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Documents show NMSU culture problems extend beyond men’s basketball

Documents show NMSU culture problems extend beyond men's basketball

New Mexico State University officials have insisted that culture problems in their athletic department were isolated to men’s basketball, but documents obtained by ESPN show an official for the women’s team was found to have sexually harassed a student in the past year, and they reflect at least three other ongoing Title IX investigations involving incidents in the arena that houses athletic offices and an apparent lack of scrutiny in officials’ hiring practices.

All of that is in addition to recent allegations that a former football coach physically abused players under the threat of taking away their scholarships.

NMSU athletics have been under scrutiny since forward Mike Peake shot and killed a University of New Mexico student in what police called self-defense last November. Another investigation followed in February, when a men’s basketball player accused his teammates of a monthslong hazing campaign.

Head coach Greg Heiar was fired Feb. 14 after less than a year on the job, and the rest of the men’s basketball season was canceled, but questions linger about both incidents.

The university declined to allow ESPN to interview any school or athletic department officials for this story. School leaders haven’t publicly discussed the situation since mid-February, when then-chancellor Dan Arvizu and athletic director Mario Moccia emphasized that the problems in basketball were not pervasive.

“We have looked and done an expansive review of our programs and everything that I have learned is that our men’s basketball program has been infected — with bad culture, bad behavior,” Arvizu told reporters. “[But] this culture of bad behavior is contained in our men’s basketball, it is not elsewhere.”

However, school records obtained by ESPN under open records laws show that a Title IX investigator took less than a week last year to find that George Ross Jr., the director of operations for women’s basketball, had sexually harassed a student who was working in his office.

The student, who worked as a janitor at the arena, said in her complaint that Ross generally got to his office around 6 a.m., when the building was empty of witnesses. In July 2022, she was vacuuming his office when he asked if she wanted to hang out and began “pushing” to take her out for a beer, according to documents.

The student said she tried to deflect and eventually left to clean a different office, but he followed her there and stood in the doorway, the documents say.

She said Ross told her, “Don’t forget what I said,” then asked three or four more times for a date, according to the documents. The woman felt threatened and told a co-worker what happened, and that person took the story to the Title IX office on July 14.

In a follow-up letter, Title IX deputy coordinator Annamarie DeLovato wrote that Ross described the interaction as well-intended “small talk.” In her finding of responsibility, DeLovato gave Ross a warning and, four days after opening the case, issued a no-contact order that barred him from interacting with the student.

Notes from the case file indicate an unidentified person interviewed in the case said Ross’ behavior should prevent him from coaching or being around other women.

But even as DeLovato forbade Ross from speaking to the student and forced him to review basic staff conduct rules, she wrote in her report that the action didn’t rise to the level of violating NMSU’s nondiscrimination policy. That policy specifies that a single act of harassment is serious enough to be considered a violation, and includes harassment that’s both “unwelcome” and “of a sexual nature.”

Ross continues in his job with the women’s team. He did not respond to efforts by ESPN to reach him directly by email and phone.

Gaylene Fasenko, chairperson of the school’s faculty senate, said the allegation and that Ross was not disciplined beyond the warning was “concerning.”

The faculty senate has a hand in writing the administrative rules and is constantly reevaluating them, Fasenko said, but she would not say whether the body is discussing any changes to the disciplinary standards cited by DeLovato.

NMSU’s Title IX office is investigating three other complaints of sexual harassment or abuse stemming from reported incidents at the address for Pan American Center, which houses the basketball arena and athletic department offices, according to documents. The school declined to release any details on the incidents to ESPN, including whether they involve athletes or athletic department staff, because the cases are ongoing.

As recently as March 2020, the department dealt with another investigation, this one into then-head football coach Doug Martin. A complaint to the state attorney general alleged that Martin made players, even injured ones, practice in dangerous conditions by threatening to revoke their scholarships.

Martin denied the allegation, and the school cleared him of wrongdoing, but his contract was not renewed after the 2021 season.

Heiar’s tenure was marred by trouble even before the Peake shooting. The first incident, involving one of his earliest hires, came to light before the 2022-23 season started.

After being hired by Heiar in June, defensive analyst Edmond Pryor was arrested in early August at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport upon returning from a team trip. Pryor resigned from New Mexico State on Aug. 22.

According to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, Pryor had been fired from a coaching job at a Chicago community college in 2019 after “suspicious documents,” including fake university transcripts, were found on his work computer.

Pryor was accused of forging documents to help accused criminals expand the range of their electronic monitoring anklets or get charges improperly dropped, according to the sheriff’s office and the district attorney.

According to New Mexico State records, Pryor listed “other” as his reason for leaving his job in Chicago and gave the school permission to contact past supervisors.

In an interview, Pryor told ESPN that NMSU never brought up the investigation or the circumstances surrounding his departure. The forgery case against him is still pending, according to court records.

“You know, just because there are allegations against a person … doesn’t mean that person is guilty,” Pryor told ESPN in reference to both his case and the NMSU hazing allegations, which he said he has continued to follow.

The November shooting was preceded by an Oct. 15 scuffle in which at least one member of the men’s basketball team got involved in a fight with students from the University of New Mexico during a football game at NMSU. Video of the scuffle showed Peake on the edges of the skirmish before a police officer separated the handful of people involved.

There’s no record that Las Cruces or campus police investigated the brawl, and authorities noted months later that they were still unsure of who started the fight or what it was about.

