PR, a conciliatory function that seeks to align private and public interests by keeping an open ear and open mind to public concerns, usually takes a back seat once a battle of some type is joined.

PR pros and students should follow closely how a number of institutions are handling a red-hot story -- rape charges against one of the most famous male college athletes, 20-year-old Garrett Wittels of Florida International University.

Wittels, who has a 56-game hitting streak going (if you don’t count summer league games in Alaska), was one of five nominated by ESPN for its “Best Male College Athlete” award. Although the award went July 14 to NBA first round draft choice John Wall at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles, Willets was in good company. The other three candidates were Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram of Alabama; NBA top draft choice Evan Turner of Ohio State, and Wisconsin hockey player Blake Geoffrion.

Wittels spent a month with the Peninsula Oilers, of the Alaska Baseball League. The Oilers are based in Kenai. The league is called the “foremost collegiate summer baseball league in the country, attracting the finest players in North America.” Wittels went 0-for-3 in the third game. The NCAA does not count summer league baseball games so he can seek to extend his streak when FIU plays UMASS Feb. 18.

Whether FIU will allow him to play is not yet known. It has refused any comment on the incident. Wittels is free under bond of $10,000.

FIU Prexy Rooted for Wittels

A strong supporter of Wittels is FIU president Mark Rosenberg. He urged students, faculty and alumni to vote in the ESPN competition for the FIU second baseman. “He’s worked hard and everybody’s behind him, he told the Herald June 28.

“This is a story you can feel good about,” said Rosenberg, who rejoined FIU last year. He was at the school for 30 years until 2005 when he became chancellor of the State University System.

Lockdown on All Fronts

While the institutions involved are mostly not even acknowledging receipt of e-mails or phone calls from this website, there’s plenty to be found on the web.

The institutions include FIU (journalism head Lillian Kopenhaver and PR director Fernando Figuerdo); the Atlantis (PR staffer Megan Marchesini), and reporters for the Miami Herald, who wrote Dec. 29 that no date-rape drugs had been administered to two 17-year-olds—“only alcohol.”

That statement, which became the headline on the story, ignored the fact that not only is alcohol a drug, but it is the leading drug involved in cases of sexual misbehavior.

The only reply this website received on the story was a “no comment” from a PR staffer at the University of Nebraska. The women reportedly are students at that school.

All Calls Were Once Returned

A couple of decades ago, it was unthinkable that a PR pro would not return a press call.

Almost all institutions and PR firms had outreach programs that sent their staffers to the desksides of reporters or concocted other ways of personal interaction such as company lunches, dinners, Broadway shows, ballets, symphonies, golf, tennis, baseball, basketball and other sports outings, holiday parties, etc.

PR pros routinely brought their spouses to such events.

Some reporters wondered if they were mere “props” since the PR pros and their spouses could not go to any of these events unless a reporter or reporters were present, thus making it a business deduction.

Ducking a press call would be a hostile act that ended any relationship with the reporter involved.

Today’s solution is to avoid building any relationships with reporters since this is something that could later haunt the PR pro. Almost all PR entertaining of reporters has vanished in New York.

Wittels Palled with Kobe Bryant

Wittels whose games attracted national TV coverage in the spring, palled around with other sports superstars this past summer including the NBA’s Kobe Bryant, tennis star Serena Williams, and Drew Brees, quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, according to the June 28, 2010 Herald.

Bryant was hit with rape charges in 2003. There was a press feeding frenzy that was rivaled by coverage of the Duke lacrosse team rape charges in 2006.

The married Bryant was arrested by police on charges of raping a 19-year-old hotel employee July 1 at a hotel in Cordillera, Colo.

He claimed it was consensual sex but the employee said she asked him to stop while the sex was going on and he refused to do so.

Lawyers for Bryant uncovered a number of negatives about the accuser including the fact that she had hospitalized herself as a “danger to herself” four months prior to the alleged rape.

A college roommate was quoted as saying the hotel worker twice tried to kill herself at school. She had also just failed in a bid to be a contestant on “The American Idol.”

Faber elected not to testify at a trial after the prosecution had spent more than $200,000 preparing its case. Bryant could have been sentenced to anything from parole to life in prison. [Maximum penalty for rape conviction for the first time in the Bahamas is seven years.]

The hotel worker then filed a civil suit against Bryant which was settled out of court for an unknown amount.

Duke Athletes Were Exonerated

The 2006 rape charges against three Duke University lacrosse players were eventually dismissed but only after extensive testimony and media coverage.

Lawyers for the three players launched a campaign aimed at discrediting stripper Crystal Mangum who had been hired for $400 and who claimed she was held in a bathroom and raped.

Prosecutor Michael Nifong’s motives were impugned from the start, attributed to a desire by him to win re-election.

Various irregularities were also found in the way he presented the case.

Nifong said he was hit with a “stonewall of silence” by the Duke team and that there was “no doubt in my mind that she had been raped.”
A nurse who examined stripper Crystal Mangum found “blunt force trauma” that was “consistent with the sexual assault that was alleged by the victim.”

Semen of one of the Duke students was found beside the toilet at about the same spot where Mangum said she had spat out semen from someone who orally raped her.

Semen of another Duke student was found on a rag in the hallway near his bedroom. Mangum claimed that someone had wiped her vagina with a rag.

The defense said in that in each instance the semen came from events not related to Mangum.

No DNA of the 46 white members of the team was found on Mangum, a huge setback for Nifong. The New York Times, in an extensive story Aug. 25, 2006, called this “a turning point in the public view of the case.”

Bahamas Police Station Image: Wikimedia
1,850 Pages of Evidence Disclosed

The paper said the defense, “by disclosing pieces of evidence favorable to the defendants, created an image of a case heading for the rocks. But an examination of the entire 1,850 page of evidence gathered by the prosecution in the four months after the accusation yields a more ambiguous picture.”

The lengthy article, by Duff Wilson and Jonathan Glater, said the record “shows that while there are big weaknesses in Mr. Nifong’s case, there is also a body of evidence to support his decision to take the matter to a jury.” There is a possibility Mangum was given a drug of some type other than alcohol.

Kim Roberts, a stripper also hired at $400, said that Mangum was “clearly sober” at first but became glassy-eyed, “talking crazy” and “basically out of it” within the hour. Both strippers had been given mixed drinks when they arrived but Roberts did not drink hers. No test was given to determine if Mangum had been drugged in any way.

Roberts said she was with Mangum for the hour or so the women were in the house except for about five minutes.
Nifong, accused of various irregularities in pursuing the charges, was disbarred and served one day in jail. No charges were ever brought against Mangum.

First Wittels Hearing: April 18

While authorities in Colorado and North Carolina started almost immediate investigations of the rape charges against Bryant and the three Duke students, respectively, the first court date for Wittels and two other FIU students is not until April 18 when a “preliminary” hearing will take place before Magistrate Derence Rolle-Davis.