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Indianapolis Colts stand by decision to draft Stanford football captain despite sexual assault allegations

While University exonerated Bobby Okereke, its Title IX process has been called into question

KAREN AMBROSE HICKEY/isiphotos.com

The Indianapolis Colts knew Stanford’s 2018 football captain Bobby Okereke ’19 had been accused of sexual assault in 2015 well before the team picked him in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft in April, general manager Chris Ballard said in a press conference Wednesday.

Okereke was exonerated under Stanford’s Title IX process in 2016, when three out of five members of an adjudication paneled voted that he had sexually assaulted a female student on February 6, 2015. A 4-1 vote was required to find him guilty of assault; if he was, he could have been expelled — although expulsion has historically only occurred in rare cases.

During his investigation, Okereke was allowed to remain on the football team and continue his athletic success unimpeded. His accuser, who was granted anonymity out of respect for her privacy and safety, said that the incident and ensuing investigation — the results of which she appealed three times — “ruined Stanford” for her. She spent three quarters away from Stanford before graduating in 2017, and in January 2019, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from the incident.

Shortly after the case’s conclusion, The New York Times published its investigation into Stanford’s Title IX process with allegations against Okereke at its center, calling the process “marred by procedural errors” and having an “unusually high bar” for finding accused students guilty. The original Times report did not name the parties involved; Okereke’s identification in The Times’ investigation was first reported by the Fountain Hopper on Tuesday.

University spokesperson Brad Hayward and Stanford Athletics spokesperson Brian Risso said they could not confirm the identity of individuals involved in Title IX investigations.

“Our understanding is that the accused individual was found not responsible through the Title IX adjudication process,” Risso wrote on behalf of Athletics Director Bernard Muir. “As a result, no disciplinary action was taken.”

Okereke did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did Okereke’s lawyer, Michael Armstrong. Armstrong previously represented Brock Turner, a former Stanford swimmer who served three months out of a six-month sentence in county jail for assaulting an unconscious woman on campus in 2015.  

Okereke informed the Colts about the allegations against him when he first met with the team at the Senior Bowl in January, Ballard said. The second-year general manager said the team then vetted Okereke’s background further, interviewing him “at length.”

“We spoke with Bobby several times,” Ballard said Wednesday. “He was very honest about his side of the story and what occurred and how he had to move forward … from 2015 to 2019, from everything we gathered and high recommendations we got, it felt appropriate to take him.”

Representatives for The Colts did not reach out to the accuser or her attorney at any point, Ballard said, because they “did not feel it was necessary” given the information they had gathered.

“It’s of course disappointing to know that the [Colts] knew about it and didn’t bother to reach out to me,” the accuser told The Daily. “That’s great that [the Colts] spoke to [Okereke] about it, but of course he’s going to tell you what you want to hear. He did something terrible and had no remorse for it, so is that someone you really want on your football team?”

Ballard also mentioned that Colts owner Jim Irsay was made aware of the allegations before the Colts picked Okereke, adding that the Colts did not divulge the information publicly because Okereke was not charged criminally or disciplined by Stanford.

“When we looked at it and talked to him, it was an incident from four years ago,” Ballard said. “He was a team captain, up for the Lott IMPACT award, he graduated with a degree in management and engineering and he’s working on a master’s.”

Calling the situation a “he said, she said incident,” Ballard added, “I don’t want to sit here and act like we don’t have sympathy for both sides,” noting that he has three daughters.

According to the NFL’s commissioner’s personal conduct policy, allegations against Okereke would not merit an investigation by the NFL because the incident occurred years before he was under contract in the league and because the 2015 University investigation found him not guilty.

In the Title IX investigation, three of five Stanford officials on two separate University disciplinary panels concluded that Okereke committed sexual assault. The simple majority vote would have found the accused responsible at many other universities; however, the Times wrote that the University “had set an uncommonly high bar” with a 4-1 decision requirement to find guilt. In 2016, Stanford altered its procedures to require a unanimous vote from a three-member panel, a provision described by the Times as “stringent” and used by only one other school in the U.S. News & World Report’s list of top-20 U.S. colleges that use such panels.

““In deciding we wanted well-trained, long-term panelists, it made sense to go to a three-person panel,” Pamela S. Karlan told The Times. Karlan is a Stanford Law professor who is now chairwoman of a sexual assault advisory committee.

“Having three people decide something by a preponderance of the evidence seemed to us the appropriate way of deciding whether a life-altering sanction should be imposed on somebody for his or her behavior,” she continued.

Stanford defended its Title IX process after The Times article’s publication in a 2016 statement, in which they wrote that The Times’ report “provides an incomplete assessment of our efforts and contains many inaccuracies.”

“Stanford cares deeply about ensuring that our students are treated fairly and equitably on our campus and throughout our process for dealing with sexual assault,” the statement reads. “This includes assuring that they receive support and fair treatment when they are involved in any Title IX matter.”

The statement added that 13 of the 16 Title IX cases heard in 2016 found the accused responsible.

The incident in question took place during the accuser’s sophomore year, after a Kappa Sigma fraternity party when the two went back to her room. The woman said that she clearly stated she did not want to have sex with Okereke that night. But according to court documents, Okereke maintains they had consensual sex.

“Our testimonies are exactly the same right up until the moment of the actual rape,” the woman said. “Even though it was right before the act, there was a withdrawal of consent and I was very clear about it.”

The woman filed a report with the University shortly after, leading to the nine-month investigation. During the investigation, Stanford’s Title IX office issued a no-contact order requiring Okereke to stay away from her, which the woman said he violated multiple times.

Fearful that she might come into contact with Okereke again, she filed for a restraining order with Santa Clara County courts, which was ultimately denied after the judge decided she did not demonstrate he was an imminent threat. She now undergoes therapy for her PTSD three times a week.

“I was just constantly leaving campus and coming back and avoiding certain places,” she said. “School as I knew it just shattered into pieces and I lost a lot of respect for it. As soon as I realized that they valued a sport and a reputation more than they valued me, I sort of lost that feeling for [Stanford].

Throughout the Title IX investigation, Okereke was allowed to remain on the football team. Football coach David Shaw, who is also a member of the NCAA Commission to Combat Campus Sexual Violence, told The New York Times that he was aware that a “proceeding was happening,” but that he did not know the charge. Shaw said he chose not to suspend Okereke from the team without more information.

Then-Provost John Etchemendy Ph.D. ’82 told The Times that unless there is a reason “for safety,” Stanford does not inform the head of any activity students participate in what they are being investigated for. Shaw did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment; Risso said affiliates of Stanford Athletics would provide no further comment beyond his statement.

Contact Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu and Julia Ingram at jmingram ‘at’ stanford.edu.

This article has been corrected to indicate that Okereke was exonerated on a 3-5 vote, not a 2-1 vote. Stanford altered its Title IX proceedings after Okereke’s case had concluded. The Daily regrets this error. The article has also been updated to indicate that expulsion as a result of Title IX investigations has historically occurred in only rare instances.

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