reason: A decision was made not to open a case or investigate, despite the school itself having acknowledged possible rules violations to NCAA investigators. "My recollection was that they came to us and we looked at it in terms of whether there were NCAA violations that occurred," said David Price, then the NCAA's vice president of enforcement. "And I came to the conclusion that there were no NCAA violations, though it was a very unsavory case. We took no action."
Mixed messages from Emmert and the NCAA
Concordia passed its findings to the NCAA in November 2010 -- a month before Price retired. His top assistant then and eventual replacement, Julie Roe Lach, who was fired this year after overseeing a bungled University of Miami investigation that ran afoul of the NCAA's own procedures, declined comment when reached by "Outside the Lines."
One agency known to have at least sniffed around the edges, however, is the FBI. An agent interviewed someone familiar with the case as recently as last fall, "Outside the Lines" has learned.
Price said he doesn't recall seeking input on the Concordia case from top NCAA officials. Mark Emmert had been announced as the new president in April 2010, though Jim Isch continued as acting president until Emmert assumed full-time duties in November -- just as the NCAA was learning about Concordia. As for why student-athletes allegedly receiving extra benefits -- be it cash or forgiveness of a debt -- for appearing in pornographic videos wouldn't constitute a violation worthy of at least examination, Price said, pausing: "I don't know if you would have an extra benefit if there were actually a job performed. I hate to say it that way, but that is true."
Emmert and his chief spokesman, Bob Williams, told "Outside the Lines" last week they were now familiar with the Concordia allegations. Asked what the NCAA did upon becoming aware, Emmert said, "I'm not -- I'm not going to talk about a case that is still ongoing. ... I'm not going to talk about that specific case." When asked about the NCAA's lack of interest in Concordia, particularly in light of his very public role in the action taken against Penn State, Emmert repeatedly fell back on the case being "ongoing."
His characterization is surprising because NCAA enforcement notified the university in late 2010 that it was not investigating the case, and there had been no indication of a reversal until Emmert and Williams were interviewed by "Outside the Lines" last week at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Nor have any key potential sources been interviewed by the NCAA.
Even if Emmert and Williams are correct in their assertions there is an ongoing case, acknowledging so would be against NCAA enforcement bylaws that prohibit staff from confirming or denying the existence of an infractions case, unless the institution itself comments publicly. It would be similar to Emmert's violating the so-called "confidentiality" rule with public comments he made early in the controversial University of Miami investigation. He also came under criticism during the Penn State saga when the NCAA posted a letter on its website acknowledging its investigation there. Asked to clarify on Friday what Williams and Emmert meant in their repeated citations of an ongoing case in regard to Concordia, an NCAA spokeswoman said it's policy for the NCAA not to comment on "potential cases." She declined to clarify whether there is an ongoing case or a potential one.
Ex-enforcement staffers: No violations at Penn State
As college sports fans know well by now, even if there isn't a clear violation of the NCAA rule book to be found, top leadership previously demonstrated a willingness to bypass normal judicial procedures in acting against Penn State. The actions have left some college sports administrators wondering at what point the NCAA will weigh in on other matters of criminal or moral behavior. What about an athlete or coach charged with a crime? What about a coach caught abusing a player?
In the case of Concordia, along with the possible violations reported by the school, it's also possible Concordia officials failed to adequately address at least three principles of student-athlete well-being as defined in the NCAA rulebook -- similar to the "fundamental values" in the constitution cited by Emmert in the Penn State decision. The NCAA still saw no reason to investigate. And yet, not long after, leadership jumped into the Penn State fracas and Emmert, as president, would hop on a media tour to justify the unprecedented action.
A year after the Penn State sanctions, the action by Emmert and top NCAA leadership remains polarizing within the college athletics community, with many believing it was a miscalculation -- if not a power grab -- to not allow Penn State to go through the normal channels of an enforcement investigation followed by the opportunity to have its day in front of the infractions committee, which acts as jury in handing out penalties.
Among those is former NCAA president Cedric Dempsey, saying of the Penn State process: "I was concerned about the role of the executive branch [Emmert]. I'm talking about the executive committee [key university presidents] as well. That they signed off on that without the involvement of the judiciary process, I was concerned about that. I still am concerned about when they will step in and when they will not step in."
At least seven former enforcement directors or staffers told "Outside the Lines" that as horrific and egregious as the Penn State facts were, they still believe there was no violation of NCAA rules -- unlike what Concordia itself reported to the NCAA. Some describe the situation as largely Emmert acting boldly against a vulnerable, weakened institution that couldn't fight back against a public outcry in the wake of child sexual abuse allegations.
