Huskies unleash their lawyer
May is nearing an end, something that can be viewed as a good thing around the University of Washington. Historically, the mix of testosterone spring weather and free time has ...
Seattle Times staff reporter
May is nearing an end, something that can be viewed as a good thing around the University of Washington.
Historically, the mix of testosterone, spring weather and free time has brought more than one Huskies football player to the police blotter in May — from a dustup at a fraternity in Rick Neuheisel's first year (1999) to Jerramy Stevens ramming a retirement home with his pickup truck (2001) to Zach Tuiasosopo getting busted for breaking out car windows (2003).
Mayhem in May.
But this has been an uneventful month for such villainy, and that's just fine with Mike Hunsinger. He is the Seattle attorney who ... well, let him begin, from across the desk in his office near Pioneer Square:
"Born, Children's Orthopaedic Hospital, 1951," he says. "Bryant Elementary, Woodway High School, 1970 ... UW class of 1973 ... University of Pennsylvania Law School."
Those who scan every newspaper sports story, especially those that touch upon the occasionally unsavory side of UW football, would add this description:
Defender of the Bad Dawgs.
In many cases, that's unfair. Many of the Huskies for whom Hunsinger has provided legal counsel aren't bad guys, just people who exercised bad judgment or were guilty of bad timing.
But this much is true: More than any other Pac-10 school, Washington football players have relied on one attorney when they drive too fast, drink too much or get too rowdy at a fraternity party.
That attorney is Hunsinger.
On and off for about a decade, Hunsinger has represented UW athletes who got into trouble, large issues and small. He has provided counsel for Stevens in a sexual-assault allegation, and he represented Taylor Barton when the former UW quarterback was charged with trespassing on the Seattle Pacific campus after hours.
Hunsinger was Tuiasosopo's attorney when the Huskies fullback was charged with malicious mischief; he represented ex-wideout Will Hooks when he was arrested for a misdemeanor hit-and-run incident; and he took on a case in which ex-running back Rich Alexis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault.
Two stereotypes have developed, neither of which is accurate, Hunsinger insists:
One, that the Huskies as a program are involved in more legal skirmishes than the average big-time football enterprise. Two, that Hunsinger's sleep is regularly interrupted by phone calls detailing the latest incident of wayward behavior.
"In 27 years [of practice], I've only gotten one phone call in the middle of the night from anybody," Hunsinger says.
That came from one of Stevens' roommates, when the former Huskies tight end ran afoul of the retirement home.
"Jerramy frustrated the hell out of me," Hunsinger says, referring specifically to that episode. "You don't think I was ticked off about that? Jerramy is a unique case, because his potential as a human being is unlimited. He's compassionate and intelligent. You're always upset and mad about an underachiever."
On a general level, Hunsinger says the frequency of transgressions is no greater at Washington than elsewhere.
"If you took 120 college males and put them in the same house — four classes [freshman through senior], black, white, Asian — those guys are going to misbehave at about the same level," he says.
With some regularity, though, when the football players are involved in scrapes, it is Hunsinger's name that shows up as their counsel. While an informal check of other Pac-10 schools' misbehavior reveals no attorney regulars, the tradition of Hunsinger as player counsel seems to be passed down from class to class, like freshmen singing for juniors and seniors at training-camp dinner.
Last fall, then-coach Keith Gilbertson scoffed at the depth of Hunsinger's involvement, saying, "He's not the only guy that helps us, or me, or anyone else. He's not the only one. He's an alum; we know a lot of attorneys that are alums."
Says Hunsinger, "If somebody has a problem and they hire somebody else, I'm perfectly happy. My [business] card isn't down there. I'm not soliciting business. God knows, I'm not looking for criminal-defense business; that's not what I do."
Indeed, Hunsinger says the work with the UW athletes is virtually his only criminal-defense business. Otherwise, he spends considerable time in court on civil matters — real estate disputes, malpractice, divorce, "anything where people are not getting along with each other."
It was that sort of clash more than a decade ago that pointed him toward UW athletes.
His former law partner, Ron Neubauer, knew ex-Huskies assistant coach Dick Baird, and through him, other UW coaches. When the Pac-10 Conference belted Washington with a two-year bowl probation in 1993 and other significant sanctions resulting partly from booster involvement, Neubauer represented prominent UW booster Herb Mead.
