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Disapproval, doubt pierce Osborne's solid reputation

(c) 1995 Copyright The News and Observer Publishing Co.
(c) 1995 Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (Oct 24, 1995 - 18:42 EDT) -- In Nebraska, where football is king, there is an unaccustomed undercurrent amid the cheers for the defending national champion Cornhuskers.

Coach Tom Osborne's integrity is being questioned.

He's been criticized before, mostly for losing bowl games, or not passing enough, or for many other fan-type complaints. But never has he been viewed as anything other than an honest straight-arrow dedicated to hard work and good citizenship.

That was before Osborne started talking about allowing running back Lawrence Phillips to rejoin the team this season. Phillips has been convicted of misdemeanor assault in the Sept. 10 beating of his ex-girlfriend. Athletic director Bill Byrne said McEwen is continuing to receive 24-hour protection, but basketball coach Angela Beck said round-the-clock protection was dropped.

Osborne said at the time that Phillips, considered to be a contender for the Heisman Trophy, was off the team and probably would not play for Nebraska again for a long time. The coach later said it was possible Phillips could play again some day. On Tuesday, Osborne said Phillips would return to practice immediately, and would play against Iowa State Nov. 4.

Medical and domestic violence professionals, women's groups and others now have doubts about Osborne that go beyond X's and O's.

"His ethical compass has a needle that is turning back and forth," said Lincoln psychiatrist Eli Chesen, a Huskers fan who attends home games.

Chesen, who is writing a book about the violent tendencies of football running backs, said Osborne's statements that Phillips simply needs counseling to control his anger don't wash.

Anger-management counseling for someone like Phillips "is like sending a T. Rex to charm school," Chesen said.

"I'm not privy to what medical care he's getting," Chesen said. But he suspects Phillips needs more than counseling.

"Two months in a counseling program doesn't cut it," said Sarah O'Shea, director of the Nebraska Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault Coalition.

O'Shea said that in a way, whether or not Phillips plays football is irrelevant.

"I want Lawrence Phillips to stop using violence," she said. "If making sure he never plays football at Nebraska would do that, fine."

Phillips is being punished for violating the university's student code of conduct. The penalties include being placed on probation until the end of this academic year.

But to some, reinstating Phillips to the football team sends the wrong message to women.

"I think that every woman at the university should be frightened," said Leslie Wolfe, president of the Center for Women's Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Phillips awaits sentencing Dec. 1 for his conviction on charges of misdemeanor assault and trespassing in the attack on Kate McEwen, a Nebraska basketball player.

Phillips found McEwen at the third-floor apartment of Scott Frost, a Nebraska quarterback, at about 5:45 a.m. EDT Sept. 10. Investigators said the attack began in the apartment, and McEwen was dragged down the stairs into the foyer of the building.

Reports at the time said she was thrown to the floor, suffered a cut to her head and was hit in the face.

Frost called police, then struggled to free McEwen from Phillips' grasp. Frost and two neighbors pulled her behind a security door, locking Phillips outside. Phillips was arrested later that morning.

The incident came the day after Phillips had rushed for 206 yards in Nebraska's victory at Michigan State.

Osborne said at the time that Phillips had been dismissed from the team. A day later, he softened that, saying that Phillips might rejoin the team. He said Tuesday that allowing Phillips to play football again this year would be in the player's best interest.

Is it?

"If I was the person who cared about this young man, I would say it is not," Wolfe said. She said that football players are not held accountable for their actions.

"They are told, 'You're special. You're different.' This almost obscene adulation of athletics has produced this," she said. "It doesn't benefit them in the long run."