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UF fumbles its handling of Antonio Callaway hearing

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When we learned Florida Gators’ star wide receiver Antonio Callaway was suspended indefinitely on March 11, that’s all we knew. No reason; no hint; nothing.

The official word from the university was for “violation of the code of conduct.” We did not even know when he was suspended.

Thanks to some legal strategy and an ESPN report, we now know when and why Callaway was officially sent away on January 27. He, along with former quarterback Treon Harris, are accused of sexual assault.

If all of this sounds familiar, it is somewhat similar to the saga of Jameis Winston, who was accused of sexual assault by Erica Kinsman (she identified herself). ESPN broke the Callaway story when the accuser boycotted a Title IX hearing related to the case schedule for Friday.

The accuser did not file a police report, but did report the incident to the university, prompting the hearing. She said the assault occurred last December.

To oversee the hearing, UF appointed attorney Jake Shickel as the hearing officer. By all accounts, Shickel is an outstanding attorney.

The problem comes when looking at Shickel’s ties to the University of Florida. He earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the school and donates thousands of dollars to both the football and basketball teams. He was on the track team as an undergraduate.

As Jerry Seinfeld would say, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” Shickel could conduct what looks like a fair hearing and come to the correct conclusion, whatever that is.

Unfortunately, perception is reality. Some would never accept any decision favoring UF.

Lawyers and ethicists regularly talk about “the appearance of impropriety.” By forgetting this concept, the university clearly fumbled the ball.

After providing the disclaimer he was not questioning Shickel’s integrity, the accuser’s attorney, John Clune, put his client’s thoughts onto paper.

 “Quite frankly, short of finding a relative of Mr. Callaway, I’m not sure how UF could have found someone with more conflicts [than] Mr. Shickel,” Clune wrote on August 2 to Amy Hass, the university’s deputy general counsel.

Florida responded with a statement from Janine Sikes, the assistant vice-president for media relations.

“A hearing officer or a committee member would not be disqualified or lack 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,” she said.

There is a difference between buying tickets and being a booster. This disingenuous response shows they don’t get it.

Compare the Winston case. When Winston faced a code of conduct hearing, Florida State had to come up with someone to preside over the proceedings.

Multiple names were offered, but in the end, they chose former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding. Just in case that wasn’t impartial enough, Harding was educated at Wake Forest. Not a whiff of partiality existed and the decision was accepted.

The University of Florida would be well served to change course and remove the appearance of impropriety. It would be better for them and certainly for Shickel. He does not need this.

The university should also realize what they are up against in Clune, who knows what he’s doing. He represented Kinsman in her case against Winston.

Despite having no apparent legal leg to stand on (State Attorney Willie Meggs declined to prosecute), Clune negotiated a $950,000 settlement with Florida State paid for by Seminole boosters. If the university cares about its image and does not wish to dump unnecessary grief on Shickel, go outside the university family to handle this.

Everyone can then have confidence in the result no matter what happens.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at

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