By Darren Martin
“Sexual assault is a topic that a lot of people just don’t want to talk about,” said James Hines, a graduate assistant in the department of Sport Management at Arkansas State University.
Part of that discomfort with the discussion is drawn from fear of the possible damage to the university’s brand and the brand of its star players, the faces of the program. Throughout college football history, there has been a pattern of top colleges protecting their big-name players in order to maintain stature and revenue within their programs. Many of these administrators go so far as to shame and slam victims who report sexual assault.
In 1974, a University of Notre Dame undergraduate accused six players of rape. A university administrator called the victim “queen of the slums with a mattress tied to her back.” In 1993, University of Nebraska defensive lineman Christian Peter was placed on probation and missed one exhibition game after being convicted of third-degree sexual assault. In 2013, four Vanderbilt University players were charged with raping an unconscious woman in a player’s dorm room—students filed a federal complaint alleging that the university had turned a blind eye to sexual assault on campus. And football isn’t the only sport in which accusations of sexual assault have surfaced.
There was the 2006 case in which Duke University lacrosse players were accused of gang raping and assaulting a stripper from neighboring North Carolina Central University. The case exposed what one author called the “power of the elite and the corruption of our great universities” as it grappled with issues of race, class and social status in addition to the assault itself.
On Jan. 8 of this year, a University of Oregon student sued the university and head basketball coach Dana Altman for admitting Brandon Austin as a transfer student to the team knowing he had been accused of sexual assault at Providence College.
The complainant, who chose to be identified as Jane Doe in the lawsuit, claimed she was raped by Austin and two of his teammates in March 2014.
Attorney John Clune, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Jane Doe, said in a statement, “It is time for athletic departments to stop trading the safety of women on campus for points on a scoreboard. UO is a good school with a great community and they deserve better.”
Austin and the other accused teammates were not charged, due to lack of evidence, but were dismissed from campus and banned from returning for up to ten years, depending on the complainant’s length of study.
Jessica Luther, a Vice Sports columnist, believes these incidents, and particularly the cloudy proceedings around former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston’s sexual assault case, “offer yet another opportunity to seriously consider and to question the practical utility of college disciplinary systems and their ability to protect the civil rights of students, especially when the accused at the center of all is one of the biggest players in one of the most lucrative sports in the land.”
But what is the cause for this proclivity to protect an accused teammate or player? Some point to the hyper-masculine nature of the locker room culture.
It’s All In the Culture
Recent discussions could draw a parallel to the culture created in the locker room and the rise of sexual assault cases. In the infamous 2014 Incognito/Martin Miami Dolphins hazing incident, Clark Powell, columnist for the Huffington Post, revealed that the locker room “had a ‘judas code’ against ‘snitching,’ which players enforced through fines and at least one assistant coach upheld.”
Powell went on to note “the problem is not that the players are ignorant about what is right and what is wrong but that they have grown up in an individualistic culture that blames the victim and excuses the bystanders from taking moral responsibility.”
But Hines argues it is deeper than that, at least on college campuses. Many student-athletes he has encountered, he said, fear the possible repercussions associated with speaking against teammates who have done wrong.
They fear for their physical well-being, worry they will get in trouble if they speak out, face ostracization by their teammates and the overall athletic department. For those who may be a little bolder, they are uninformed on how to get involved. There may be some cloudiness on exactly where the moral lines should be drawn—especially for those who have been exposed to various forms of violence or indoctrinated by an increasingly misogynistic society to believe that certain things are ok, Hines said.
Even bigger that than, the athletes, many of whom are Black males (particularly in the revenue-generating sports), may have a mistrust of law enforcement stemming from societal events that are playing out around them and in the news every day. Some fear they may end up with “charges pending against me because I was trying to step in and diffuse a situation,” Hines said.
In the case of Winston, his teammates—who were also his roommates—declined to answer any questions, which is their right as students at FSU. This choice to not answer questions pertaining to their teammate acts as a collegiate mirror to this professional practice of this judas clause.
Choices by professional organizations such as the Miami Dolphins, or college teams such as Florida State illustrate a landscape of silence and protection within the brand and team—regardless of truth or morality. This illustration has a heavy impact in reversing the culture of sexual assault within college institutions at-large.
The now infamous chant by Oregon football players after the 2015 Rose Bowl — during which players chanted “No means no!” to the tune of the Seminoles’ war chant — resulted in disciplinary actions by the program.
“We are aware of the inappropriate behavior in the post game,” coach Mark Helfrich said in a statement following the game. “This is not what our program stands for, and the student-athletes will be disciplined internally.”
(But it is important to note that any disciplinary measures levied against the players involved were not so drastic that those players would be rendered unable to play in the inaugural College Football Championship Game against Ohio State Jan. 12.)
Some question if this chant was as inappropriate as the coach claims.
“Was the chant unsportsmanlike and tasteless? Yes.” New Republic sports writer Rebecca Lebar says, “But it was also absolutely necessary because it drew attention to sexual assault—both in college and in football—at an unexpected moment. …They got people thinking and talking about sexual assault, a conversation that too many authorities are trying to ignore.”
Silence has covered both professional and collegiate sports and sexual assault has remained a game of hide-and-seek rather than seek-the-truth within some institutions’ sports divisions.
“We have to remember this is an economic machine,” Hines said, adding that anything that would take away from the ability of a team to generate revenue—whether damage to the brand and thus marketability or risk of losing a big game by benching players whose presence on the field is critical to the team—is unlikely.
In fact, the disciplinary actions against the Oregon football players represent acquiescence to the demand of silence in scandal—perpetuated by locker room culture, which is counterproductive in the attempt to eradicate sexual assault cases on campus and in locker rooms.
Though professional and collegiate teams alike have been focusing more on sexual assault, and domestic violence, awareness and prevention, the institution of silence is still suffocating. There is always a time to shout, with awareness and confidence, “no! Means no!” without fear of penalty.