Penthouse Retrospective

by Charles Thompson and Allan Sonnenschein Originally Published: October, 1990

College Football History | 30 Years Ago This Month

Three of the players, Bernard Hall, Nigel Clay, and Glen Bell, were charged with first-degree rape.

I wasn’t there that night, but I do have a pretty good idea of what happened. Two women, one 17 and the other 20, had come to the campus to see Nigel and go dancing. There were several players in the room when they arrived, and the 17-year-old left to go to another player’s room where, according to a third friend’s trial testimony, she had sex. The older woman left Nigel’s room to buy liquor and returned. After a few drinks somebody grabbed her from behind, threw her to the floor, and her clothes were removed. The lights in the room were out and she couldn’t see the men who raped her. At the trial Jimmy Fennell, a former O.U. player who was in the room that night, testified that Clay, Hall, and Bell had raped her. After 11 hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Clay and Hall. Bell, who did not testify on his own behalf, was acquitted.

Details that came out at the trial cast doubt on the testimony of the victim, but I believe that the essence of her story was true. I never talked to Bernard Hall about what happened, but I don’t doubt his involvement that night. To me it fit right in with his character. Bernard loved to boast that he was a ladies’ man, that girls chased him all the time. Few of us believed him. Bernard was a very aggressive person who liked to throw his strength around; if you wouldn’t do what he wanted, he would try and make you do it. He was not a favorite among his teammates.

Once — and there were other incidents — Bernard had stolen some money from another player. This player, who had left the money in the ashtray of his car, had driven Bernard home and after dropping him off had realized that the money was gone. It was one more theft in which Bernard was the only suspect, and Switzer was told about it. Switzer planned to call a meeting of the players to decide if Bernard should remain on the team. We thought it was unfair for Switzer to place the burden on us, that it was the coach’s decision to make. But because Bernard was a great athlete, Switzer didn’t have the balls to do whatever was right.

Bernard remained outside the meeting room while Switzer told us about the numerous reports of theft he had received. We listened while he tried to explain that Bernard had psychological problems, an illness called kleptomania, and that he was at the mercy of his disease. But, Switzer wanted us to know, he had discussed this with Bernard and told him that the only way he could help himself was to throw himself on the mercy of the team. “Bernard is going to come in this room,” Switzer said, “and he is going to own up to what he has been doing, and I want you guys to make the decision as to whether we keep him on the team.”

When Switzer left the room we all looked at one another. Fuck, what could we do but forgive poor Bernard Hall, suffering from a disease none of us could pronounce. Switzer returned to the room with Bernard and asked him, “Are you sorry about what you have stolen from your teammates?” Bernard looked at Switzer as if he were from another planet, and said, “I never stole anything, Coach.” Switzer looked like he’d died, and we eventually voted Bernard off the team. Of course, when we needed a tight end, Bernard was quickly reinstated.

As I said, I didn’t doubt Bernard Hall’s role in the rape, since there was little in his character to make me question the victim or Jimmy Fennell. Nigel Clay, who was from Fontana, California, had something in common with Bernard, who was from Detroit. Both of them looked down on Oklahomans. They were both slick talkers who thought Oklahomans had no common sense. Nigel’s attitude toward everyone from the state leads me to believe he thought he could get away with anything. Glen Bell was the only one I believed, though I couldn’t understand why a guy like him who had no trouble meeting girls would get involved in something like that. Glen was in Nigel’s room when everything was happening, but it was not unusual for a woman to come to a player’s room and wind up having sex with a group. There are aspects of Glen’s personality I never liked, but I believed that when a woman decided that things were out of control he would not do anything against her will. In the aftermath of the rape the school’s main concern was Barry Switzer’s job; neither David Swank nor Athletic Director Donnie Duncan appeared to show any interest in the welfare of the victim. The issues were not the shooting and the rape, but can we save Barry Switzer?

Charles Thompson did not help matters. At the time the rape and the arrests were announced, I was preparing to meet with three of my buddies to sell 17 grams of cocaine. Within 13 days the University of Oklahoma football team went on a felony rampage — shooting, rape, and cocaine dealing. It was a sad time in Norman, a time to come to grips with reality, but nobody knew how to deal with it and instead it became a public relations issue. Governor Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma didn’t blame the school’s permissiveness toward its football players for what had happened; rather, he was “thoroughly disgusted” with the athletes, and underlined his confidence in the university and support of Barry Switzer “as long as he is on the staff.”

Switzer did not believe that he was responsible for the behavior of his players, although the student newspaper thought differently — one of the few Oklahoma voices with another perspective — and called for his resignation. He let them know that he was not worried about losing his job: “Our regents and our president have told me they think Donnie Duncan and I are the people they want to get this thing under control. I think I am the most qualified person to get it done.”

Sport to some. Abusive to the point of near slavery to others. Near to religion for even more. College Football checks all those boxes.

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