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FIRST PLACE: ENTERPRISE
Birmingham clings to its nickname with whiteknuckled fists: "The Football Capital of the South." (At least that's better than "Bombingham," the moniker it earned in the '60s as America's most racially charged city.) And while the place no longer hosts the annual Alabama- Auburn slugfest, it does have a new team to cheer: The University of Alabama at Birmingham.
UAB may be just a commuter school lost in the shadow of two in-state behemoths, but it is a commuter school hell-bent on raising its profile. And in Alabama, the land of Bo and The Bear, the quickest path to getting on the map cuts across the gridiron.
In fact, UAB took a no-huddle approach to building its program. Just five seasons after its launch as a D3 doormat in 1991, Blazer football hit the big time. The school had plucked Watson Brown folksy and funny and carrying deep-fried cred on the recruiting trail from Oklahoma's staff. Ol' Watson assembled a crew of gridiron grunts, fielding 22 transfers when UAB made its 1A debut on Aug. 31, 1996. The Blazers got whupped 29-0 at Auburn that day, but Brown flashed that televangelist smile and doll-eyed his way through the postgame.
"Soon," he promised in a kudzu-thick Tennessee drawl, "evah-one'll know 'bout UAB football."
The most important recruit in UAB history was a freckle-faced, carrot-topped 14-year-old named Brittany, who finished high school in under a year. UAB pursued the 5'1", 120-pound bookworm like it would a quarterback who could rope the deep out. Brittany, who looks like a cross between Little Orphan Annie and Molly Ringwald, grew up an hour down Route 280 in tiny Childersburg (pop. 4900). Frank and Jackie Benefield, as country as cornbread, had been trying for a child for 20 years before Brittany was born. They called her the miracle baby. When other children were stuck on c-a-t, Brittany could rattle off b-l-u-e-b-e-r-r-y. Her second grade teacher suggested Brittany jump through to third grade. Jackie Benefield wasn't sure, but figured the teacher knew best.
The Benefields were protective of their only child, who had her dad's wide smile and her mom's soft eyes.
Brittany's social life revolved around a church youth group, its skate parties and Bible classes. Her folks were strict about what she could do. While other sixth-graders rehashed Home Improvement, Brittany kept quiet about her favorites Bugs, Daffy and Mister Ed. When Brittany was in seventh grade, Jackie bought her a new dress for the spring dance. But when a student threatened to bring a gun, the school cancelled the event. That's when the Benefields decided to home-school Brittany. The child prodigy earned her degree at 13. Still, Frank, now 60, and Jackie, 54, worried about Brittany's future. "I always thought, if we just lived to see her educated and able to take care of herself, she'd be okay," says Jackie.
In March 1999, 14-year-old Brittany was accepted at Auburn, making headlines in The Birmingham News.
When her scholarship money got lost in a bureaucratic maze, Auburn told the family not to worry, they'd hold her place for the next class. A few weeks later, though, Jackie got a call from UAB. They wanted Brittany too, and they were offering full tuition. Jackie was thrilled and nervous; Birmingham, after all, was the big city.
Brittany, having spent day after monotonous day at home, couldn't stop smiling. Her plan was to finish law school before she turned 21. As it turns out, Brittany Benefield's day in court arrived three years ahead of schedule not as a lawyer, but as a plaintiff accusing 26 UAB athletes of sexual abuse and a university for its culpability in the matter. Acting through her mother, Brittany Benefield has filed lawsuits under Title IX in state and federal courts. The Benefields are suing UAB trustees, administrators, coaches, athletes, resident assistants, police and others. At the time of publication, the Benefields were seeking $80 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
This is the story of what happens when a naοve 15- year-old prodigy collides with an upward-reaching football program, some of whose players feel like they own the campus.
When the Benefields first met then-UAB president Ann Reynolds and VP of student affairs Virginia Gauld, they made their reservations known, according to statements contained in their complaints. The Benefields say they told the UAB brass that Brittany had never been away from them for more than a day. "I was worried about her crossing the street or someone snatching her," says Jackie. A meeting was set up with Warren Hale, director of student housing, and Susan McKinnon, assistant VP of enrollment management. The Benefields claim they were assured by talk of security escorts. According to their complaints, they were told the dorm to which Brittany would be assigned, Rast Hall, housed only freshmen and had security every night, and that residents needed a key to enter the building. The Benefields allege Hale and McKinnon also promised that one of the girl's suitemates would be a resident adviser, a student who would monitor Brittany's activities and mentor her. The UAB officials wanted Brittany to enroll immediately for the winter quarter in December 1999. Her folks wanted to wait until she was 15. They agreed that Brittany would begin in the spring, a month after her 15th birthday.
