Originally created 01/24/02

Rape allegations were made public prematurely



ATHENS, Ga. - I never thought I'd be writing this column, but something happened at the University of Georgia last week that could only be published in Penthouse Forum.

The seedy details of a sexual encounter gone bad were released in an affidavit from a woman whose accusations of rape exposed three Bulldog athletes to suspension and the risk of criminal charges.

Suffice it to say, most of the details in the affidavit are way too explicit to print in a family newspaper. I can tell you that we now know that Tony Cole's sheets are allegedly blue and that the woman admitted he was a consensual partner. Beyond that, all I can really say is that none of the foursome's mothers are too proud.

But this is not about a girl and boys gone wild in the school dorm. This is not even about the behavior of Cole or fellow basketball player Steve Thomas or football player Brandon Williams.

This is about the danger of leaking information before all the facts are in. This is about publicly exposing three young men to embarrassment and criticism without justification.

And before everyone jumps up and blames the media, let's get it straight that the media aren't the villain here. The problem is the folks who should be responsible enough not to let spread gossip in the first place.

This is about the Richard Jewell syndrome. This is about somebody in a position of authority leaking information prematurely to the media. Once it's out of the bottle, there's no putting the cork back on.

"It's hard because their pictures are plastered all over the place," said Georgia basketball coach Jim Harrick, who has kept his team focused on an SEC title quest while teammates suffer through the ordeal. "It's been one of the toughest things I've ever been through in my life."

What Georgia did in suspending the players from participating in athletics had to be done. Once the information was leaked, the school couldn't act like nothing happened at all.

The Bulldogs basketball team has gone about its business as if it believes nothing happened at all. Wednesday's 81-67 victory over Arkansas on the heels of a stunning upset at Florida moved them atop the SEC East standings.

But that's not the point either. The point is, the accusations should never have been made public before anybody was charged with a crime. If these men weren't athletes, this incident would not be open to our review until any kind of crime is charged.

This is premature of even the notion of innocent until proven guilty - though what these young people apparently engaged in was far from innocent. We should at least wait until there's something to be proven guilty of, other than exercising incredibly poor judgment.

Whether any of the three men are charged with a crime or not, the allegation and public scrutiny won't just go away. Just ask Jewell, who was wrongly accused in the Olympic bombing in Atlanta in 1996. While Cole will not return to the team regardless of what the Athens-Clarke County district attorney decides to do, Thomas might have to endure the stares if he ever gets to don a Georgia uniform again.

"Life's made up of choices - some good and some not so good," Harrick said. "You are responsible for your actions. It's a bump in their lives, but they'll probably get over it."

Harrick hopes something can be learned from the entire sordid affair.

"It's a great lesson in life, albeit a very difficult one," he said.

You'll probably read all about it soon in Penthouse.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.