Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

The best pitcher on Oregon State University’s record-setting baseball team is a registered sex offender.

This is not the sort of thing a university promotes on its website or Facebook page.

But the case of Luke Heimlich, who was not only the Beavers’ best starting pitcher this year but also the top pitcher in the Pac-12 Conference, seems to me not so straightforward as its basic elements might suggest.

On the one hand, I think Oregon State’s reputation is tarnished by the revelation that Heimlich, who’s now 21, was convicted in 2012 of sexually abusing a 6-year-old girl whom he’s related to. According to The Oregonian, which published a well-researched article in June, Heimlich abused the girl over a two-year period that started when the victim was 4 and Heimlich was 13.

Whether that tarnish is permanent, or whether it might yield to a determined scrubbing, I can’t judge because OSU officials have not answered the key question — When did they learn that Heimlich was a registered sex offender?

That’s a vital point because if OSU leaders knew about Heimlich’s past before The Oregonian published its well-researched article earlier this month, then they are also obligated to explain why they were complicit in Heimlich’s silence.

If the university didn’t know about Heimlich’s past — and it can be shown conclusively that OSU officials had no reasonable way to find out — then the flaw lies more with the university’s policies regarding student-athletes.

Oregon State doesn’t prohibit convicted felons, including sex offenders, from enrolling or from participating in athletics, nor does it require applicants to disclosed convictions.

I think this is a misguided policy.

Much of the discussion I have read regarding Heimlich centers on the notion that although he committed heinous acts as a teenager, he has, according to OSU baseball coach Pat Casey, been a model student and citizen since he arrived in Corvallis in 2015.

“For every second he has been on this campus, on and off the field, he has been a first-class individual,” Casey said of Heimlich, speaking to the Portland Tribune.

Notwithstanding that it’s unlikely Casey has monitored Heimlich quite so closely as the “every second” claim implies, I think the coach’s statement, though not irrelevant, veers afield from the greater point.

I don’t believe Heimlich should be segregated from society, for the rest of his life, solely because he sexually abused a little girl.

And I don’t question that Heimlich has been an upstanding citizen for the past five years.

But it seems to me that Casey and many of Heimlich’s other supporters are arguing that because Heimlich has missed a few baseball games (he did not play in either the Super Regional round or the College World Series), and had his crimes publicly disclosed, that this constitutes an unfair punishment of a man who has admitted his guilt.

“Luke has done everything the courts have asked of him,” Casey told the Tribune. “Now he is again going through the consequences of what happened six years ago. I don’t know many people who have paid the price once, then have to do it again.”

This is a weak argument, and frankly an insulting one to any person who believes, as I do, that the consequences to Heimlich’s victim are vastly greater than anything that has, or likely ever will, befall her abuser.

I don’t mind if a professional baseball franchise, which is a private business, chooses to hire Heimlich and pay him millions to throw fastballs, whatever the negative publicity that might arise.

That’s none of my business.

But playing baseball for a public university is quite a different matter. That’s a privilege, not a right. The taxpayers who support Oregon State ought not be obligated to help Heimlich improve his prospects to play professional baseball. Nor should they be accused, however implicitly, by statements such as Casey’s which suggest that people who don’t think Heimlich should ever again don a Beaver uniform are punishing him for a crime he committed as a teenager.

It may well be that OSU officials can prove they didn’t know Heimlich was a sex offender until The Oregonian published its story.

And it may also be that they will contend that even if they had known, they likely would have given him a chance to prove that he had changed his life. I have read comments from experts who say that based on what they know of Heimlich’s crimes, he has an exceedingly slim chance of committing similar offenses.

But the problem with that scenario is that it ignores, or at least subsumes, the reality of Heimlich’s relationship with Oregon State.

What’s indisputable is that the roster for one of the university’s most celebrated, and successful, sports teams has included for three years a registered sex offender. And this fact, whether intentionally or not, was hidden from the public.

This is not acceptable.

To be clear, this issue is hardly unique to Oregon State.

The University of Oregon, just a few weeks after The Oregonian published its story about Heimlich, had a superficially similar situation arise.

A reporter for The Daily Emerald, the student newspaper at the U of O (I am an alumnus both of the university and of the Emerald) discovered that an Oregon basketball player, Kavell Bigby-Williams, is being investigated in a possible sexual assault case in Wyoming, where he attended a junior college before transferring to play for the Ducks last fall. Bigby-Williams transferred in June to LSU.

The differences between that case and Heimlich’s are significant, to be sure.

Bigby-Williams is being investigated. Heimlich was convicted.

But I think both matters are relevant to the broader topic of how public universities deal with student-athletes who have committed a crime, or who are suspected of doing so.

Unlike the situation in Corvallis, in the Bigby-Williams case U of O officials knew that he was under investigation because Wyoming police had asked campus police in Eugene to try to interview Bigby-Williams.

It’s not clear whether either athletic director Rob Mullens or the head basketball coach, Dana Altman, knew or even asked why campus officers wanted to talk to Bigby-Williams. If they didn’t ask, I believe that was a mistake.

As for Heimlich, whether or not he remains a member of the OSU baseball team, I think the university’s leadership must acknowledge that if coaches in any sport in the future bring to campus a student with a similar criminal record, then they must handle the matter much differently, which is to say publicly, than they have done with Heimlich.

To allow a student with his criminal record to represent the university in such a high-profile way for three years, and to have the truth revealed only after three years, and by a reporter rather than an OSU official, is a breach of the public trust.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.