Two years ago, UC Davis did the unthinkable.
It completely dismantled one of the university’s most recognizable and beloved institutions, the school’s marching band, following an investigation into binge drinking, hazing and sexual misconduct.
This week, another bombshell rocked another campus institution. The university suspended its baseball program, and placed its coaches on administrative leave, pending an investigation into “credible allegations of misconduct primarily related to hazing,” according to an online letter to the UC Davis community by Chancellor Gary May.
The baseball program’s future is uncertain. Six weeks after the Aggies closed out a dismal season – finishing last in the Big West Conference with an 8-32 record – the team room, playing field and batting cages are locked up and off-limits to staff and players.
The players have been told not to communicate with their coaches, and Davis’ athletic director told incoming recruits via email that they’re free to renounce their commitments to the university and play elsewhere. Mike Villamor, the Big West’s assistant commissioner for communications, said it’s premature to say whether the Aggies will field a team when the new season begins next February.
Experts on sports, law and society called the decision — a university suspending an entire team indefinitely — a shocker. It appears the last time a university shuttered a California sports program at the Division I level — the uppermost tier of college sports — was in 1982, when the University of San Francisco pulled the plug on its men’s basketball team for three years after boosters were accused of paying off recruits. The USF team didn’t resume playing until 1985.
“It’s rare,” said Matt Mitten, head of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University. “This is a pretty drastic step — ‘We’re shutting down our baseball team.’ ”
Mitten said the decision to discipline the entire team shows that the alleged misconduct is likely serious and widespread. He suspects “this involves multiple players,” he said.
Beyond Chancellor May’s mention of “misconduct ... related to hazing,” the University of California, Davis, isn’t saying what exactly prompted such a dramatic turn of events with its baseball team. A spokeswoman only said an investigation “that protects the privacy of all parties” is underway.
“While it is premature to share information about the allegations right now, we will share additional information, to the extent possible, if the allegations are substantiated,” said university spokesperson Melissa Lutz Blouin.
In a letter to players, athletic director Rocko DeLuca said the school “has learned of allegations of misconduct involving the varsity baseball team,” and that “the safety of students is of utmost importance to UC Davis.” The program, he said, is “committed to conducting a thorough assessment to determine the best path forward to provide a safe and inclusive experience for all team members.”
The UC Davis Office of Compliance and Policy is conducting the investigation. Its website describes the office as being responsible for enforcing the university’s “Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence, Nondiscrimination, Whistleblower and Whistleblower Protection policies,” among other duties.
Joseph Farrow, the chief of the UC Davis Police Department, told The Sacramento Bee, the Appeal’s sister newspaper via Tribune News Service, that his agency isn’t involved.
Meanwhile, players and members of the coaching staff are reluctant to speak to reporters while the investigation is underway, leaving fans, students and the community to guess what might have prompted suspending the entire team.
The Bee reached out to more than two dozen current and former players and their families, as well as a half-dozen boosters, high school coaches whose former players are on the team, and others with close ties.
The father of a UC Davis baseball player told The Bee that he’s in the dark, too.
“No one knows anything, even my son who’s on the team. No one,” he said in an interview before the chancellor disclosed the nature of the allegations. The father asked that his name not be used to protect his son from retaliation.
“It’s all up in the air,” the dad said. “The whole program is suspended? That’s really concerning. We as parents are as lost as anyone. We’re all in the dark. It’s a bad look for the school, and as a parent, I’m really concerned.”
Nature of disciplinary issues at small schools
UC Davis has produced more than a few well-regarded baseball players. More than 50 former Aggies have been drafted by Major League teams since the 1970s. The most recent, Ryan Anderson, plays in Texas Rangers’ minor-league system after being drafted in 2018.
But while it plays at the Division I level, the UC Davis baseball team toils in relative obscurity, far removed from the bright lights of big-time college sports.
The Aggies’ home ballpark, Phil Swimley Field at Dobbins Stadium, located just west of the university’s botanical conservatory, seats just 3,500 fans. It was a big deal when boosters provided funds two years ago to build a covered batting-practice facility.
College sports scandals are usually reserved for the powerhouse programs — think the sexual abuse allegations that rocked the Penn State football team nearly a decade ago.
In 1987 the NCAA – the main governing body of college sports – handed Southern Methodist University’s football team the “death penalty,” forcing the team to sit out two entire seasons, after investigators learned that boosters were paying recruits to play for SMU.
Disciplinary issues have occurred at smaller programs, but they’re rare.
