A group of University of Montana football fans has launched a petition asking Gov. Steve Bullock and higher-education officials to censure Pat Williams and end his appointment to the Board of Regents.
Last week, Williams told the New York Times that UM had “recruited thugs for its football team,” a reference he made to crimes committed by the school’s football players in recent years, culminating with last month’s sentencing of former UM running back Beau Donaldson for rape.
Scott Gratton, an attorney for the Brown Law Firm with offices in Billings and Missoula, signed and is circulating the petition calling for Williams’ termination.
Gratton said Tuesday that he had no comment on the petition. He suggested the story on his group’s efforts to recall Williams not be printed in the newspaper. Gratton’s son, Sam, was a receiver for the Grizzlies through the 2012 season.
“Publicly labeling our football players as ‘thugs’ is obviously untrue and knowingly damaging,” the petition reads. “These young men have dedicated the better part of their lives to achieve this level of collegiate athletics, resulting in nationally recognized academic and athletic success.”
Williams, a former U.S. congressman, was appointed to the Montana Board of Regents last year by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and is pending confirmation this legislative session. Regents are confirmed by either the Senate Administrative Committee or the Senate Education Committee.
Kevin McRae, spokesman for the Montana University System, had no comment on the petition being circulated by UM football fans. McRae said the university system stood behind statements it made last week, saying that while they disagreed with Williams’ comments, regents were entitled to their opinions.
“The Board of Regents is confident that the student-athletes, coaching staff and administration are committed to representing UM and the Montana University System with both honor and integrity,” their statement read.
Williams has said he wasn’t referring to the majority of UM football players, but rather to those who have been convicted of crimes over the past few years.
“We’ve had sex assaults, vandalism, beatings by football players,” Williams told the Times. “The university has recruited thugs for its football team, and this thuggery has got to stop.” He made similar comments to ESPN.com.
In November 2008, three UM football players were committed to the Department of Corrections for taking part in a violent drug robbery and home invasion in Missoula.
That same year, three players were charged in a beating that broke a student’s jaw. Two pleaded guilty and a third pleaded no contest.
A UM football player also was arrested twice on drunken-driving charges in 2008. He pleaded guilty to one charge while the second was dropped.
In 2011, two UM football players pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct after they were hit by stun guns by Missoula police officers. Also that year, a UM football player was charged with driving under the influence after nearly crashing into a house.
Last year, former UM running back Beau Donaldson pleaded guilty to raping a childhood friend in 2010. The football team’s former starting quarterback is currently on trial, accused of raping an acquaintance.
The crimes of a few have given a black eye to what school officials continue to promote as a successful program built on quality students who excel in both the classroom and on the playing field.
“The actions of individuals do not characterize our student-athletes in general any more than they do for other groups of people on campus,” UM President Royce Engstrom said last week in a statement after the Times’ story.
Engstrom, who was named to the position in 2010 after many of the crimes had occurred, added that any future problems will promptly be addressed and that the university has recently revised its student-athlete conduct code.
Student athletes who arrived at the University of Montana for their freshman year during the 2005-06 academic year achieved a 77 percent graduation rate, the university has noted. Ninety percent of the football players who began their freshman year in 2005-06 graduated from UM.
Last month, UM also announced that the football team had finished the fall semester with a cumulative GPA of 2.92. It was the best single semester of academic performance for the team and its 101 players in the record-keeping era.
“The recent public statements impugning all football players and the university not only breaches his (Williams’) duty to responsibly and objectively support our higher education system, but worse, it creates yet another highly public and local example of hate speech, social division and inflamed rhetoric,” the petition reads in part.
Williams did not return phone calls from the Missoulian on Tuesday asking for comment on the petition seeking his termination from the Board of Regents.