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Copyright 2018 Freedom Newspapers, Inc. Mar 18, 2018

The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado)

 

The Air Force Academy is seeking an outside review of its sports teams in the wake of hazing incidents that have rocked its swimming and lacrosse programs.

The move was confirmed by academy Athletic Director Jim Knowlton who said the incidents, which remain under investigation, have served as a wake-up call for the school.

"We are going to develop teams with dignity and respect," Knowlton said.

An Army veteran, West Point graduate and former athletic director at Air Force hockey rival Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Knowlton was hired three years ago this month to clean up academy athletic teams in the wake of a massive misconduct scandal.

Knowlton brought the academy a code of conduct for athletes and change in focus for recruiting that leans more heavily on character than athletic ability.

Apart from the recent problems, Knowlton has had relatively clean sailing.

"I couldn't be prouder of what the department accomplished in three years," he said.

But the recent suspensions of lacrosse players and swimmers indicate hazing remains a problem.

In October, the academy announced the suspension of more than a dozen lacrosse players and coaches amid an investigation into misconduct, which several sources have confirmed is tied, at least in part, to hazing.

Coach Eric Seremet was removed and Bill Wilson installed as interim head coach of the squad, which is struggling in 2018 with a 2-5 record after finishing the prior season 12-6 with an NCAA tournament berth.

The academy hasn't released details of its probe into the team and has not confirmed Seremet's firing, although he no longer is listed as coach on the team's website, which confirmed Wilson's new role.

In late February, the academy announced the suspension of 11 members of its men's swimming team. The suspensions came as the team traveled to Texas in search of its third consecutive Western Athletic Conference championship in swimming.

"The timing couldn't have been worse, but this is about the hard right and not the easy wrong," Knowlton said.

With many of its top competitors barred from the pool, Air Force slumped to a fourth-place finish.

The academy hasn't released details on the swimming case, but, again, sources say it's tied to hazing.

Knowlton said he's not worried about the slow start by lacrosse or the swim team's championship stumble.

"Here's the bottom line for me - I don't have to win games or matches or championships," Knowlton said. "I do have to be a key cog in creating leaders of character."

Knowlton's hiring in 2015 coincided with an academy push to eliminate what former superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson called toxic subcultures in sports programs.

He outlined steps he took to fix the program, including sexual assault prevention courses, enhanced training for coaches and a code of conduct that stresses to athletes that representing the academy on the field is a privilege.

"Athletes are the front porch for our academy," he said.

He also focused on how the academy recruits athletes, with a bigger focus on the school's military rigor rather than athletic glory.

"It does require a special kind of kid," Knowlton said. "We're looking for heart. We're looking for grit."

The emphasis on conduct, he said, played a role in cadets coming forward with complaints about the lacrosse and swimming teams.

"Cadets feel more comfortable talking when they see something that doesn't meet that culture of dignity and respect," he said.

And, pointing to the lacrosse and swimming cases, Knowlton feels comfortable bringing down the hammer when athletes step out of line.

"Was it tough? Yes," he said. "Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely."

While thinning rosters has cost the academy on the scoreboard, the crackdown on wrongdoing has other beneficial effects, he said.

"It gives other people the chance to step up and be key leaders," he said, "It's great to see."

In the weeks after the lacrosse incident, Knowlton met with every athletic team on the campus to reinforce the school's conduct requirements.

Teams are allowed to have tough training. Physical challenges are in, but hazing is out. Knowlton said he's told coaches and athletes that everything the teams do must be tied to a purpose that serves the academy mission.

"Are people still doing gassers? You bet," he said.

The academy has released no timeline on when it expects to complete investigations into the teams.

Knowlton's office is eager to start a probe of its own. The department wants to bring in an outside firm to examine its teams and practices to ensure leaders are stopping problems before they start.

"We're going to keep looking at ourselves," Knowlton said. "When you have a couple of these incidents, you say let's pause and take a look."

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

Credit: Tom Roeder

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