A former NCAA enforcement director suggested of the Penn State and Concordia cases, "Penn State, you can be the hero. You can look good. With Concordia, it is a Division III school. Who cares? One was high-profile, and you went after Penn State with guns blazing for their failure to be moral. Why is Concordia different?
"Both are failures of running a moral institution. They may not be NCAA violations, but they certainly are failure of morality and the high expectations that you have for being an individual involved in intercollegiate athletics. … And if the [Concordia] coach is providing them with baseball gloves and he doesn't make them pay for the gloves, I think that is a violation. It is not a big violation, but it is a violation."
Concordia called one of its own to look into matter
When the university learned in September 2010 of Lempesis' indiscretions on its campus with at least one player, officials suspended and then fired the coach within days. Officials closed ranks. Players and school administrators were advised not to talk about the incident or the reasons behind the coach's sudden dismissal.
Even now, at least four top university officials, as well as the outside counsel retained to assist the university in 2010, refused to be interviewed for this story.
University President John F. Johnson, a Lutheran minister who is stepping down next month from Concordia, failed to respond to multiple messages left with his office. Finally reached at home and asked if he might shed light on the situation, Johnson said, "No, I wouldn't have any comment," before hanging up.
The university's first public acknowledgement of a problem involving Lempesis -- though he was referred to only as the former head baseball coach -- came in letters Johnson penned to students and the "university community" on Oct. 24, almost five months after the coach's arrest last summer. Revealed in the letter was that the university had retained former assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins to independently review its handling of Lempesis' alleged sexual misconduct in 2010.
In February, Johnson wrote again to advise that Collins had completed his investigation. Few details were offered, other than Johnson writing, "Of particular importance, I wanted to let you know that the University has not identified any minors involved in the suspected sexual misconduct."
Collins did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.
Nor did the River Forest Police Department shed much light. A public records request revealed there was no investigation conducted nor police report filed in 2010. Instead, "Outside the Lines" discovered that someone in campus security called a friend in the River Forest department -- then Deputy Chief Craig Rutz, a former security officer at Concordia and Class of 1973 graduate -- for advice.
"Basically what it came down to was I am a graduate of Concordia and I know the people there, so I felt pretty free to speak openly," said Rutz, who retired in January. "And I asked direct questions. And the story I got was first of all both people involved were over 21 years old. Nobody was making a complaint or anything. ... They were calling primarily because they wanted to find out if there was a violation of law and whether they had any obligation, or if there was anything they should do about the situation."
Rutz didn't see a reason to investigate, though he says now Concordia didn't mention the coach bragging, whether true or not, of having a friend in the porn industry who was buying his videos. Nor was he told the school had discovered dozens of videos in Lempesis' office. NCAA investigators never contacted Rutz, either. He said the FBI interviewed him on the phone last fall.
"They were the ones that really gave me the most information about it," Rutz said. "And the agent told me the same thing I was [later] hearing from people at Concordia. That initially when we were contacted there was no real information of a crime, but they believed that there was a lot more involved. That it involved more than one jurisdiction. There is a lot of things." A spokesperson for the FBI office in Chicago said no charges had been filed against Lempesis, and declined to say whether there was even an investigation.
'It's just senseless'
Whether there is a criminal case or not, the Concordia story threatens to linger. Collaro, the former player, filed a civil lawsuit in May against the university and his former coach, alleging fraud and breach of contract -- though the suit does not mention extra benefits provided by the coach. Collaro alleged that Lempesis told him that at least two former Concordia players had performed sex acts on video for him, and that the coach boasted of having played a hand in their procuring pro baseball contracts.
Collaro, who married last year and is co-owner of a pet supply business, said the coach promised to promote his pro baseball aspirations in turn for performing in the sex videos.
The lawsuit specifically mentions that Lempesis falsely claimed to be promoting him with scouts from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Rays and Philadelphia Phillies. He is critical of how both the school and the NCAA handled the case.
"They took no blame for it," Collaro said of Concordia officials. "[Lempesis] took no blame for it. It was like they didn't even give a s--- what was going on. It was like, 'Oh, another student and whatever -- let's sweep it under the rug, and let's get on with it.' The NCAA should have done a bigger investigation on the school. It's just senseless. How can you let someone like that end up in charge of molding young men's lives? How can you let that happen?"