From the start, Brittany was a minor celebrity at UAB, although she says the other students saw her as more circus freak than star. "I felt very out of place," she says. "When people found out my age, they were like, 'what are you doing here?' I mean, it was okay to hear that now and then, but 10 times a day? I was pretty lonely." Her suitemates, who'd been on campus for six months, had their own friends. With no one to talk to or watch TV or grab a burger with her days dragged by in solitary routine: wake up, go to class, head back to the dorm, study. Her parents brought her home almost every weekend, with Jackie working longer shifts just so she could pick up Brittany on Thursdays.
Brittany carried a 3.5 GPA in basic freshman courses in her first quarter. The Benefields say they wanted her to take the summer off, but she was adamant about continuing classes so she could graduate in three years. "I figured if I made her come home, she'd just be staring at the four walls," says Jackie. "I guess that was my mistake." To Brittany, the only bummer was that she'd have to change dorms, because hers would be used to house summer-camp students.
Drenched in sweat on a steamy Louisiana night, helmets in hands, the UAB squad stomped and hollered and let the football world know they could no longer be ignored. As 86,000 dazed LSU fans watched, the visitors jumped on the Tiger's face at midfield. On Sept. 23, 2000, the Blazers upstarts with a cartoon dragon on their helmets took home a 13-10 upset victory and a $410,000 paycheck. Who-AB? Not anymore.
Man, you should've heard Ol' Watson before the game that night, down in the bowels of Tiger Stadium just before his Blazers took the field. The air was heavy with sweat and menthol; Brown was all fire and brimstone: "Fellas, lemme tell ya 'bout the irony we have here tonight," he told them. "Those guys in the other dressing room are no better than you. Every day you go up against guys who are as good as they are. I know that. You know that. They just don't know it yet. But tonight tonight! they're gonna fiiiiind out."
Brown took a long slow breath, and the team recited the Lord's Prayer. Brown glanced around the room like a proud father. His baby had sure grown up fast. The 2000 UAB Blazers looked nothing like the rag-tag squad that got blistered by Auburn in '96. Out were the D1 castoffs. In were speedy cover-corners and run-stuffing linemen from Atlanta, the Florida Panhandle and every holler in Alabama. Brown turned sleeper recruits into nasty playmakers.
He took Prop 48 kids, gave 'em some love and sharpened the chips on their shoulders. It worked in the weight room, on the field and in the classroom (more than 60% of the team members were honor students).
Sure, they had a few renegades. Heck, everybody's got a few, right?
Everyone inside that cramped room knew they were building something here. Most teams have more cliques than a sorority house, but the Blazers were different.
They were tight. Maybe it was Coach Brown's pep talks. Maybe it was month after month of gut-busting practice. Or maybe it was the players' visibility. Of the roughly 700 men who lived on campus, nearly one in nine played for Brown. They literally had the run of the place.
Just a post pattern from the UAB practice field is Blazer Hall, a 12-sided, eight-story, antiseptic building that resembles a hospital ward more than a dorm. In the summer of 2000, Blazer housed mostly football players, a few basketball players, a handful of women and one 15-year-old girl.
The family's complaints allege that when all of Blazer's residents assembled for an informal introduction on a June evening, an RA scanned the crowd and paused on Brittany, uttering an introduction that still rings in Brittany's ears: "Okay, this is the 15-year-old y'all been hearing about." Brittany remembers a split-second of silence giving way to the sound of 40 heads turning at once.
If Brittany had been lonely from day one on campus, she felt absolutely isolated during those first days in Blazer Hall. The Benefields say in their complaints that, because the school didn't offer her another RA for a roommate, they chose a single room for Brittany. They say they preferred Brittany living alone to her sharing space with female students who might have beer in the fridge and boyfriends staying over. On her third day in Blazer, Brittany says, she entered the elevator and encountered a mountain of a man, a Blazer football player with a bushy afro and hands as thick as cinder blocks.
