On Thursday afternoon, new UCLA head coach Steve Alford issued a statement in which he apologized for his handling of the high-profile sexual assault case of former Iowa player Pierre Pierce when Alford was the coach there. In the statement, Alford said "at that time, I instinctively and mistakenly came to [Pierce's] defense before knowing all the facts. I wanted to believe he was innocent, and in response to a media question, I publicly proclaimed his innocence before the legal system had run its course."
It's an interesting move for Alford -- and for UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, who released his own statement in conjunction with Alford's -- as discussion of the Pierce case has resurfaced in a big way since Alford was hired by Guerrero last week. It's also a pretty stark about-face, as Alford had a totally different posture regarding Pierce in his introductory press conference last week. When asked about the incident in that presser, Alford said it happened a long time ago and then tried to pass the buck back onto the university itself for the handling of the case.
"That was an incident that happened years ago at the University of Iowa and all I can tell you with that situation is I followed everything that the University of Iowa, the administration, the lawyers that were hired, I did everything I was supposed to do at the University of Iowa in that situation. I followed everything that I was told to do," Alford said on April 2.
The issue with that statement, with today's reversal of posture as further evidence, is that it's almost certainly not true, and at the very least ignored Alford's well-publicized public defenses of Pierce at the time. Alford defended Pierce when he was initially charged, and then continued to defend him publicly even after evidence of the charges against Pierce had been made available to Alford. Then you can parse individual parts of the case, perhaps most damningly the fact that Athletes in Action, a faith-based organization run by a good friend of Alford's, was used in an attempt to intimidate the victim into staying quiet. Those details, and many others, are mentioned in the university's official report of the investigation.
Pierce ultimately was kept on scholarship but was forced to miss the 2002-03 season (he took a redshirt). The decision led to protests on campus. Pierce returned to the program for the 2003-04 campaign, and subsequently was dismissed from Iowa after another incident midway through his junior year. In that case, Pierce pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary, assault with an intent to commit sexual abuse, false imprisonment, and fourth-degree criminal mischief after an incident with his then girlfriend. He ended up spending almost a year in jail.
Alford's comments last week were contradicted by the prosecutor who handled the Pierce case. J. Patrick White told the Orange County Register that Alford's continued public insistence of Pierce's innocence at the time was very hurtful to the victim and made prosecution of the initial case more difficult, eventually leading to a plea bargain that didn't include jail time. Then White added this near the bottom of the story:
"(Alford's) explanation, both then and subsequently, he's maintained that he was saying what he had been told to say," White said. "But I've talked to (then-Iowa athletic director) Bob Bowlsby and I'm reasonably certain that not to be the case."
While it's possible to dismiss the comments of a prosecutor as biased, he was far from the only person who spoke up last week after Alford's hire and the initial press conference. Multiple members of the Los Angeles media shredded Alford and Guerrero after the presser. Chicago columnist Dan Bernstein called Alford a scumbag, providing details of the Athletes in Action claims, among other reasons.
Maybe most alarmingly, Iowa City Press-Citizen writer Pat Harty authored a lengthy column in which he claimed Pierce had also menaced his niece on campus and says Alford and the school did nothing about it. In that column, Harty openly admits he had issues with Alford to the point he had to remove himself from the team's coverage beat for the sake of objectivity, but it strains belief that he would just fabricate a story like that out of nowhere, a decade later, with mentions of his brother and family members in it. When you add that to the other claims and stories and actual evidence in the Pierce case, it paints a very poor picture of Alford. So perhaps that was the strategy reached today by Alford and Guerrero. Maybe they saw what trying to bury a story did to Rutgers last week, and decided to proactively try to end it. Based on initial media reaction, though, it appears to just be stoking the flames even more. Now that Alford has denounced his decade-long position after he protected the perpetrator of a sex crime, perhaps it's time to ask if Mr. Guerrero's position on his new hire should also change.