"After the Pac-10 shafted the university by imposing the two-year bowl ban, Ron and I decided to sue the Pac-10 on behalf of the football team, along with a local antitrust lawyer," says Hunsinger. "When the NCAA imposed the same penalty in '94, we added them to the lawsuit."
Then, as the 1994 season waned, came "Scott Frost's night." The Huskies were 6-2 and 12th-ranked when they fell victim to a big effort by Frost, a backup quarterback who led a 46-28 upset in the rain at Stanford.
A court hearing was scheduled two days later on an injunction that would have stayed the second year of the bowl ban.
"That was one of my most horrible memories as a Washington football fan," says Hunsinger.
"Ron and I and the other co-counsel decided at 11 o'clock that night that we needed to talk to the team about whether they should even proceed with this injunction, because if they won the injunction and then went to trial the next year and lost, the next year's team would be subject to a bowl ban instead of this year's."
The loss to Stanford dropped Washington's record to 6-3. Hunsinger recalls meeting with the leaders of the team — Damon Huard, Mark Bruener, Andrew Peterson, Frank Garcia, Ernie Conwell — and "we decided we couldn't do that to the underclassmen."
The larger, antitrust issue of the player suit was dismissed, but Hunsinger says a significant victory was wrapped inside. The ruling established the right of student-athletes to sue the NCAA on antitrust issues, "still on the books, waiting to be used."
From that beginning, says Hunsinger, "I became known to the folks down at the university as a lawyer."
Not all his representation of UW athletes is in criminal cases. With Hunsinger's help, ex-Huskies cornerback Toure Butler filed a suit against the NCAA in 1996, claiming it improperly used a learning disability against him in ruling him ineligible as a freshman. The U.S. Justice Department and NCAA agreed to less restrictive requirements as a result.
"The thing I enjoy most," Hunsinger says, "is when I get the opportunity to represent a kid who I think has been treated unfairly by the NCAA. Toure Butler was a classic example of that."
Alexis, who retained Hunsinger in 2003, says of their association, "The coaches never did anything [to line up Hunsinger]. I just knew from other players and other people around Seattle, saying if I needed help, he was a good guy. I felt he did a good job for me."
Before the 2001 Holiday Bowl, Hunsinger pressed the city attorney's office to decide whether to pursue trespassing charges against Barton, whose availability for the game hinged on that decision. No charges were filed.
"I remember talking to Jerramy Stevens," said Barton. "Then I talked to some of the people in the program, and they all kind of told me in this situation, a lot of people are represented by Mike Hunsinger.
"I think he's a very valuable person to have around. It takes kind of a unique person to be able to deal with us [athletes]. He does a good job of not being judgmental. He's seen pretty much every scenario you could ever imagine."
Much as Hunsinger dismisses the notion that UW football players have misbehaved disproportionately, he scoffs at the idea they're getting anything improper with his counsel.
"At some point, early on, I say, 'Look, I have to charge you,' " Hunsinger says. "A, I do like getting paid, and B, the NCAA will create horrible problems for the University of Washington and me if I don't. I've gotten $5 and $10 checks that dribble in. To me, those are the most meaningful ones."
Hunsinger was a frequent visitor at the recent trial involving Rick Neuheisel, the UW and the NCAA, settled at the 11th hour. He had a client who testified, former football-operations director Jerry Nevin, whom Hunsinger had represented over an allegation of violation of state ethics standards.
Like many people at the trial, Hunsinger sometimes found it hard to know whom to root for.
"You had three incredibly blameworthy parties," Hunsinger said. "It would have been really interesting to see how the jury would have sifted through that. It would have been a Pier Six brawl in that jury room."
And what now? Hunsinger says he has met Tyrone Willingham, the new UW football coach, but has spoken only briefly to him. He senses that Willingham will be a stickler for the rules.
Those who don't follow them could be getting in touch with Hunsinger, but his role is nothing if not open-ended; he might have finished his association with UW players, or it could last for years.
The smart money is on the latter. Concerning the UW, presidents, athletic directors and coaches come and go, but Mike Hunsinger endures.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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