Brittany tried to avoid making eye contact, but the man faced her as the doors shut. "Whussup, shorty?" he huffed, according to Brittany. She remembers feeling the blood drain from her face. He said he knew her; she was that child genius. He asked if she'd help him with a paper.
Brittany panicked and stammered: "I'm 15."
"Well, you don't look it," she says he told her.
Brittany's emotions swirled as she stepped off the elevator. The comment about her appearance transformed her initial fear into a feeling that surprised her: acceptance. Maybe she belonged in this strange place after all. "That made me feel a lot better," Brittany says.
That night, she says, the player brought his paper and a six-pack of beer to her room. Brittany says she had never had a beer or any kind of alcohol but felt compelled to accept when she was offered one. According to Brittany, one led to another. And another. Brittany got wasted. She'd never even kissed a boy, and now she was making out with the player. Then they had sex.
The next morning, the burly football players seemed a lot less menacing to her. In fact, Brittany says, they began to treat her as if she belonged. That night, another player asked for homework help, and brought over more beer. Brittany says she got drunk again and the player persuaded her to perform oral sex. The next day, she says she got drunk and had sex with a third player, who introduced her to pot. "I felt accepted," Brittany says. "I felt like they were my friends."
The players joked with her that she was becoming their "play thing." She began hanging with them all the time. They'd sit outside Blazer downing beer, bumming cigarettes, watching cars go by.
On Aug. 7, the school got the exposure from its star recruit that it had hoped for. The Birmingham News ran a front-page story about Brittany and a 16-year-old male student, headlined "Whiz Kids." On campus, though, Brittany was no longer known as a 15-year-old prodigy, but as that 15-year-old rumored to be doing half the football team.
According to an e-mail from Hale attached to the complaints, he states, having heard the rumors, that he called Brittany in for a meeting with a UAB police officer.
They asked if she was having sex with football players. She said no. The complaints allege the school didn't investigate any further, nor did it notify the Benefields or Alabama's Department of Human Resources of their concerns of drugs and sexual activities, despite a state law requiring they do so in the case of a minor. However, the e-mail reflects that Hale did talk to the Benefields regarding Brittany "hosting guests." The Benefields acknowledge Brittany stopped coming home as much, and that she slept all weekend when she did return. But they say they figured she was just overworked.
An e-mail from Hale, included in the complaints, indicates that he did meet with Blazers special teams coach Larry Crowe, letting the coach know that school administrators had heard rumors about his players and Brittany.
According to the e-mail, Hale told Crowe that a girl Brittany's age could not consent to sex. No matter the situation, it was statutory rape. Later that week, the complaints allege, Brown told his team to stay away from Brittany. "If this gets outside of me," he said, "I can no longer help you." He allegedly added that it could mean "jail time."
Apparently the Blazers didn't heed the warnings.
Some team members interviewed by The Magazine echo comments in the complaints that a few days later, Coach Crowe pointed to Blazer Hall and told his players to stay out of Brittany's room. The next week, according to the complaints, the players got a warning from "Officer Andy" a.k.a. Anderson Williams Jr. a UAB cop who was moonlighting as the team's unofficial speed coach. Before lecturing the Blazers about lengthening their running strides, he allegedly reminded the players to "be careful" with the underage girl.
The Blazers opened the 2000 season on Sept. 7 with a 20-15 home victory over Chattanooga. Brittany recalls feeling like she was part of the program, cheering like they'd just beaten Alabama. She'd grown even more alienated from other students, but now she didn't give a damn what those losers thought. Though she had moved back into her old dorm, Brittany's partying escalated from beer to whiskey to vodka. Other students say her room reeked of weed, but that was just the beginning.
She told The Magazine that the players turned her on to coke, ecstasy and LSD, and she says one player even tried to turn her out. She declined to let him pimp her, but she kept sleeping with football players and began hooking up with some members of the basketball team. She was being passed around like a mix tape. In all, she alleges, more than two dozen Blazer athletes took their turn. The complaints even allege that an employee of the UABPD and the student who plays Blaze, the school's mascot, came knocking on Brittany's door.
