By EDDIE PELLS
AP National Writer
He came to New Mexico State to play basketball, maybe even live out a dream. On Wednesday, former Aggies basketball player Deuce Benjamin, flanked by his father and a former teammate, broke down as he shared the impact of his brief, troubling stay on the team.
“First it hurts, then it changes you,” Benjamin said, while choking back tears that eventually would start flowing. “There’s a part of me that hasn’t been the same.”
Benjamin and former Aggie Shak Odunewu held a news conference on the edge of NMSU’s campus in Las Cruces to discuss the lawsuit they filed alleging teammates ganged up and sexually assaulted them multiple times, while their coaches and others at the school didn’t act when confronted with the allegations.
The players, their attorneys and Benjamin’s dad, William, an Aggie Hall of Famer who also is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, spent nearly an hour detailing the ways the university failed the students.
“My child has been failed. My family has been failed,” said William Benjamin as he, too, paused to hold back tears. “And as a father, I feel like I failed my son for putting him in this situation.”
New Mexico State spokesman Justin Bannister released a statement saying the school “continues to regard this matter as extremely important.”
“The kind of behavior described in those allegations has no place on our campus,” Bannister said.
As much as rehashing the gruesome details alleged in the lawsuit, the news conference provided a chance to review all the other issues that have surrounded New Mexico State — and come up anew — because of it.
One was the five-year contract extension given to athletic director Mario Moccia. It was a deal signed on the last day of the tenure of outgoing chancellor Dan Arvizu, who himself has been roundly criticized for his leadership during the troubling times for the basketball program.
This week, the faculty senate will vote on releasing a letter, a draft of which was obtained by The Associated Press, voicing their concern with the contract extension, which the letter called “both astonishing and deeply disheartening.”
Another was the brushoff Benjamin got from Jason Hooten, the coach who replaced Greg Heiar, after Arvizu fired Heiar and canceled the rest of the basketball season when details of the assault first went public in February.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to hit the reset button and lump in victims with everyone you’re getting rid of,” William Benjamin said. “Deuce was going to be an Aggie if he was good enough.”
There wasn’t much doubt about that. Playing for his dad at Las Cruces High, Deuce Benjamin was a two-time player of the year in New Mexico whose dream was to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
“Growing up, I always wanted to be an Aggie,” Deuce said.
That almost certainly won’t happen, and Odunewu will be looking for other options, as well. Everyone involved agreed that navigating these players’ futures will be more difficult now, and the top priority won’t necessarily be hoops.
Odunewu was a redshirt freshman who said he endured the same assaults as Benjamin did. Odunewu said his Muslim faith made him hesitant to go public with his story because “there were people involved with this … and I was going to mess up their careers.”
“But it just got to a point where I just can’t bear anymore,” he said. “And it’s just sad my college experience had to go like this. … I hope me and Deuce will have the strength to move past this and become dominant in whatever path we choose.”
The state’s department of education is getting involved. Last week, it sent a letter to New Mexico State, asking it to investigate both the interaction between Deuce Benjamin and Hooten and the full athletic department in general.
Attorney Ramez Shamieh said the lawsuit has two missions: to find justice for the Benjamins and Odunewu and to effect change at a school where the basketball program alone has sparked no fewer than a half-dozen investigations.
“By putting pressure on the university to make changes to hold people accountable, there’s going to be change,” Shamieh said. “That’s what we’re trying to gain out of this. And then from a human standpoint, we want these kids to move on.”
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