The recent allegations of a “hostile sexual environment” and a “deliberate indifference in [the] response to incidents of sexual assault” at the University of Tennessee are again spurring public conversation around sexual assault and college athletics.
On the one hand, Tennessee is not alone — Baylor University and Florida State University have recently settled cases in which female athletes report being sexually assaulted by male athletes, particularly football players. The Universities of Oregon and Tulsa are still currently involved in lawsuits and the Office of Civil Rights, nestled within the U.S. Department of Education, is currently investigating 165 complaints against a number of universities for their handling of sexual assault cases. As Darren Martin reported in a recent OOB feature, for as long as college football has been an integral part to institutional brand (and revenue), there has been a pattern of cover-ups and dismissals of allegations involving star players. Many “administrators go so far as to shame and slam victims who report sexual assault,” he wrote.
During a joint press conference of the 16 head coaches at the University of Tennessee, coaches heralded the department’s “wonderful culture,” which they attributed to the diligence of the administration and the “great individuals” employed by the department. They even went on to highlight how gracious it was of the football players to schedule their workouts so as to allow athletes on other teams the opportunity to use the equipment as well.
But there were also statements, amid conversations about a culture of respect, that seemed to border on deflection, at best, and victim blaming at worst, such as advice against putting themselves in “bad situations” and being mindful that “nothing good happens after midnight.” There were also concerns about the impact of the lawsuit on the institutional brand and the coaches’ recruiting efforts.
“Our competitors are using it against us,” head football coach Butch Jones said.
Given that UT-Chattanooga and Vanderbilt are among those Tennessee institutions being investigated by the Office of Civil Rights, and given the preponderance of allegations and complaints at universities across the country, using one institution’s public battle with such accusations is tasteless, to be sure. (But let’s be real — when is the last time “tasteless” was a concern in athletic recruiting? There’s too much on the line to be bothered with what’s against the rules or in poor taste.) But the solution here isn’t to attack the practice; it’s to address the culture.
Consider the complexes of hypermasculinity associated with playing sports at such a high level. Consider, too, that by the time they reach the level of Division I play — especially in football — athletes have watched rules be manipulated by administrators and coaches for years. They’ve been coached to not take no for answer, to push themselves and their dreams to the limit, and when it seemed like they couldn’t go any further, to push some more. As Jennifer Seibel Newsome wrote for The Huffington Post:
“We can no longer be naïve enough to think that worshiping at the altar of a sport that thrives on male aggression, physical domination over others, winning regardless of cost, and the complete absence of the feminine, has no impact on how we actually treat men and women day-to-day.”
New research suggests “Division 1 football games increase daily reports of rape among 17- to 24-year-old victims by 28 percent.” Much of this has to do not with the behavior of the players themselves, but with game day culture at Division 1 institutions. The significant amounts of alcohol consumed and the increase in partying on game days (especially after a win) created an environment that is more conducive to and encouraging of sexual assault. In this vein, it is easy to relate athletic culture to fraternity culture — an area in collegiate society in which we’ve accepted a problem exists with sexual violence. (It’s easier to accept in fraternity examples, because they pose little threat to an institution’s brand or, more importantly, revenue.) Reports have found that frat boys are three times more likely to rape than their non-fraternity counterparts. The fraternity environment promotes “within-group attitudes” that perpetuate the poor behavior.
So imagine how this applies to a football team — think of it as a big fraternity with 105 members who are rewarded for their macho aggression on the field. They’ve already been shown they’re above the campus law, whether it’s the academic breaks they’re given or the perks they received from coaches or boosters during the recruitment process, or even just the adoration of everyone from the president to fans to fellow students.
You don’t have to imagine. The University of Miami’s Seventh Floor Crew track lays it out for you. It featured a number of guys who are currently in the league, rapping about the things they were going to do to women — or let women do to them. One, who recently played in Super Bowl 50, promised to “drop his drawers and show her [his] third leg.” The song’s hook, to the tune of Aaliyah’s “If Your Girl Only Knew,” goes: “If your [girl] only know/That she was getting [expletive] on the 7th floor/If that [expletive] only knew/The she was getting mutted by the whole damn crew/What would she do?”
But the players can hardly be blamed. In a world in which good performance is often rewarded with women — whether groupies or prostitutes — when stripper parties and paid “escorts” are a regular part of the recruiting process (or, in milder cases, when beautiful women are paraded around as if to suggest they are the prize for choosing a particular institution), how do you hold the athletes accountable for their cavalier attitudes towards women? When administrators and coaches bend the rules to improve their shots at winning, how do you expect the athletes to have firm senses of morality? When the president of the NCAA and high-level officials can manipulate data and cover up information and continually demonstrate that the only thing that matters is that the checks keep coming in, how can we make the student-athletes the public examples of misbehavior?
And, what’s worse, we have to acknowledge change is unlikely. Accountability will always be low, because, as Martin wrote, “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.”
The bottom line is the revenue associated with intercollegiate athletics is only going to keep growing. Which means the stakes will continue to escalate. The risks those in charge will be willing to take will continue to grow, the examples they will continue to set for the athletes in their care will continue to diminish.