In 2014, the Division II Fresno Pacific University shut down its tennis programs after a university investigation found violations of “extra benefits, financial aid and ethical conduct.” The program restarted four years later.
In 2015, Western Kentucky University suspended its swimming and diving teams for five years following allegations of hazing, drug abuse and other problems.
What happened to the UC Davis marching band?
The baseball scandal comes just two years after the university disbanded the student-run UC Davis Cal Aggie Marching Band.
Known by its nickname Band-uh!, the band had for decades been a boisterous and instantly recognizable fixture at UC Davis games, rallies, parades and community events.
But behind the scenes, some members were growing uncomfortable by a raucous, sexually charged, alcohol-soaked culture that had been part of the marching band since before most of its current members were born.
In 2019, allegations of inappropriate conduct were first published in The California Aggie, the UC Davis student newspaper, prompting the university to hire the Sacramento law firm Van Dermyden Maddux to independently investigate.
With the university’s investigation into the band underway, the program was placed on an interim suspension that eventually led to its complete disbandment soon after the Sacramento Bee published an investigative report, describing a culture of hazing, binge drinking and people taking off their clothes.
Three people told The Bee they had sexual experiences so traumatizing they sought professional therapy, and one woman said she had to be hospitalized for a psychotic breakdown.
The Bee obtained a copy of the band’s “Hymnal,” which contains 68 pages of songs about sex, bestiality, incest, rape, masturbation, oral copulation, decorated with hand-drawn pornographic illustrations. The Bee also obtained video taken at a band practice on campus, featuring several students performing in their underwear.
Students described an alcohol-saturated, “hyper-sexualized” culture in which people were encouraged to “make out” with as many as possible. The students shared stories of “Shirts-Off O’clock,” in which partygoers take off their shirts at a set time.
One woman alleged she was groped during a naked hot tub session one of the band’s sections hosted at an annual retreat called “Cabin” held in the Tahoe area.
In September 2019, the university announced it had made the interim suspension permanent. It created a new “university-supervised” band with a new name, uniforms, governing structure, bylaws and guidelines.
After hearing complaints that former band members were encouraging bad behavior, the university also cut ties with the alumni band, saying it will no longer be recognized and will be barred from participating in campus events.
Fallout from pepper spray incident
The band controversy wasn’t the first time the university had hired a firm to investigate a high-profile case of misconduct.
The university had previously hired Van Dermyden Maddux to investigate a 2011 incident in which campus police Lt. John Pike calmly sprayed seated student protestors with pepper spray, leading to an international outcry.
The university paid a $1 million settlement to the pepper-sprayed students, and Pike was dismissed in 2012.
That scandal didn’t die with the settlement.
Another report, released following an investigation commissioned by the University of California system, concluded that UC Davis had spent at least $407,000 at the behest of its image-conscious former Chancellor Linda Katehi to try to scrub the internet of references to the pepper-spray incident.
It was one of several missteps and controversies, many of them first reported by The Bee, that eventually led to Katehi’s resignation in 2016.
And now a new major headache – a still-unexplained scandal with its baseball program.
Mitten, the sports-law expert, said the university has little choice but to investigate the matter thoroughly, in an era in which universities get sued or fined for ignoring reports of wrongdoing by their athletes or coaches. Federal officials fined Michigan State University $4.5 million in 2019 for ignoring allegations that sports doctor Larry Nassar sexually abused scores of athletes. Michigan State spent $500 million settling lawsuits over Nassar’s behavior.
“In the past, there was unfortunately too much misconduct,” Mitten said. “Schools are wise to be very vigilant.”
Darryl Goss, chairman of the UC Davis Foundation, which raises money for the university, said the issues with the baseball team are outweighed by the school’s many attributes. “UC Davis as a university (generated) a lot of very positive press over the last two or three years,” said Goss, who played football at Davis in the 1980s and runs a medical diagnostics company in Texas.
Barry Shiller, a crisis management communications specialist who was hired at UC Davis following the pepper spray incident, said that with tens of thousands of employees and students, UC Davis is like any large institution — scandals will inevitably arise.
But based on what he’s hearing from his former colleagues, the university’s leadership following Katehi has attempted to be transparent, accountable and act quickly as soon as allegations of wrongdoing are pointed out.
“I think the true measure both of a leader and of a place is what they do when something really catastrophic happens,” Shiller said. “Another measure of whether the institution’s doing things honorably, you know, is whether or not they act accountably and whether they make changes, meaningful changes.”