About a month later, NMSU traveled to Albuquerque to play New Mexico in men’s basketball. The night before the game, Peake snuck out of the team’s downtown hotel after curfew to meet a woman, according to state police records. Peake was confronted by 19-year-old Brandon Travis, with whom he’d fought in November, and two other men. Peake and Travis exchanged gunfire, and Travis was killed, police said. Peake fled and met up with teammates who also snuck out, according to records.

The ensuing investigation raised more questions than answers about NMSU’s team management, starting with how Peake and other players snuck out unnoticed and how he took a gun onto the team bus.

Officials also have not said why players were loaded up and sent back to Las Cruces without telling police — prompting troopers to pull them over on a New Mexico roadside — and why coaches reportedly kept police from questioning the players involved and handled evidence.

The district attorney is still investigating NMSU’s response to the shooting, which New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez has called troubling.

“This was not handled in, let’s say, the usual fashion,” Torrez told KOAT-TV. “I was very troubled by the way in which the institutions and some of the leaders in those institutions sort of handled the situation.”

The only investigation completed so far was by a private law firm hired by NMSU to investigate the school’s response. The firm generated a two-page report with six suggestions for improvement that focused on reinforcing student-athletes’ respect for curfews and travel etiquette. Both that report and the school’s statement of it emphasized that investigators believed the university had fulfilled its legal obligations.

Heiar, who initially told police that he had “inherited” Peake and advised them to question veteran assistant coaches instead, announced later in November that he took “full responsibility for what happened.” School announcements and records give no indication that Heiar himself faced any discipline in the matter.

The shooting investigation was still ongoing on Feb. 10, when a basketball player accused his teammates of sexually abusing him in a monthslong hazing campaign. He told campus police three other players pinned him in the locker room, pulled down his pants, slapped his buttocks and touched his scrotum. The abuse had been ongoing since the summer, according to police records, and generally happened in front of the entire team.

As the team traveled to an event later that day, school officials stopped the bus, suspended the season indefinitely and put Heiar on paid administrative leave.

Two players, Deuce Benjamin and Shakiru Odunewu, this week sued school officials, saying coaching staff and administrators failed to act when they reported the behavior. The lawsuit, which named three regents, Heiar and an assistant, and three former players, says that the activity went beyond harassment to sexual assault, battery and false imprisonment and that it remains under investigation by police.

“When the behavior goes too far, and crosses the line into non-consensual touching … it is battery and sexual assault,” the complaint reads. “When the behavior continues for months, it cannot be viewed as an initiation rite; instead, it is harassment and abuse. And when coaches and universities do not take adequate action to prevent or stop such behavior, they have failed their student athletes and are complicit in the abuse.”

School officials didn’t publicly outline Heiar’s role in the hazing or response to it, but they fired him within days, with Arvizu saying the decision stemmed from the hazing incident. The school pledged to investigate other members of the coaching staff, but officials haven’t publicly spoken about the case since February. Arvizu and the university’s board of regents announced April 7 that they had agreed to a “mutual separation,” and former school president Jay Gogue was appointed interim chancellor.

“This separation is truly mutual,” Arvizu was quoted as saying in a school statement.

At their February news conference, still the only time NMSU leaders have addressed the hazing allegation, Arvizu reinforced his continuous praise of athletic director Moccia, who defended the school’s process for hiring coaches since he arrived in 2015.

But ESPN’s review of school documents raises questions about that process.

Chris Jans, Heiar’s immediate predecessor, was successful on the court with a 122-32 overall record. He came to New Mexico State after he was fired by Bowling Green State University in 2015 for allegedly sexually harassing women at a bar near campus. Jans smacked one woman’s buttocks and made lewd comments to other female patrons, a witness said. He apologized after the school fired him.

That incident wasn’t mentioned in NMSU’s hiring paperwork for Jans, according to documents.

Jans, who worked with Heiar at Chipola College in Florida and Wichita State, is among several head coaches Heiar worked for who left jobs amid accusations of impropriety.

Heiar coached under Will Wade at LSU from 2017 to 2020. Heiar left soon after the school suspended Wade amid allegations that an FBI wiretap caught the coach appearing to make an offer to a recruit.

Heiar worked at Wichita State from 2011 to 2017 under Gregg Marshall, who resigned after several players accused him of physical and verbal abuse in 2020.

Heiar wasn’t publicly implicated in the allegations against any of his previous bosses, but he was arrested in 2008 and charged with driving under the influence after crashing his car while coaching at Chipola College, according to Florida criminal records. He could not be reached by ESPN.

“Coaching hires are not infallible,” Moccia told reporters in February. “There is not a crystal ball underneath my desk.”

The men’s basketball team is set to resume in 2023-24, although virtually the whole team — including Odunewu, Benjamin, Peake, Jaden Alexander, Doctor Bradley, Kyle Feit, DaJuan Gordon, Shahar Lazar, Issa Muhammad and Mady Traoré — has entered the transfer portal.

Benjamin announced his decision to transfer this week, saying on Twitter that his NMSU dreams had “changed into a nightmare” and adding that new coach Jason Hooten had “recently informed me that it would be in my best interest to continue my education and basketball career elsewhere.”

Hooten, who had been the longtime coach at Sam Houston State, said on his arrival that “a new culture needs to be built — a new start and a new beginning.”

Hooten, Moccia and school leaders all declined to answer questions about how, exactly, they plan to do that.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to correct a mischaracterization of the fatal shooting involving New Mexico State player Mike Peake.

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