Months of silence surrounding University of Florida receiver Antonio Callaway exploded Friday when his accuser's attorney said the university "destroyed the integrity" of the Title IX process by hiring a booster to preside over the sexual assault hearing of the Gators' top offensive play maker.
A few days before Friday's hearing, UF informed Callaway's accuser that Jacksonville lawyer and mediator Jake Schickel would decide the case. Schickel donated at least $6,800 to the school's athletic department — including thousands to the football program — according to the Gators Boosters' 2014-15 year-in-review document. Schickel, a former assistant state attorney, was on the Gators' track team before graduating in 1970 and is a member of the university's Hall of Fame.
"I was absolutely floored . . . and I don't get floored much anymore on the behavior of these cases," said John Clune, a high-profile Title IX attorney who represents the complainant. "But that was pretty amazing."
Clune said there were "clear conflict issues" because of Schickel's ties to the football program and Callaway's role on the team. Callaway, a Miami native, set school freshman records last season with 678 receiving yards and 17.6 yards per play and led the Gators with 1,211 all-purpose yards. He was initially suspended by UF in January, but the reason was not publicly known until Friday.
According to the boosters' document, Schickel donated between $4,800 and $8,599 to the football program during the 2014-15 year, making him a "scholarship club" donor. He was in the "3 Point Club" for giving between $2,000 and $4,999 to the basketball program.
As a result, both Clune and his client boycotted in the hearing. Schickel did not return a request for comment.
UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said the school could not comment on specifics because of privacy laws. She also denied the Tampa Bay Times' open-records request for Schickel's contract, writing that "to the extent that the university had a contract of that nature" it could not be disclosed because of student privacy laws. Sikes said UF's conduct policies allow investigations to be heard by university employees, outside professionals or a committee of faculty and students.
"Any hearing officer and all committee members are trained and vetted for their impartiality," Sikes said in an email. "A hearing officer or committee member would not be disqualified (for) lack of objectivity simply because he or she had been a student-athlete decades earlier or purchases athletic tickets as more than 90,000 people do each year."
One outside Title IX expert contacted by the Times agreed.
Peter Lake, the director of Stetson University's Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy, said it would be unfair to assume a booster would want to protect an athlete. That booster might be loyal to the program, not the player, and judge misconduct even more harshly.
"I think it could cut both ways," Lake said, "or no way at all."
Callaway's attorney, Huntley Johnson, confirmed that Friday's hearing took place as scheduled but declined further comment. His firm's partner, Amy E. Osteryoung, said in a statement that Clune's comments were "inappropriate and an attempt at intimidation."
The federal gender-equity law Title IX requires schools to look into accusations of sexual discrimination, including sexual assault, even if an incident is not reported to police.
Lake said some schools are using third parties to conduct hearings, either because a university lacks staffing or wants to be careful with a high-profile case. Florida State University proposed three former Florida Supreme Court justices who could hear the Jameis Winston case in December 2014. Both parties were allowed to eliminate one judge; FSU appointed Major Harding to preside in that case. Clune also represents Winston's accuser, Zephyrhills' Erica Kinsman.
Friday's development is the latest incident in a national trend of football-related Title IX cases, with high-profile scandals marring FSU, Baylor University and the University of Tennessee, among others. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating the handlings of 260 cases of sexual violence at 202 schools, including FSU, USF and the University of Miami.
ESPN reported that former starting quarterback Treon Harris was also involved in the early December incident. Harris decided to transfer last month.
Little else remains publicly known about the case. Local law enforcement agencies have said there were no relevant criminal investigations or documents related to Callaway.
In March, Johnson confirmed that Callaway was involved in a code of conduct investigation but did not provide details. Osteryoung's statement said that UF's investigation was more than 1,000 pages, including text messages from the complainant and her "multitude of varying and conflicting stories."
UF did not allow Callaway to practice in the spring, but his suspension was modified in June to allow him to return to campus and workouts pending the investigation's final outcome. He participated in the Gators' first practice of fall camp Thursday.
The Gators open the season Sept. 3 against the University of Massachusetts at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.