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Sex, Lies, Coercion: Athletic Director Greg Byrne and an Arizona track & field lawsuit

Hopefully a sexually-charged lawsuit in Arizona does not embroil Greg Byrne and Alabama

NCAA Football: Northern Arizona at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The allegations begin horribly...

Craig Carter would not stop threatening Baillie Gibson: over email, over text and over the phone. He threatened to rape her, and he threatened to kill her. "If the cops are called it won't matter," he'd texted her. "I will pull my gun on them so they kill me but not before I let every f---ing person that you know what you have done to me."

On the morning of April 21, 2015, Carter parked his car outside Gibson's house.

For nearly three years, Carter, a track coach at the University of Arizona, and Gibson, one of his athletes, had met secretly for sex -- inside Carter's school office, in the Wildcats' track and field team room and while traveling in team hotels. Gibson, who competed in discus and throwing events, says that Carter forced her into the relationship with blackmail and threats.

And it doesn’t get better from there: manipulation, armed violence, stalking, sexual assault, abuse of authority — many things about the Craig Carter story appears to be morally and legally reprehensible, even if it was consensual.

However, what should be a criminal, civil and administrative matter in far-away Tucson has the potential to ensnare —- even derail, new Alabama athletic director, Greg Byrne. ESPN’s Outside the Line feature, Track and Fear: A University of Arizona coach threatened one of his athletes with blackmail, violence and death. Could the school have stopped him, is the first of many hard looks (and undoubtedly some unwarranted shots) about to make their way to Tuscaloosa.

The relationship at issue began sexually; she says coercively, he says consensually.

On their last night in Eugene, Gibson and her teammates attended a house party, where she drank heavily. Gibson says Carter had always instructed team members to contact him if they had been drinking and needed a ride, so Gibson, 20 years old at the time, called him for a lift back to the hotel.

"I remember getting in the car, and then I don't remember really what else happened," Gibson says.

The next morning, Gibson says Carter showed her pictures he had taken on his phone of her naked and engaging in sexual acts with him in his car.

The relationship endures for three years

Carter has denied sexually assaulting and blackmailing Gibson. Carter said that what happened that night was consensual and, in court documents, maintains that Gibson began the encounter.

What follows next is in dispute: The interludes continued for almost a month when Gibson says she wanted to break it off, but was again blackmailed into continuing to meet for sex. She alleges that he threatened to show the photos to her friends, family and others; and, to her even worse, he threatened to pull her scholarship.

Whatever happened between the two, it affected both her demeanor and her performance, even to the point of her coach recognizing something was amiss. And, of course, the facts get murky. The relationship continued for years, and it is not disputed that she sent him sexually charged photos and texts, as well as affectionate texts affirming a romantic relationship. Then again, there are threatening, coercive and abusive messages from him to her. The story of coercion or a bad relationship-turned-worse, depending on your view, and how the facts eventually play out, ends with Craig threatening her physically and threatening to kill himself. (You can finish the OTL story for the denouement to this depressing tale.)

Arizona administration becomes aware of the relationship

For purposes relevant to the University of Alabama, that it happened is not as significant as why it continued, who knew what and when, and how Arizona responded. Whether couched as consensual or not, the NCAA has a model code (one apparently adopted to some degree by Arizona) on sexual relationships between coaches and student-athletes:

The NCAA considers the power differential between college coaches and their athletes so great that the organization has said there should never be sexual or romantic relationships between them. In April 2012, just a few months before the night of the party in Eugene, the NCAA published a model policy on the issue, intended as a template for schools to adopt. According to the policy, even consensual coach-athlete relationships "constitute sexual abuse."

"There's no balance of power, there's power one way, which is the coach has all the power and the athlete does not * * * He has her scholarship, her ability to continue her education."

Then, in 2013, one of the T&F staff knocked on Carter’s door. He was slow to answer, and when he did so, he was disheveled and Gibson was on the office sofa. The staff member became suspicious and reported the incident to higher-ups in the Arizona administration.

It was based upon these facts that the suspected relationship came to the attention of Athletic Director Greg Byrne. After meeting with university attorneys to obtain legal advice, he arranged a meeting with Carter and head coach Fred Harvey. At the meeting, Byrne was instructed by Arizona counsel to say the following:

"Coach, we need to speak to you about some troubling information we have received that relates to you. ... We have received reports of information that may indicate you are having or had a romantic or sexual relationship with a student athlete on the team."

