By Nate Sanford
Four student-athletes from Western’s men’s track team were arrested on Jan. 19, and are accused of running naked on campus.
They are charged with indecent exposure, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. The students have been suspended from participating on the track team, pending the outcomes of their student conduct cases, according to Paul Cocke, Western’s director of communications and marketing.
At roughly 8:43 p.m., University Police responded to a report of a group of naked men running near the Wade King Student Recreation Center. The caller told police she and her boyfriend had been leaving the rec center when they saw the group and heard the sounds of “excited college boys,” according to the police report.
The first officer on the scene did not see any naked men, but did see one fully clothed man on a bicycle, who, upon seeing the officer, dropped his bike and began to walk/jog away. The officer reported hearing a voice from the bushes yell at the individual to “walk, walk!”
The officer eventually caught up to the individual, who denied being one of the naked runners, but admitted the runners were his friends and he had been there to support them. The individual yelled into the bush, but was unable to persuade the person inside it to come out.
The officer was later approached by a different individual who identified himself as the track team captain. The captain told the police he was not one of the naked runners, but that he had been there to observe it and helped instigate the plan, according to the police report.
After confirming the naked runners’ identities, police went to the students’ residences and told them they were being charged with indecent exposure and placed under arrest, but would not be taken to jail. When asked, none of the runners denied streaking through campus. The runners were apologetic, and said their decision to disrobe was part of a dare, according to the police report.
At the time of their naked run, it was roughly 40 degrees outside, according to data from Weather Underground’s temperature records.
The witness who reported the incident chose not to pursue criminal charges. She told police she called in the streakers because, “No one should have to see penises out in public.”
Two attempts to contact the students over their social media platforms were ignored or redirected to university communications. Head coach Pee Wee Halsell also redirected questions to university communications. Several assistant coaches were unable to be reached for comment.
The athletes are all distance runners on the men’s track team. They are suspended from participating on the team, pending the results of their student conduct cases, which are separate from the indecent exposure charges they will face in court.
In the police report, the arresting officer said the suspects should have known their conduct would cause affront or alarm to people in the area.
Western has a history of nudity on campus. In 2017 and 2018, Western experienced a number of lewd incidents involving people intentionally exposing their genitals to students. A statue outside Wilson Library titled, “The Man Who Used to Hunt Cougars for Bounty” (more commonly referred to as “Man Humping Bear”), was once the site of a nude photoshoot. In 2006, a news report on campus was interrupted by a man screaming and running naked past the camera.
“WWU Students of Optional Clothing,” a now inactive club formed in 2011, sought to provide a “positive, safe and nonsexual environment for addressing and investigating the cultural and somatic roles of clothing.” The club was founded by Zachary Robertson, who graduated from Western in 2012, and is now an organizer with Bellingham World Naked Bike Ride.
“Aw man, that sucks,” he said in response to hearing about the arrest of the naked runners.
Robertson said his organization has worked to develop a better understanding with police, but has still had a number of run-ins with law enforcement.
As they were finishing their route during the 2010 naked bike ride, Robertson said one of the bikers at the front of the group announced that he had to return to campus to attend his graduation ceremony.
The rest of the group decided to join him, and soon the gang of unclothed cyclists were pedaling through south campus, on their way to Carver Gymnasium, where the ceremony was being held.
Robertson said they were met with a line of five policemen, who held up their hands ordering the bikers to stop. The people in the front of the group saw the police and stopped, but one biker wasn’t paying attention and accidentally collided with the line of cops. The nude biker was tackled to the ground.
“His friend saw that, and was like, ‘OK, if everybody went right now we can make a run for it, charge!’” Robertson said. “He ran right into the cops and no one followed him.”
The rest of the bikers were ordered to disperse. The two riders involved in the incident were charged with indecent exposure, which they eventually pleaded down to a reduced charge, according to Robertson.
Though he doesn’t know what their motive was, Robertson said he imagines the prosecutor will claim the streakers from the track team were intending to cause affront and alarm.
“I think being punished for being naked is ridiculous,” he said. “I think that campuses are very likely places that will have people streaking and I don’t think that streaking is a sexual act. Personally, I don’t think there is a lewd intention behind it.”
Robertson said that nudity can be a way for people to explore the way they relate to their own bodies and challenge ways the existing narrative of human anatomy is shaped by media.
Robertson said he is a strong advocate for optional clothing, but acknowledges that people have different lived experiences, and not everyone is as comfortable with nudity.
“We don’t know the trauma of the people around us and the effects that we have on them in our daily lives. It’s important to consider that,” he said.
Robertson said the naked bike ride has grown in size, and is now included as part of an organization called Bellingham Body Rights, which hosts a variety of discussions and events that question the role of nudity in society. They are planning a “body positive block party”, which will take place on June 6.
There is a longstanding internet rumor that claims Western is a “clothing optional” campus (as long as you warn your professor beforehand). Robertson said Western students will frequently ask him about the supposed policy. In an email, Cocke strongly refuted the rumor.
“That is not correct. Western is not a clothes optional campus. That is a false rumor,” he said.