As the new school year begins, so too does the excitement of fall sports. As a lifelong athlete and fan, I look forward to attending games and matches, and as an educator, I know the power of athletics to teach valuable life lessons. Unfortunately, too many of our collegiate athletes are making dangerous choices that position them not as role models to younger athletes but as teachers of reprehensible behavior. Sexual assault ranks among the crimes most frequently perpetrated by athletes.
Here is just a sampling: In May 2013, four Morehouse College athletes were arrested for two separate sexual assaults. In 2012, the U.S. Justice Department opened an investigation at the University of Montana, citing eleven sexual assaults reportedly committed by student athletes in an 18-month period. In August 2010, a female student reported being sexually assaulted by a Notre Dame athlete. Campus police did nothing with her report for two weeks, during which time she committed suicide. More globally, Benedict and Crosset found that one in three sexual assaults occurring on campuses are committed by athletes. Further, the same authors found that student athletes perpetrated almost six times more sexual assault than their collegiate peers.
When victims report assaults by athletes, they are often ostracized. Players and fans often try to coerce victims to recant. Some victims never report the assault to campus safety officials, believing that nothing will be done. Because victims do not always report these crimes, statistics may not show sexual assault to be a significant problem on a specific campus. As a professor, at least three students each semester since I have been teaching have confided in my about experiencing an attempted or actual sexual assault on campus. Not all of these are alleged to have been perpetrated by athletes, but a significant amount were.
In 2009 and 2010, the Center for Public Integrity and NPR conducted a study of sexual assault on college campuses and found that perpetrators were rarely held accountable, and when they were, punishments were minor. In contrast, many times victims leave the school temporarily if not for good, their lives having been completely disrupted. In recent years, federal complaint have been filed against Swarthmore College, Occidental College, Wesleyan, Yale, Amherst and the University of North Carolina, for violating Title IX and or the Cleary Act, which mandates reporting of sexual assault data.
Clearly, transforming the rape cultures that exist among many athletic teams won’t be easy. Too often, campus sexual assault prevention programs put the onus for change on the would-be victims, telling females not to walk alone, to never accept drinks from a stranger, not to dress provocatively, etc. Jezebel published a response called “The Student Athletes Guide to Not Raping Anyone” which offers some important suggestions for college students in general and, importantly, places the responsibility on the right party. It is available at http://jezebel.com/the-student-athletes-guide-to-not-raping-anyone-1177994230.
Colleges and universities must recognize the enormous scope of this problem. In March 2013, Congress passed the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act (SAVE), which added dating violence, domestic violence and stalking to the list of offenses campuses must report, clearly outlined campuses’ legal responsibility to respond to and prevent sexual assault, and prompted schools to review their policies, procedures, and training programs. This legislation reinforces that teaching about sexual assault and the rape myths that surround it is every bit as important as any other content being covered in higher education.
Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.