Scandal 'embarrassing' to university, says Fehlberg

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PROVO - Casting a long shadow over Brigham Young University, LDS Church leaders are embarrassed over the latest allegations of sexual assault involving football players, a former BYU athletic administrator said.

"They always pay attention," said Rondo Fehlberg, the predecessor to Val Hale as athletic director. "They're very involved in everything we did and we do. Good, bad or indifferent, they're always involved."

Fehlberg said the church's general authorities understand that BYU sports can be a powerful missionary tool. BYU's football program, nationally acclaimed over the last 30 years, has generated an enormous amount of positive publicity for the religion.

On the flip side, two alleged incidents of sexual assault this year have shed negative light. News media outlets around the country last week reported the most recent allegation, most likely noting the LDS Church owns BYU.

"I'm not even there anymore and it's embarrassing to me personally," Fehlberg said. "I feel a very real sense of responsibility."

Working in the private sector since 1999, after heading BYU's athletic department for five years, Fehlberg believes the feeling extends to every LDS member, even those without a BYU affiliation.

"You can't separate BYU from the church," Fehlberg said.

Apparently, his thought process has at least some merit.

Joe Woodland of Salt Lake City agrees with Fehlberg. A 20-year football season-ticket holder, the BYU graduate admits his frustration.

"Wins and losses - whatever, but this stuff that's going on right now, it's not really a right or wrong thing, it's just flat-out embarrassing," he said. "It's kind of hard to be a BYU fan right now, and it has nothing to do with wins and losses. It's this stuff, because we're supposed to behave ourself at a higher standard."

Added Justin Su'a, 21, a BYU baseball player: "It's a shame; it looks bad to all associated. It really deteriorates the school as a whole.''

Fehlberg said coach Gary Crowton and Hale share the sick feeling. He spoke with both of them last week.

"There was no question in my mind that Gary does take it seriously and personally," Fehlberg said.

The news surfaced last week that Provo police are investigating a 17-year-old girl's allegation that several BYU football players raped her after the group drank alcohol and viewed a pornographic video at an Aug. 8 party in an apartment leased to two players. Under orders from the university, players and coaches are not allowed to discuss the situation.

Crowton continues to meet with beat reporters after each practice and will only talk football. The Cougars begin the season Sept. 4 at home against Notre Dame.

University officials considered suspending the accused players but have not taken any action as of Saturday. Sources indicate the players have pledged their innocence to Crowton and Hale.

Even if the sexual assault allegations are false, those involved could face action from the school's honor code office. In a similar situation last winter, a BYU female athlete initially claimed she was raped by football players and then later admitted the sex was consensual.

One month later, the school suspended four players and put two on probation. An additional two players were dismissed in May after being charged with robbery, assault and making a false statement to police.

If the players connected to the recent incident did state their innocence to Crowton and Hale, said Fehlberg, it is either great news or a disaster.

"If there's anything the honor code doesn't like - and this will come down like a ton of bricks on a kid for it - it's when they're lied to," he said.

During Fehlberg's stint as athletic director, the honor code office suspended a few players. He has confidence officials will reach the proper conclusion in the latest case.

He also disputed claims that BYU can't compete in Division I athletics with the stringent standards. There are many athletes, regardless of religion, that want the discipline BYU requires, he said.

"When I left I was even more convinced than before I came that we can do it," Fehlberg said. "There's a place for us in big-time athletics."

Tribune staff writer Jillian Doria contributed to this report.