Analysis Law and Policy

Lawsuit: University of Colorado Boulder Protects Football Money Over Abuse Survivors

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A lawsuit filed in federal court demands University of Colorado Boulder officials and coaching staff answer for allegedly protecting a football coach over the safety of his partner.

In December 2016, Pamela Fine was desperate. Her then-romantic partner, a member of the University of Colorado Boulder football coaching staff, Joe Tumpkin, had been viciously abusing her to the point that she feared for her safety and others’. She thought he needed help dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues, but she didn’t want to get authorities involved. Assuming his closest friends and colleagues would feel the same way, she reached out to other members of the university’s football coaching staff.

But as it turned out, the only thing they were interested in was protecting was the CU football program, and the potential personal and professional economic windfall the upcoming Alamo Bowl would return.

These are all the allegations filed in a lawsuit Wednesday by Fine, whose attorney argues not just that Tumpkin abused her, but that the university and its football coaching leadership, having been informed about the alleged abuse, put the football program above their legal obligations.

Fine’s complaint names Tumpkin; head men’s football coach Mike MacIntyre; Athletic Director Rick George; Chancellor Philip DiStefano; and President Bruce Benson as defendants. All of these individuals, the lawsuit alleges, knew about illegal conduct, failed to observe policies for responding to it, and actively tried to cover it up.

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The lawsuit does not name as defends the university or its board of regents directly because, according to the complaint, Colorado immunity laws prevent them from being sued directly for their role in the Tumpkin case.

“On December 9, 2016, when I reached out to Coach MacIntyre, it was out of fear for Joe, myself, other women, the players, and the community of Boulder because Joe had become very dangerous to himself and others,” Fine said in a statement following the filing of the lawsuit. “I didn’t want to publicly hurt Joe, the coaching staff and their wives, and all the Colorado football players who had worked so hard to get to their first bowl game. I wanted to protect my abuser and the people around him. I finally picked up the phone to tell my truth to a trusted leader whom I believed would help Joe,” said Fine.

Once Tumpkin’s bosses knew of the abuse allegations, they had a legal obligation to—at a minimum—report those allegations to the university’s Title IX coordinator. They also should have taken appropriate action like contacting law enforcement, given the liability to the university Tumpkin’s alleged violence and substance abuse posed and the nature of Fine’s allegations. Fine’s lawsuit is, in effect, a negligence and personal injury claim noting their failure to do so.

The lawsuit claims individuals like MacIntyre, the head coach of the university’s men’s football team, owe Fine a basic duty of care to make sure that at a minimum, one of their employees was not a danger to others or himself. MacIntyre was the person Fine says she reached out to directly via cell phone and Facebook to get Tumpkin help. According to the complaint, one call lasted at least 30 minutes.

He would, according to the complaint, eventually block Fine’s number from his cell phone without telling her. Fine alleges she sent numerous messages asking for help for Tumpkin without knowing MacIntyre had no interest in receiving them. 

Instead, MacIntyre contacted outside counsel who had previously defended multiple Colorado student athletes accused of Title IX violations, including those involving sexual assault. According to the complaint, MacIntyre then reached out to Tumpkin directly to let him know about Fine’s allegations.

Around December 12 or 13, 2016, Fine says MacIntyre gave Tumpkin the contact information for Jon Banashek, an additional attorney. The complaint characterizes Banashek as “a University booster and an attorney who routinely represents University student-athletes in legal matters involving violence, sexual assaults, and narcotics and alcohol-related violations.”

Fine, however, had not yet reported any abuse to law enforcement. She was still trying to seek help for Tumpkin.

According to the complaint, on December 13, Baneshek called Fine directly, offering her money to obtain post-traumatic stress disorder therapy and promising her an apology from Tumpkin. Banashek also asked Fine if she would notify him beforehand if she decided to report Tumpkin’s abuse to law enforcement. This behavior, if true, is ethically questionable at best: Banashek would have been testing the waters to see if Tumpkin and the university could buy Fine’s silence.

Fine alleges that Tumpkin’s lawyer called her again two days later to tell her “she had ‘a lot of people on pins and needles'” about whether she was going to report Tumpkin’s abuse to law enforcement. She says Banashek specifically identified Tumpkin, MacIntyre, and George as those people who wanted to resolve the matter without Fine going to police.

Meanwhile, the university was also hard at work apparently covering its tracks. By December 11, George had informed CU Boulder Chancellor DiStefano about the details of Fine’s allegations, according to the complaint. But, the complaint says, George failed to report the situation to anyone else, including the university’s Title IX coordinator.

And by Chancellor DiStefano’s own admission to the press and investigators, neither did he.

DiStefano, it turns out, sits on the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Board of Governors and serves on the committee that recently released the league’s newly adopted sexual violence policy. This policy directs just the kind of action DiStefano allegedly failed to take in Fine’s case; based on timing, it should have been discussed while the university was handling the Tumpkin allegations.

