Grappling with scandal
Unapologetic wrestler starts over after controversial website shoot
By Stan Grossfeld, Globe Staff | March 17, 2009
EDINBORO, Pa. - Wrestling had been Paul Donahoe's life since he was 6 years old and pinned his first opponent in a mere six seconds. In high school, he was chosen Mr. Wrestler for the state of Michigan in 2004. In college, he was a two-time All-American and a national champion at the University of Nebraska.
And then, in less time than it took him to pin an opponent, his life was tangled up in blue.
Donahoe and teammate Kenny Jordan were dismissed from the Nebraska wrestling team last Aug. 12 after a campus blog posted pictures of them taken from a website that features photos and videos of naked male athletes for a gay audience. Nebraska, citing NCAA rules that prohibit the use of an athlete's image for commercial gain, also accused Donahoe of additional violations.
Donahoe was shattered.
"It was very stressful," he says. "It was two weeks before school started."
But with the help of his Michigan high school coach, Donahoe transferred to Edinboro University and was reinstated by the NCAA after sitting out a semester.
This season, the 5-foot 5-inch senior is unbeaten (32-0) and ranked No. 1 in the nation in the 125-pound class. But he has been stung by negative publicity and what he perceives as a double standard in sports.
"I didn't do anything illegal," he says. "I didn't hurt anyone. I don't think I did anything wrong. Who should I apologize to?"
At Saturday's NCAA wrestling championships in St. Louis, Donahoe plans on being a national champion again, just as he was in 2007. There's a fire in his belly.
"Being dismissed motivated me a little bit," he says. "I'm a competitive person. But, realistically, 32-0 doesn't matter. The regular season is just preparation for the NCAA."
Bruce Baumgartner, the Edinboro University athletic director, is a four-time Olympic medalist in wrestling. He was chosen to carry the US flag in the 1996 opening ceremonies in Atlanta. He saw a trembling Muhammad Ali light the Olympic torch decades after refusing to fight in Vietnam. He believes in redemption and took a chance on Donahoe.
"We've all made mistakes," says Baumgartner. "Not that I condone what he did, but there are players all across the country on college teams that actually have broken the law or harmed people that are still competing."
"We decided we would give him an opportunity to get an education at Edinboro University while competing, hopefully, for another national championship. To me the graduation is more important than the title."
Publicity and ridicule
Edinboro is in northwestern Pennsylvania, nestled in a triangle roughly 110 miles from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo. For Donahoe, it might as well be heaven. "They obviously gave me a second chance to wrestle again," he says. "I'm thankful for that. It's everything to me. I think the new coaches and new workout partners really helped me."
At a news conference at Edinboro when he arrived on campus, Donahoe's eyes filled with tears when he was asked about the scrutiny following him to his new school. He also lost 24 credits in the transfer and won't graduate until July.
He has been the butt of many jokes and ridicule on the Internet.
"I am straight, but on the forums people make a lot of gay jokes about me," he says. "I'm not too concerned. They can talk about me all they want, it doesn't matter. If a guy wants to be with a guy, who cares?"
He's telling his story now because he believes college wrestling needs more exposure, no pun intended. Some programs have been eliminated, while others are threatened by budget cuts.
"I want people to watch the sport," he says. "It's not like other sports. It's not something that you go out and do for fun, because if you go out there and someone's tougher than you, you're going to take some whipping. But once you become a wrestling fan, I'm pretty sure you'll always be a wrestling fan."
Tim Flynn, the Edinboro wrestling coach, took some advice from Donahoe's Davison (Mich.) High School coach, Roy Hall.
"He said he's a great kid, but he doesn't always make the right choices," says Flynn. "He needs guidance, which they all do, but he's going to be the hardest-working kid in the room, which he is."
Donahoe's friends say he's complicated, that his life is a dichotomy. For example, he agrees to pose nude and appear in a porn video but has trouble giving a simple talk in front of his speech class at Edinboro.
