Newly resigned Utah State athletic director apologizes for repeating ‘vulgar and foul’ joke

The apology comes one day after John Hartwell resigned from his position at the northern Utah school.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Hartwell, who resigned as the athletic director at Utah State University, is pictured on Thursday, July 21, 2016. He apologized on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, for repeating a vulgar joke.

One day after resigning as the athletic director of Utah State University, John Hartwell apologized for a video that shows him repeating part of a vulgar joke while he was away at a bowl game for the school.

An anonymous group raised the video with USU administrators in August, calling Hartwell’s conduct “abhorrent” in a letter signed by “concerned Aggies.” The letter, which lists other issues with athletics and within the football program in particular, was released Wednesday in response to a public records request filed by The Salt Lake Tribune.

In a second released letter, Green Bay Packer Dallin Leavitt — a former USU football player — wrote to university President Noelle Cockett last month, citing the video as among reasons he is “beyond ashamed” of the school’s program.

The shaky eight-second clip from 2019 was posted on Twitter in December 2020 — but later was removed without explanation and with no confirmation of who recorded it. It circulated again on social media last year, but its veracity had not been confirmed until now.

The Tribune has a copy of the clip, which shows Hartwell sitting at a table with another individual across from him who is not fully shown. Hartwell is talking on his phone, which is on speaker. He is laughing as he says: “Get your d--- out of that boy’s a--.”

He continues to laugh and clap his hands before the video ends. The brief recording does not include anything that was said before or after that.

Hartwell released a statement to The Tribune Wednesday shortly after it received the letters from USU; The Tribune had not yet reached out to him for comment.

The former athletic director said he wanted to “set the record straight regarding the video.”

He said he did not state the vulgar joke in front of athletes, which the anonymous letter sent to USU claimed, though he acknowledges that some may have overheard it. In December 2019, while in Texas for the Frisco Bowl, where USU played Kent State, he said, he “repeated a portion of a joke” that a donor told him while he was talking to the individual on the phone.

“Repeating his words, which were vulgar and foul, was my mistake,” Hartwell said in his statement. “I should not have repeated them even in a one-on-one conversation. ... I apologize that any of our football student-athletes who were in the hotel lobby heard such an uncharacteristic comment come out of my mouth.”

Hartwell said he learned of the video a year later, when it was posted online.

At the time, he said, he showed it to Cockett. Hartwell said that Cockett told him “there wasn’t anything on that video that concerned her and to not worry about it.”

With that, he said, he deleted a copy of the video he had saved.

USU’s spokesperson issued a statement Wednesday, saying Cockett “met with Hartwell and addressed her concerns about his behavior and set expectations for the future.”

On a Twitter thread of the since-deleted video from December 2020, Dee Jones, a prominent donor to USU and a member of the school’s Alumni Hall of Honor, claims he was the one talking to Hartwell on the phone.

“John was giving me grief for not being at the bowl game,” he wrote. “And I was giving him grief in return. I told John a funny, off-color joke and what you see here is John laughing and giving me a dose of my own medicine. We both thought this was a private conversation.”

Jones, who was also a candidate for Logan mayor last year, did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Tribune on Wednesday. The donor is listed on USU’s website as a “President’s Circle” contributor, who has given between $100,000 and $499,999 to the school.

USU did not comment on whether Jones’ contributions would continue to be accepted by the school. The school also did not comment on Hartwell being allowed to resign with a severance package for $750,000 (which is offset if he accepts another job), according to documents obtained by The Tribune.

The school has since named Jerry Bovee as the interim athletic director.

Allegations around the football program

Hartwell had announced Tuesday that he was stepping down from his post as athletic director at USU, a position which he held for more than seven years. He has spent 25 years in athletics. In a statement on his decision, he said he was leaving to prioritize his family.

His departure, though, came as concerns magnified around the football program — even before the joke was confirmed.

Last week, Patrick Maddox, a former player, filed suit against Utah State and coach Blake Anderson for allegedly retaliating against him after he shared recordings of the coach and then-campus police chief making derogatory comments about sex assault victims during team meetings.