Experts say her attitude was not unusual for a female who has been sexually abused. "It's not uncommon for a woman who has been raped to engage in promiscuous behavior," says New York-based sports psychologist Mitch Abrams, who specializes in trauma-abuse counseling.
"People say, 'See, she's a slut,' or 'See, she loved it.' But rape is about power, not sex. Someone took her power and now she was trying anything to get it back."
Brittany tells of one especially harrowing night, when she was invited to the room of two football players.
When she walked in, she says, two other men were there as well and each of the four took his turn with her. She recalls leaving the dorm in tears, telling no one.
Later that September, a UAB police officer and other administrators called in Brittany to discuss a curfew, according to the complaints, and Brittany was again asked about her sexual involvement with athletes and drug use. She denied it all. The complaints allege they didn't push the matter further, nor did they alert the Benefields, who weren't even notified when her GPA plummeted to 1.9.
That Saturday, the Blazers following their huge win at LSU crushed Louisiana-Lafayette, 47-2.
Meanwhile, Brittany's downward spiral continued. She stopped going to class and got high day and night.
When some of the players stopped coming around, Brittany began using meal and rent money to buy drugs, and, according to the complaints, on Nov. 7, the school sent an eviction notice to Brittany rather than her parents, even though the Benefields were financially responsible for her room and board. The Benefields allege UAB didn't contact them until five weeks later, when Jackie received a shocking call telling her that her daughter was getting kicked out of her dorm for not paying rent.
The Benefields raced to UAB, but Brittany was nowhere to be found. Frank Benefield says he could barely speak when he filed a runaway report with the UABPD.
The next morning, the Benefields' phone rang. It was Brittany, asking to be picked up at the local airport. Her parents made the 12-mile drive, but Brittany wasn't there. Instead, she and a friend, a reputed Birmingham drug dealer, were breaking into the Benefield home, swiping a handgun and blank checks.
The next day, Sunday, Dec. 17, the Birmingham police nabbed Brittany and her friend at a pizza parlor for trying to pass a bad check. When they arrived on the scene, says Jackie, Brittany broke down. Their miracle baby, tears streaming and body trembling, admitted she'd spent all her rent money on drugs and that she'd passed a couple of dozen bad checks. The Benefields took their daughter back to Childersburg, but Brittany disappeared again after one night. Four days passed before she called her father from a gas station near campus.
She told him she'd been staying in a boarded-up apartment. She wanted to kill herself. "I was a zombie," Brittany says. "I was a broken person. The things I'd been through were unreal."
Two hours later, Jackie opened her front door, laid eyes on her baby and winced. "I didn't know her," she says. "I saw her face. I saw her hair, but when I looked into her eyes, they were hollow. I didn't see who was behind them." The Benefields put their daughter in rehab. It was Christmas Eve.
Four days earlier, according to the complaints, UAB president Ann Reynolds had received an e-mail from VP Virginia Gauld, telling her that the prize recruit had tragically spiraled into drugs, alcohol and degradation. The e-mail's last line was chilling: "Some times [sic] we win and sometimes we lose!" Reynolds' reply was just as cold. The Benefields' suits allege that Reynolds quipped the whiz kid's story had the makings of a "B movie," and that "she was clearly overprotected and doted on by elderly parents. Warren Hale and others are to be praised for trying."
So if everyone was "trying," is anyone to blame? None of the defendants will comment on the case, but all have either denied the Benefields' allegations or moved to dismiss the complaints in court. "We're not called on to defend factual statements," says Doug Jones, who represents six UAB administrators. "We're called on to defend legal allegations." Ken Lay, a public defender for 17 Blazer athletes, released this statement: "Most of the athletes we represent know little or nothing about Ms. Benefield or her allegations."
Brittany's story may prove to be the most extreme recent case of sexual abuse in college sports, but it is not unique. Since August, athletes have been accused of sexual assault and rape at Colorado, Georgia, LSU, Notre Dame and Oklahoma State. And those are just the public accusations. In many college football towns, police forces have long had officers designated to deal with athlete-related investigations. They're often the first dispatched to the scene and have a prior working relationship with coaches. The Oklahoma State victim, for instance, has alleged that a police officer tried to coerce her into signing a prosecution waiver while she was in the ICU.