"What will Baillie tell us if we talk to her about what you have said?"

According to Byrne's notes, Carter responded, "I can imagine people speculating because we have been alone together, talked a lot, I'm not denying that." His denial resulted in Byrne meeting with Arizona’s Office of Equal Opportunity / Title IX Compliance, who then opened an investigation and approached Baillie Gibson.

Ms. Gibson never returned any communication from investigators.

Insinuations will arise

It is here where the insinuation begins from ESPN. OTL states

“For those at the meeting, that response [the denial] appears not to have raised any further serious questions....In November of 2013, nobody from the University of Arizona ever spoke in person with Baillie Gibson about a suspected inappropriate relationship with Carter. Not Greg Byrne. Not Fred Harvey. Not anybody from the athletic department.”

"The failure of them to talk to her at all, it goes against common sense," says Scott Lewis, a partner with the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a legal and consulting firm that specializes in Title IX cases involving sexual assault and harassment. "I think it certainly speaks to a lack of thoroughness."

From that point onward, the relationship continued, though there were no reports of contact between the two, nor did an investigation continue. Having heard no response from Gibson, the matter lie dormant. It is uncertain what other investigative steps EOE/TIX undertook.

Following a particularly violent episode from Carter towards Gibson, police and coaching staff became involved. Following a 911 call, again the AD and University were alerted. Having knowledge of the relationship and his subsequent behavior, Carter was suspended pending a full internal investigation by the university. Meanwhile, Carter was investigated by the police and was indicted on four felony counts. At this point, he was terminated.

Going forward

But, here’s the rub: we do not know what the athletic department’s investigative role is in suspected relationships involving students. We do know that the University had a blanket ban against such contact and that doing so was a firable offense. We do know that Byrne contacted University counsel for advice along every step of the way, and then referred the matter to the University’s investigative arm. Ms. Gibson never returned any correspondence or telephone calls from the Title IX/EOE office conducting the investigation.

As the University has responded:

"As soon as the student athlete informed us of Carter's actions, we immediately turned that information over to law enforcement and suspended him. University staff then worked with the student and her advocate on accommodations for her education and well-being. Based on the information it received, the athletics department began the termination process against Carter, who resigned his position during that process.

"The UA athletics staff were shocked and horrified when they were informed of Carter's actions towards a valued member of the Track and Field family. The University and the athletics department condemn his behavior and the impact it had on the student."

The operative word there is student-athlete. It was only upon actual knowledge that the university could and did act. As a state actor, the school owes certain obligations to safeguard the liberty interests of a student. But, conveniently ignored is that the same school as a state actor also owes due process and protection of the liberty interests of its employees. Arizona can nor more willy-nilly suspend an employee upon mere suspicion than it can remove a student based upon mere suspicion.

From all outward appearances, internal processes were followed: Byrne sought advice of university counsel; Carter was confronted; investigations were opened. Having no concrete evidence and no cooperation by a potential complainant, Arizona was constrained a good deal. Only upon actual evidence (or a hell of a lot more circumstantial evidence than one suspicious complaint) could it act, and then it did so immediately.

Could the coaching staff and athletic department have approached the student directly and began its own ad hoc investigation? One supposes...assuming that investigation is even set forth in Arizona’s policies and procedures manual. But, the purpose of a school’s EOE / Title IX arm is to investigate precisely these sorts of matters, ones involving protected classes and personnel violations. They are trained and equipped to do so while protecting the rights of all involved and following university procedure and applicable law: this is not a situation for amateurs.

In short, Greg Byrne (and Alabama) will soon be asked “some difficult questions” that aren’t so difficult at all -- the law and internal procedure were followed. If there was bad or insufficient advice given, it was by university lawyers. And that’s a big damned if. This is not Baylor, where there is active collusion by coaches and administrators to keep facts from being known or dissuading students from reporting violations. Nor is it Tennessee, where the administration and coaching staff are far too cozy with police and can cut off complaints before they become manifest.

This was the law, and it sometimes isn’t enough to satisfy what seems to be commonsense.

But, what are the odds that becomes the narrative?