By Bill Hewitt
March 08, 2004 12:00 PM

On the night of Dec. 7, 2001, University of Colorado sophomore Lisa Simpson was at home in her off-campus apartment, playing a drinking game with female friends. Around 10 p.m., one of the women made a call and invited over two Colorado football players, along with two high school recruits they were hosting for the weekend. An hour or so later, though, close to 20 young men, all of them football players or recruits, showed up. Simpson, 22, admits she was drunk by then and doesn’t remember much of what happened next—except that it was terrifying. According to her later deposition, at one point she passed out on a bed, only to awaken and find two men sexually assaulting her. “I remember trying to get away,” she said. “I was just petrified.”

Simpson’s charges—last October she allowed her name to become public in a federal lawsuit filed a year earlier—were only the first gush in what has become a torrent of bad news for the University and its nationally ranked football program. In the last three months, two other women filed their own suits, alleging that they had also been sexually assaulted that same weekend by football players or recruits. Then in late January, portions of the depositions, complete with graphic details, were leaked to the press. To make matters worse for the school, Katie Hnida, 22, a former kicker on the Colorado football team, came forward in the Feb. 23 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED to say that she had been raped in 1999 by a teammate.

The growing scandal has attracted national attention and renewed the debate over out-of-control athletic programs and even whether some schools are using sex to entice prize recruits. (It’s alleged in some student depositions that the high school players brought to Simpson’s apartment were told there were women there willing to have sex with them.) “This is really depressing,” says Joanne Belknap, a professor of sociology at Colorado and an expert in violence against women. “I’m sure there are women all over this country who’ve had this experience, and this controversy is bringing out all sorts of horrible feelings.”

It certainly did for Hnida, who told SI (which, like PEOPLE, is owned by Time Warner) that as a walk-on kicker on the team she endured repeated sexual harassment from other players. One evening in 1999, while watching television with a teammate, she says, the player sexually assaulted her. Fearful of retribution from her alleged attacker, she didn’t press charges and later dropped out of Colorado. After recovering sufficiently from bouts of depression, she enrolled at the University of New Mexico in 2002. Last season she made history by becoming the first woman to score in a Division I football game when she kicked two extra points against Texas State-San Marcos.

With Hnida’s allegations roiling the Colorado campus, head coach Gary Barnett, who’d arrived at the school in 1999 with a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, sought to deal with the issue—and fumbled badly. At a bizarre press conference on Feb. 17, he said part of Hnida’s problem was that she didn’t have the respect of other players because she was a “girl” and a “terrible” kicker. A day later Colorado president Elizabeth Hoffman put Barnett on paid leave for his “insensitive comments.” (In response to the federal lawsuits, which were filed on the basis of gender discrimination, the University has formed a panel to investigate the incident.)

Meanwhile, much about the Simpson incident remains in dispute. After the alleged attack, a roommate drove Simpson to Boulder Community Hospital, where she was tested for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Shortly afterward, Simpson filed a complaint and police investigated and interviewed many of the players and recruits who’d been at the apartment. The players maintained that the sex had been consensual. But Simpson insisted that wasn’t true, and that the men in her room that night exhibited a shocking sense of entitlement. “The players…and the recruits just came in…they didn’t even ask to have sex with me,” she said in her deposition. “They just thought it was okay.” For his part, Barnett insisted that neither he nor his staff had “ever encouraged or condoned sex as part of the recruiting process, period.”

The lack of definitive evidence ultimately convinced Boulder D.A. Mary Keenan not to press charges. But as Simpson and her family tell it, that wasn’t the end of her ordeal. Her mother, Karen Burd, has said in her deposition that when she saw Lisa two days after the incident, her daughter was “curled up in a little ball… just an emotional wreck.” Even now, Burd said, Lisa—who has stayed at Colorado as an accounting major and recently endured taunts from some students angered by her accusations—can become hysterical if she finds herself alone in her new home.

In recent weeks, at least two more women have come forward alleging they were attacked by Colorado players. District Attorney Keenan has reopened the criminal investigation into the allegations. Says Colorado sociologist Belknap: “The football administration has a responsibility to make sure there’s a climate of safety for women—and it just doesn’t appear that has happened here.”

Bill Hewitt. Vickie Bane in Boulder and Jason Bane in Denver