"There is such an incestuous relationship [between police and athletic departments]," says Kathy Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. "It's very frightening." Seven years ago, Redmond accused Huskers DT Christian Peter, who'd already been accused twice of assaulting women, of raping her four years earlier. No criminal charges were filed against Peter, but Redmond's lawyers brought a civil suit against him and the university. Soon, she was taking on an entire football-mad state.
Redmond's lawyer filed a Title IX lawsuit contending the school was liable under the federal law because the university failed to provide a safe environment from sexual harassment and that inhibited Redmond's right to an education. NU and Peter settled out of court without admitting liability. Says Redmond, "I don't think anybody understands the power that law has over college sports." Here's where that power lies. Rape and sexual assault are harder to prove in criminal court than in civil court, so many victims find their only recourse in a civil case. Title IX suits offer an opportunity for the victim to be heard away from potentially biased local jurisdictions, plus access to the deeper pockets of universities rather than just to individual defendants.
Dr. Abrams, the sports psychologist, agrees that victims and lawyers don't know the ramifications of Title IX yet. "You could see hundreds, if not thousands, of silent victims come forward," he says.
On Aug. 30, 2001, the same day the Blazers opened a new football season by beating Montana State, 41-13, John Whitaker and Terry Dytrych, lawyers for the Benefields, filed a civil suit in state court against 44 people, including members of UAB's administration and police, two coaches, 26 athletes and the mascot.
Turnovers! Watson Brown sweeps sweat from his shaggy mop of hair, crinkles his nose and shakes his head. Just 45 minutes into UAB's 2002 spring game, and Ol' Watson is a plastered hair from his boiling point.
It's bad enough that his QB has tossed four picks in the first half. Did he have to throw one in the doggoned red zone? At least the QB levels the dude who picked him off. That almost makes Brown crack a smile. Over the past month and a half, Brown's boys have surprised him with the best hitting since he came to Birmingham.
UAB is on a roll, on the field and off. Brown has inked the school's strongest recruiting class and the Blazers beat mighty Tennessee for a prized QB recruit. Two of his kids (not named in the lawsuit) went high in the NFL draft: DE Bryan Thomas (first round, Jets) and DT Eddie Freeman (second round, Chiefs). Mirroring the rise of its football program, out-of-state enrollment at UAB has nearly doubled, and total enrollment is up 20% since 1998. Still, Brown figures if the Blazers pull a 3-8 this fall after last year's 6-5, they'll be just another flash-in-the-pan. Brown refuses to blame the lawsuit for his team dropping four of their first six in 2001.
The Benefields say they couldn't care less if their daughter's lawsuits are a distraction for the Blazers. They want justice. They want someone to pay. In April they filed a Title IX suit, this one in federal court, against the university trustees. No criminal charges have been filed against the defendants in either of the Benefield lawsuits.
Six projected UAB starters are defendants. But there's little locker room talk about Brittany or her lawsuit. Some players don't deny bad things happened with the 15-year-old prodigy, they just downplay how bad things really were. "We think they're just trying to get money out of the school," says one player not named in the suit. "There's not much we can do about it. I just hope it doesn't make the team look too bad."
The miracle baby is 17 now, but despite a heavy dusting of midnight-blue eye shadow, she still looks like an apple-cheeked 14-year-old. She does clerical work in her mom's office; she can't afford to go back to college. Instead, she attends weekly substance-abuse sessions.
Her meetings with a rape counselor are down from four a week to just one. Three years ago, she chased life at warp speed. Now she barely makes it from day to day. There are moments when she'll sit on her bed and just zone out.
At a crowded Birmingham barbecue joint on a sunny April day, Brittany sits beside her mom and talks about her nightmare. Conversations at nearby booths clatter to a halt, but Brittany refuses to speak in hushed tones. This is her life. She has learned not to be ashamed, only reflective. She admits she was naοve and maybe not as smart as she thought. The big lesson she has learned?
Brittany pauses briefly before the words spill out.
"Never trust anyone."
Comment from the judge, Mickey Spagnola: Unfortunately for the many, many great entries, this was the first piece I read, and it was so good, so thorough, so captivating. To me, this is what enterprise reporting is all about. There is a book here waiting to be written.
Second place: Ted Miller, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
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