"My biggest fear is public speaking," he says. "I get so nervous before I go on. I don't know why. Isn't that funny? I can wrestle on ESPN and it doesn't bother me."
Donahoe always has been different. When he was 6, he begged his parents to sign him up for a wrestling match.
"I pinned a kid in six seconds," he says. "That was my first match."
Donahoe's parents had five children, but then went through a messy divorce. He says his family is lower middle class. He wears ripped jeans and drives an old white Grand Am with directional signals that don't work.
"I've basically been on my own since I was a freshman in high school," he says.
Jennifer Hall, the wife of Roy Hall - Donahoe says they are like parents to him - was even blunter.
"There isn't any money to be had," she says. "He's a great kid, but complicated. He'll do whatever it takes to survive."
Donahoe told no one about the photo shoot. "Obviously, I did it for the money," he says. "We kept thinking no one would ever find out because it was a gay website and we really wanted that money."
He says it started when he received offers on his Myspace page.
"They left me a lot of messages, so I thought, 'What the heck?' People do worse for money, so . . ."
His expenses were covered for a trip to Los Angeles and he was paid several thousand dollars. He was given the name "Nash" and identified as being from New England. He and Jordan were shown DVDs of naked women.
"They were very professional," says Donahoe. "But me and Kenny both thought it was weird."
He doesn't consider what he did pornography.
"Maybe the site, yeah, but me personally, no," he says. "I don't think so."
Once the video was posted, Donahoe was initially identified by the letter "N" and the word "wrestling" tattooed on his left thigh.
"They were supposed to cover it up but obviously they left it," he says. "Gay kids in Lincoln [Neb.] wrote, 'Hey, nice website. I saw you.' I wrote back, 'Don't tell anyone,' but with word of mouth, people found out."
Donahoe was tossed off the team but not out of the university. Nebraska self-reported the violation to the NCAA.
"They said I promoted my image," says Donahoe. "That's illegal in the NCAA rules. I had to pay all the money back, a couple of thousand, to a nonprofit.
"I believe it was unfair for Nebraska to dismiss me from the team. For one, there's plenty of athletes throughout the University of Nebraska who have had DUIs and who have been in fights and are still playing. But I guess that's OK. Posing nude, I guess, is worse than someone drinking and driving and risking someone's life, in their eyes."
At a news conference last August, Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne denied that the wrestlers were railroaded. He said the university had notified the NCAA about another issue involving Donahoe last March but declined to be specific.
Donahoe says it was over an iPod.
"We get gifts at the Big 12 tournament," he says. "We got a touch iPod and I sold it because I already had one, and that's an NCAA violation and they turned me in for that. They just threw that in there to make it sound like I was worse, probably."
He also was cited for having a disorderly house party and having an open container of an alcoholic beverage.
"They didn't want me on their team, and they have no shot at winning the NCAA this year," says Donahoe.
Last year, Donahoe finished third in the NCAAs despite a dislocated shoulder. Nebraska's wrestling team is currently ranked fourth in the nation. Edinboro, a Division 2 school with a Division 1 wresting program, is 14th.
Support is out there
Edinboro teammate Gregor Gillespie, a national champ himself, says his teammates admire Donahoe. "He's really cool," says Gillespie. "Before the season, a lot of people were talking bad about him. Like, 'We don't want him at our school.' Right now, he's proving people wrong. He's had to switch coaches, schools, friends, that had to be a pain. He's heard people yelling stuff like 'homo,' but none of that bothers him, he just brushes that all off."
Donahoe says the reaction to him is "way more positive than negative." He has more than 1,400 friends on Facebook.
"I've had a ton of people Myspace me and say, 'I hope everything works out,' " he says. "I read them all. I'm thankful for people supporting me.
"The plan is to win this weekend. Watch ESPN. I'm pretty tough. Just say I'm a survivor."
He also plans on attending USA Wrestling's World Team trials in May and then making the Olympic team.
Some producers from New York contacted Donahoe about starring in a new reality show, he says, flashing a smile.
"I never got back to them."
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.