KU’s hoops program facing questions after players’ legal troubles
LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger understands people may have questions about the legal issues surrounding the Jayhawks’ storied basketball program, an avalanche of off-the-court news that in recent weeks has cast a shadow over Allen Fieldhouse.
He also hopes people understand many of them cannot be discussed publicly.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Zenger maintained his confidence in Kansas coach Bill Self’s handling of the program and insisted the athletic department has “a very healthy” relationship with the university and local law enforcement.
“There are many legal and ethical reasons I can’t discuss anything that’s ongoing, primarily any investigations,” Zenger said. “All I can tell you is this university and this athletic department will forever be committed to its core values, and its priorities of all students, staff and guests.”
Still, the past few weeks have been dominated by headlines the Jayhawks could do without.
It began with news that police are investigating a reported rape at McCarthy Hall, the $12 million dormitory that houses the men’s basketball team and other students. No suspects have been identified in connection with the incident the night of Dec. 17. Five members of the team are listed as witnesses, but no charges have been filed.
During the investigation, police uncovered two glass smoking devices with residue inside. Sophomore forward Carlton Bragg Jr. was charged with misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia in that case and suspended, a punishment that was lifted this week when he was granted diversion. Bragg was also arrested in December following an altercation with a woman, but a charge of domestic violence was dropped when video evidence suggested he was acting in self-defense.
More bad news hit last week when The Kansas City Star reported sophomore guard Lagerald Vick may have struck a female student two years ago. The school’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access investigated the case and recommended he receive school probation.
Meanwhile, star freshman Josh Jackson and Vick have been linked to a vandalism investigation from an incident in December, when a vehicle sustained nearly $3,000 in damage outside a Lawrence bar.
Those are damaging cases individually. Taken collectively, the reports have overshadowed just about everything the third-ranked Jayhawks have accomplished on the court, from their win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena to their defeat of then-No. 2 Baylor to their season sweep of rival Kansas State. The team’s pursuit of a 13th Big 12 Conference title is alive and well.
“I can’t really speak to why or how that’s happened,” Zenger said of the cases stacking up. “All I can tell you is we have to stay focused on being true to our values.”
Yet the legal issues have put Self in a delicate situation.
On the one hand, he has to maintain order within a program that some critics argue already has gone rogue, where athletes who generate millions of dollars for the school often appear coddled or favored. On the other hand, his players deserve to be treated like anybody else accused of a crime or misconduct, and that means allowing any investigations to run their course.
“We don’t have anything to do with how the police does their job, nor would we interfere,” Self said. “I would tell you this, Carlton Bragg or your son or your daughter or anybody else who is a student here should be treated the exact same. I’m not running from that at all.”
That is also one of the main concerns of state Sen. Molly Baumgardner, an adjunct faculty member at Johnson County Community College. The Republican from the small town of Louisburg, just east of Lawrence, happens to be chairwoman of the state’s Senate Education Committee.
“I don’t care if they’re an English major or if they’re an education major or if they’re a student-athlete,” Baumgardner said, “there are certain codes of conduct, and the application of punishment for violation of code of conduct should be consistent.”
It’s hardly surprising the issues plaguing the Jayhawks have risen to the level of the legislature, given the visibility of the program and how much it reflects on the state nationally.
“I’m a little upset about what I’ve read,” said Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Republican from Bunker Hill, Kansas alum and avid Jayhawks basketball fan who also serves as the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “But obviously, we’ll see how everything plays out.”
Zenger said he speaks frequently with donors, many of whom have contributed millions to the program. He said nobody he has spoken with has expressed concern about the legal problems.
“I think our fans and donors, they’ve been around a long time,” he said. “They’ve followed this program a long time. They have a lot of faith in the university, in Coach Self and in doing things the right way. I believe everyone is being patient and thoughtful.”
Zenger also has no issue with Self operating as a de-facto school spokesman.
After all, the coach is the highest-paid employee of the university and the most visible. And it’s a burden the even-keeled Self has assumed before, whether during controversies that brought down football coach Mark Mangino or a messy ticket scandal that surfaced several years ago.
“We’re focused on basketball. That’s our job,” point guard Frank Mason III said. “We don’t focus on anything outside of that, besides school. Just let coach deal with all of that.”
There is hope around Lawrence that the cases will be resolved in the coming weeks, before the Jayhawks head to Kansas City for the Big 12 Tournament. And certainly before they are thrust onto the national stage of the NCAA Tournament, chasing their sixth national title and first since 2008.
But that remains out of Zenger’s hands, he insisted. All he can do is keep preaching patience.
“We just have to weather the time period when there may be incomplete or inaccurate public conversations,” he said, “We do that as you ought to in this country, to protect all the individuals, all the people, everyone involved in any investigations, or more broadly the investigative process.”