IOWA CITY — University of Iowa officials should have acted sooner after learning star running back Marcus Coker was under investigation for sexual assault to either clear him if he was innocent or discipline him if there was evidence, an attorney familiar with the school's checkered handling of such cases said Thursday.
Attorney Roxanne Conlin of Des Moines said school officials must explain what actions they took after they learned a woman named Coker in an assault complaint Oct. 28, given missteps in the past decade involving other assault allegations against Iowa athletes.
"Innocent until proven guilty is still the law of the land, but you need to conduct an immediate investigation and the university needs to determine whether or not he did in fact rape somebody. And if he did, he shouldn't be playing football," Conlin said.
The Iowa City Police Department formally closed its investigation into the case last week without filing charges. Authorities say they decided not to charge Coker in late November or early December after it became clear the woman did not want to pursue the matter. At that point, they shared their investigative findings with university officials who were conducting their own disciplinary investigation.
Iowa City Police Lt. Doug Hart said the university was told about the Coker investigation the day before Iowa played Minnesota on Oct. 29. Coker played the final five games of the regular season, but was suspended for unspecified misconduct Dec. 20 before the Insight Bowl. The university announced Tuesday he'd asked for a release from his scholarship and dropped out of classes this semester so that he could transfer.
Coker, the second-leading rusher in the Big Ten Conference with 1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns, has made no public comments on the situation. Neither have top university officials.
University vice president for strategic communications Tysen Kendig said the school was editing Coker out of a promotional video that featured him and a handful of other students as success stories. The video, often played for groups of university supporters, touted Coker's success on the football field and his academic prowess in his double majors of physics and astronomy.
Kendig and other university officials argue that a federal law protecting students' privacy prohibits them from describing how they responded to news of the police report. The Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees the school and asked for a review of sexual assault policies after the scandal at Penn State, also has no comment, a spokeswoman said.
Bill Hines, a law professor who chairs an advisory committee that helps oversee the athletics department, said he learned of the Coker matter by reading the newspaper and knows nothing more.
Conlin, who has represented several women over the years who claim they were sexually assaulted by Iowa athletes, said the university's response has been inadequate.
"Things have not gone well in the past. The ball has been dropped, to use a football analogy, so many times that they need to be out making public statements that explain what they've done or what they have failed to do," she said. "It's very frustrating."
In 2002, Conlin acted as a mediator to resolve a felony charge alleging that Iowa basketball standout Pierre Pierce had performed unwanted sex acts on a woman. She helped broker a deal in which Pierce pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault but was allowed to rejoin the team after sitting a year out.
The leniency sparked protests on campus. And Pierce was arrested during the 2005 season on charges that he broke into the home of a former girlfriend, falsely imprisoned and then assaulted her. He served 11 months in prison.
"It turned out to be a horrible thing. It turned out that he was a serial offender. I would never do that again," Conlin says.
The Coker case comes three years after the parents of a female athlete who was assaulted by two football players in a dorm room accused university officials of being insensitive to her and trying to keep the case quiet. Two players were convicted of assault while a third transferred. The dean of students and the school's top lawyer were fired for what President Sally Mason called an inadequate response, and both of them continue to sue for wrongful termination.
University officials say they have made a number of changes since then, including hiring Monique DiCarlo as a sexual misconduct response coordinator to help victims navigate the university bureaucracy. It was not clear whether DiCarlo, who has not responded to a message seeking comment, played a role in the Coker case.