The recordings were originally described in a lawsuit filed last year by Kaytriauna Flint, a USU student and a friend of Maddox’s who alleged she was raped by another member of the football team in 2019. Her case was settled last month.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Patrick Maddox, a former football player at Utah State, is photographed in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. Maddox is alleging in a new lawsuit that he was retaliated against after recording a video of a coach and the USU police chief making derogatory comments about sexual assault victims.

The coach has defended himself against what he calls the “false statements” from Maddox. But he has previously acknowledged making the statement in the recordings from August 2021 where he tells his players it “has never been more glamorized to be a victim.” He apologized for saying that.

In a separate recording, Earl Morris, who was then the university’s police chief, also told the football players to make sure that when they have sex that it’s consensual — especially with a Latter-day Saint woman. He warned the team that LDS women will often tell their bishop, when questioned about it, that sex was nonconsensual because that’s “easier.”

Morris resigned last year, a few days after the recordings were published.

Those recordings — as well as the Hartwell video — are mentioned in the two letters sent to the school.

Two letters, including one from an NFL player

The first letter is dated Aug. 1 of this year and is signed by the “concerned Aggies.” It was sent to Cockett, as well as several other school administrators and to the commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education.

Leavitt sent his note on Oct. 5 to Cockett, as well as a few other administrators.

In his letter, which is slightly redacted by USU, Leavitt said the comments made by Anderson and Morris are “disgusting and wrong.” He added that he is not surprised by them because of the video of Hartwell repeating the joke, which he interpreted as referring to raping a child.

“If I was on the team when such comments were made I would have spoke out,” he said. “… The secretive and protective culture around the football program should not be used to punish victims and should certainly not be used to protect coaches and others from the consequences of poor decisions.”

Leavitt adds: “I am beyond ashamed.” He encourages the school to do better.

In the letter from the “concerned Aggies,” the Hartwell joke is mentioned at the top.

The writers said: “The situation and the context of the video can be argued, but this type of behavior is abhorrent regardless of the situation and context.” They chastise the university for not taking action when leaders first learned about the clip.

The letter writers also mention the recordings of the coach and police chief, saying “the off the field news continued to be a distraction and shined a negative light on the program, university and community.”

The writers said they were glad to see a “necessary” restructure of the police department. But they were disappointed, they wrote, by Anderson’s “obviously forced apology.” They described it as “nothing more than a token gesture equivalent of a slap on the wrist.”

In his lawsuit, Maddox said Anderson referred to issuing the apology as having “to go address some bulls--- real quick.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Aggies head coach Blake Anderson pictured on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022.

If Morris was forced to resign over his comments, the writers add, they are confused why Hartwell faced no similar pushback from the university for repeating the joke.

The letter additionally suggests the program is spending too much money — while underpaying coaches of color. It asserts that that two Polynesian coaches on the team are the lowest paid assistant coaches in the Mountain West.

With that, the letter refers to the 2020 investigation into concerns of racial bias on the team.

Former interim coach Frank Maile called for an investigation then after Cockett had reportedly said he was not considered for the head coaching job due to his religious and ethnic background. Cockett and Hartwell were both later cleared of wrongdoing in that case by the Utah Board of Higher Education.

The letter writers end by quoting Utah State, which said in a statement after the recordings of the coach and police chief were published that the comments were “not consistent with the university’s value of the trainings provided on sexual misconduct at Utah State.”

“At what point does the university administration decide it has had enough?” the letter writers asked. “The inaction is disheartening to many who wish to give their full support, or additional support, to Utah State University.”

In a statement Wednesday, the university’s spokesperson said Cockett, who took over the school’s helm in 2016, “discussed these matters with members of her leadership team” after receiving the two letters. It does not elaborate on what she has done since then or what she plans to do.

USU has faced a slew of legal claims over the past few years and under Cockett’s leadership related to how it has responded to — or failed to respond to — sexual assaults, including abuse from piano faculty and the high-profile case against former football player Torrey Green, who has since been sentenced to prison for sexually assaulting six women while he was a student at the Logan school. He is now asking for a new trial.

The northern Utah school was investigated and chastised by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2020 for mistreating victims — and Utah State University had agreed to improve its response.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) USU President Noelle Cockett speaks at a press conference in Logan on Friday, April 6, 2018.