CU president says slur toward woman was once 'term of endearment'

Updated: June 15, 2004, 11:50 PM ET
Associated Press

DENVER -- The University of Colorado president was criticized Tuesday for refusing to condemn a vulgar anatomical reference allegedly used to describe a female football player who says she was raped by a teammate.

University President Betsy Hoffman's comments in a federal court case sparked a fresh storm of protest surrounding Colorado's flagship school. Women's groups and a member of the Board of Regents said they were appalled by what they called Hoffman's lack of sensitivity.

The comment came during a deposition given this month in a lawsuit filed by three women who say they were sexually assaulted by football athletes in 2001.

One of the women's attorneys told Hoffman the vulgar term had been used by a football player against teammate Katie Hnida. The attorney asked Hoffman whether she thought the term was "a filthy and vile word."

Hoffman replied it was a "swear word" and that its meaning depended on the circumstances in which it was used, according to a copy of the deposition released by the school.

Asked if it could ever be used in a polite context, Hoffman replied: "Yes, I've actually heard it used as a term of endearment."

Hoffman defended her answer Tuesday in a meeting with Durango Herald reporters and editors, but said she should have phrased it differently.

"I was immediately sorry I said it," she said.

Hoffman began to cry at one point in the discussion at the Herald and left the room briefly to compose herself, the newspaper reported.

University spokeswoman Michele Ames said Hoffman knows the word has "negative connotations" but it did not in its original use centuries ago.

"Because she is a medieval scholar, she is also aware of the long history of the word dating back to at least Chaucer," Ames said. English writer Geoffrey Chaucer lived in the late 1300s and used the word in "The Canterbury Tales."

Hoffman was in "an extremely adversarial deposition," Ames said. In the transcript, a university attorney accused the plaintiff's lawyer of yelling at Hoffman while questioning her. A second plaintiff's lawyer denied the allegation.

The comments recalled football coach Gary Barnett's ill-fated description of Hnida in February after she told Sports Illustrated she had been raped by a teammate in 2000.

Barnett called Hnida an "awful" player as he answered questions from reporters about her time on the team. He was suspended shortly afterward by Hoffman, who said his comments about Hnida and another woman accusing an athlete of rape had left her stunned.

Regent Jim Martin called Hoffman's comments "more outrageous" because they were made under oath by the university's top leader.

"I'm embarrassed for the university, I'm embarrassed for her and, quite frankly, it shocks the sense of human decency," Martin said. "She needs to give an immediate apology ... talk about an ivory tower approach to management."

He added: "We're getting glimpses of the way the university does business, of the way the university administrators think."

Hoffman had consistently drawn praise from regents and others university observers during the recruiting scandal, which included allegations that football athletes assaulted nine women during boozed-up parties. No criminal charges have ever been filed, but the school made sweeping changes to its athletics program.

Nine women met behind closed doors with Gov. Bill Owens for an hour Tuesday, urging him to pressure Colorado to take more steps to protect women. They said Hoffman's comments are proof the school is insensitive.

"We're very disappointed," said JoAnne Belknap, a sociology professor who met with Owens.

Claudia Bayliff, who runs a Boulder rape crisis center, said the school has made no attempt to train employees outside the football program on how to deal with sexual harassment and violence.

"As the father of a young woman who attends college here in Colorado, I understand and share many of their concerns," Owens said in a prepared statement after the meeting. "I believe we share a common goal that a college campus should be a safe, non-threatening environment."

Owens has little power over the university, which is governed by the elected regents. He said he told the women the school has been making progress in dealing with the scandal, but some issues remain under investigation by the attorney general.

It was another deposition that plunged the school into scandal earlier this year. Boulder County District Attorney Mary Keenan accused the school of using sex and alcohol to entice recruits to the Boulder campus.

An independent commission appointed by the regents concluded some players used sex and alcohol to entertain recruits, but no coach or school official knowingly sanctioned the practice.

Still pending are the federal lawsuits that accuse Colorado of failing to protect women under federal Title IX law, which guarantees equal access to an education. The suits seek unspecified damages.

A statewide grand jury has also been hearing testimony from athletes and a former recruiting aide accused of paying $2,000 to an escort service. The aide, Nathan Maxcey, has said any sexual liaisons were for him.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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