Column: Universities dropping the ball on athletes’ sexual assault cases

I wrote this column for The Huntington News, which appeared in the Feb. 22 version of the paper.

For as long as I can remember, stories of sexual assault have permeated my beloved sports world. As much as I would love to view sports as a pure, frivolous way to pass the time, I can’t ignore the fact that we’ve been hearing about sexual assault scandals more frequently than ever.

About a week ago, Michigan State University (MSU) officials announced they are investigating sexual assault allegations against three football players. Sound familiar? A simple Google search brings up countless results of cases like the one at MSU. University of Minnesota. University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Stanford University. University of Richmond. University of North Carolina. University of Southern California. And, of course, Baylor, where 31 football players have been accused of committing at least 52 acts of rape between 2011 and 2014. In fact, as I was writing this column, news broke of rape charges against UNC Charlotte quarterback Kevin Olsen, adding to the growing list of atrocities being committed by college athletes across the nation.

These allegations have become so normalized, and even expected at this point, that I barely even find myself getting outraged anymore, instead just feeling a helpless sense of frustration. The sheer quantity of cases and schools involved makes it obvious that these are not isolated, rare occurrences. And if this many stories are coming out of big-name universities, then how many cases are being swept under the rug at schools with smaller programs and less of a media presence?

Of course, it’s not just athletes who commit sexual assault on college campuses. It is a serious issue that sweeps across entire universities, and if we hear about so many high-profile athletes committing these acts, think of all the assaults being committed by non-athletes that receive absolutely no coverage. With these highly publicized cases involving athletes, however, schools have an opportunity to use a big stage to speak out against sexual assault, yet they tend to side with the athletes in most instances.

These cases all cause public relations headaches for the schools and their athletic departments, but in the grand scheme of things, the schools aren’t affected much. Their football and basketball programs will continue to bring in millions of dollars, and recruits will still happily commit to their teams, so the institutions don’t see much of a benefit from taking a stand.

The casual manner in which teams and universities handle sexual assault cases have done nothing to discourage athletes from committing similar acts in the future. An absolute zero-tolerance policy needs to be implemented. Under the current climate, where the repercussions for sexual assault can be anything from expulsion to a one-game suspension to no punishment at all, victims may be hesitant to report an incident if there’s a chance that it will have no effect. If universities and athletic programs were to send a harsher message, athletes would be less likely to commit these acts, and victims would be more likely to speak out.

In addition to a zero-tolerance policy, schools need to take more action to prevent sexual assault in the first place. I can’t pretend to know the extent of education regarding consent that student-athletes receive at each university. It is crucial, however, that these athletes—and college students in general—undergo in-depth trainings when they arrive at school (because somehow, even in 2017, the idea of consent is still a blurry concept for so many people). Although consent education won’t prevent all assaults, universities can at least make it clear what constitutes as sexual assault—because contrary to what people seem to think, consensual sex is not a confusing or ambiguous concept at all.

The misogynistic culture in sports ranges from subtle to absolutely appalling. It’s evident in the male athletes that make inappropriate comments toward female reporters. It’s evident in the Harvard men’s soccer team that created documents rating the women’s team based on appearance and sexual appeal. And it’s especially evident in the lengthy list of athletes accused of rape, and the programs that defend them instead of holding them accountable.

The scandals at Michigan State and UNC Charlotte are disgusting and heartbreaking, but not at all shocking. Universities and athletic programs have allowed this misogynistic culture to thrive, so it’s no surprise that even more schools have been added to the list this month; I will be amazed if MSU and UNC Charlotte decide to fight the trend and attempt to change that culture.

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