According to the complaint, about a week after MacIntyre learned of Tumpkin’s abuse of Fine, he, with the help of George, promoted Tumpkin to the role of defensive coordinator for the university’s Alamo Bowl Game. The complaint notes that a victory in the Bowl Game would have meant a lot of money to members of the athletic department and that it would have helped MacIntyre secure the Coach of the Year Award.

On December 19, Fine reported Tumpkin’s abuse to the Broomfield Police Department. On December 20, she sought and obtained a temporary restraining order.

According to the complaint, the athletic department knew of the protective order that same day. That order was made permanent in January.

Meanwhile, Chancellor DiStefano eventually did take some action. According to the complaint, sometime during the week of December 16, DiStefano informed University President Benson “about the issues raised by Tumpkin’s abuse” of Fine. Benson, who had to at least sign off on Tumpkin’s promotion, went ahead with it anyway. Then on December 28, the complaint says DiStefano informed university counsel Patrick O’Rourke about Tumpkin. Fine alleges that O’Rourke “did not address the situation or take responsibility for assuring that the University’s Title IX Coordinator and law enforcement authorities were addressing the issue properly or that Plaintiff and others in the University community were protected from Tumpkin.”

“O’Rourke did, however, discuss with DiStefano the fact that MacIntyre and George were considering permanently promoting Tumpkin and extending his contract,” the complaint continues.

On December 29, the Buffalos would lose the Alamo Bowl 38-8 to the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

According to Fine’s complaint, it wasn’t until January—and after Boulder’s newspaper the Daily Camera reached out to the university to react to Fine’s temporary protective order—that officials acted in any real capacity. On January 6, officials placed Tumpkin on temporary administrative leave. Nearly three weeks later, they asked for his resignation, reportedly including severance pay. Tumpkin was never actually fired.

On January 31, the Broomfield Police Department charged Tumpkin with five counts of felony assault, including assault with a deadly weapon, for his physical abuse of Fine. The Broomfield District Attorney’s office declined to comment to Rewire, citing the ongoing nature of the case.

The University of Colorado History of Title IX Non-Compliance

The University of Colorado Boulder has a long, troubled history with complying with Title IX, especially with regard to leaders of its collegiate football program. Fine’s case, while not a Title IX claim directly, suggests that the university prioritizes itself over rectifying a dangerous environment for women.

In 2002 the university faced a series of lawsuits alleging the administration failed to respond to sexual assault claims by students. Shortly after, Katie Hnida, the only woman to play on the University of Colorado Buffs football team, came forward with her own rape story and detailed the administration’s unwillingness to deal with what was very clearly an ingrained assault problem on campus. In response, then-head coach Gary Barnett told reporters that the problem really was that Hnida wasn’t any good at football.

The university’s response to those comments was to put Barnett on a short administrative leave before firing him. In 2015, he was hired back into the Buffalos program as a game announcer.

Just before that, the university was placed under federal investigation for failing to adequately address the series of Title IX claims it continued to face. In 2015, around the time of Barnett’s re-hire and two years into the investigation, Chancellor Philip DiStefano declared the University was doing “a very good job” handling the Title IX claims against it.

The federal investigation into CU’s Title IX response remains ongoing

Meanwhile, Fine’s case directly demands that a court decide whether university officials and coaching staff failed to meet basic standards of doing their jobs by waiting to act on their Tumpkin knowledge, due to the financial incentive NCAA bowl games bring universities. That financial incentive connection adds a new element to the ingrained culture of abuse that CU has allegedly allowed to fester. It also forces an answer to the question of which matters most to university officials like DiStefano—abuse survivors or the university’s football program.

Under the spotlight, the university eventually hired outside counsel in February to investigate the chronic and systemic failures in Fine’s case. And the report issued found plenty of fault.

But as in 2015, the institution doesn’t appear interested in taking any real responsibility for the kind of environment it promotes on campus and within its staff. 

MacIntyre, George, and DiStefano received letters of reprimand from the university as well as directives to issue reforms and training on sexual misconduct, intimate partner violence, and their reporting requirements. Chancellor DiStefano agreed to take ten days of unpaid leave, and the university agreed to donate the salary that he otherwise would have earned during that period to “programs supporting victims of domestic or dating violence in the university community.” MacIntyre and George were both told to make a $100,000 donation to the same cause.

In January, MacIntyre signed a $16.5 million contract extension to continue as the university’s head football coach through the 2021 season.

According to the complaint, Benson was not held responsible for any inaction.

The university has not yet responded legally to Fine’s civil lawsuit. When asked for comment, university representative Ken McConnellogue replied via email, “The claims in the lawsuit are not well founded factually or legally and we will defend our employees aggressively.”

At this point, if Fine’s allegations are proven true, it seems that the university has little choice other than to clean house of any rot within its ranks.

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