Mitch Abrams, Psy.D.
January 29, 2017
At some point, as Title IX lawsuits are accumulating at Baylor University, the public becomes aware, and shock and horror prevail. The most recent filing alleged 52 rapes in a four year period from 2011 to 2014. Asserting a “show ‘em a good time” approach to football recruiting, Kendal Briles, former Head Coach Art Briles’ son and now the offensive coordinator at Florida Atlantic University was reported in the suit to have asked a student athlete, “Do you like white women? Because we have a lot of them at Baylor and they love football players.” Though not yet corroborated, the allegations are so numerous, that they reach incredulous proportions.
It is also worth mentioning that while Baylor appears to have the market cornered, Dr. Tanya Prewitt-White studied “sports hostessing” while earning her doctorate at the University of Tennessee. Dr. Prewitt-White noted the commonplace and complex world of sports recruiting that uses sex as thinly veiled bait to bring prospects to a university. This is only somewhat ironic considering the fact that it was at Tennessee that when an underclassman football player, Drae Bowles, assisted a student who stated that she had been raped by two of his teammates, not only was he physically assaulted by one of the accused and threatened by the team, Head Coach Butch Jones labeled him a traitor who betrayed the team.
Not so surprisingly, there has been a response. Only the most narrow-minded loyalists try to deny the tsunami of allegations. The problem however, is that the unspoken hope is that this deluge will relent. Unless fundamental and far-reaching changes are implemented, it is unlikely that we will see any meaningful dent in the problem of sexual assault on college campuses perpetrated by athletes.
Why is there so much pessimism when awareness is on the rise? At a fever pitch, athletic departments are bringing in advocates such as Brenda Tracy who, as a survivor of a gang-rape perpetrated at Oregon State University by football players back in 1998. She brings a humanity, a face to the problem that has long been dismissed as an over-reported issue with victims who secretly were athlete groupies. The good news is that her frequent flyer miles have been charging like an offensive lineman in a buffet. The bad news is that this is critical…necessary, but not sufficient. It is only the first important step in a process that needs to be overhauled.
Given the resistance for years to acknowledging the problem, it is difficult to be optimistic that universities will keep the momentum and implement programs that are essential to change the rape culture that exists on college campuses; and yes, at times, in athletic departments too.
Courage is something that Ms. Tracy is certainly not lacking as she stands her ground while anonymous cowards troll her on social media; trying to discredit her while hiding behind their keyboards from afar. Only the Neanderthals of “coach’ll fix it” lore deny the ubiquity of this problem And so, while her speaking tour spans the corners of the United States, more is needed.
Why is it not enough? The same reason that the prevention programs that have been in place for thirty years have not been enough. Programming, including that propagated and lauded by the NCAA, continues to focus on the Bystander Education approach. They hold that the culture can change if men will stand up when they see an assault ensuing. These programs, around for decades, have been continued while campus sexual assaults have not decreased…in fact the numbers have gone up.
It is a nice idea. If you can get one person to stand up to inappropriate sexual aggressiveness, you can get more people to stand with them. However, as was painfully demonstrated by Drae Bowles, if a culture accepts the behavior, it takes a unique individual to challenge it…and if they do, they may suffer tremendous backlash. Bystander Education can be useful, but it is insufficient by itself.
Thankfully, more programs are also including education about the legalities of consent. This too, is important because many college age folks do not understand that someone who is intoxicated cannot give consent for sexual activity, or when they are underage, or when they are unconscious. Not enough programs teach them about Forcible Compulsion however. Forcible Compulsion is a component of sexual assault statutes in several states wherein, if an individual complies with sexual activity because of fear that if they don’t, they will be harmed, that is a sexual assault. The fear does not have to be reported to the perpetrator. This sets the stage for an athlete believing they have a willful participant consenting to sex, only to get a knock on the door the next day with the police ready to interrogate them.
When this has been presented to male athletes, they have complained of the unfairness of this. Despite this component, false reports of sexual assault remain no higher than any other crime; according to FBI statistics, between 2 – 5% of sexual assault cases are false reported. It is FAR more likely that a sexual assault will not be reported and the long-standing difficulties in prosecuting sex crimes, have led to legal changes that some may feel are unfair, but are an attempt to level the playing field and hold perpetrators accountable.
Sports agents have asked me for years about whether “sex contracts” could protect athletes from accusations. The answer is no because the victim could have been compelled to sign the contract for fear of harm to them, emotionally, physically or sexually. Young men have a lot to learn about what the current legal landscape is regarding sexual assault. But wait, there is more.
Perhaps the greatest factor that needs to change in the sexual assault prevention world is the attention, scrutiny and re-education of Toxic Masculinity. Boys are not taught to be men. They are taught to be insecure boys that have to steal, coerce or pay for sex. There needs to be more attention to the misogynistic ideologies that they are injected with in locker room banter and coaching belittlement. There has to be a reconceptualization of what power really is; that controlling one’s impulses is at the heart of one’s strength. Whether it is anger management when provoked on the field or egged on by their friends to take advantage of an impaired co-ed, a retooling of the concept of what it means to be a strong male athlete is overdue.
Incidentally, wanting to have sexual opportunities is not a sin. It is completely healthy and normal for both male and female college students to have these longings. The irony for the young men is that the confident man, the really confident, not the compensatory narcissist that is posing like the Big Man on Campus, often has the most opportunities presented to them. So, prevention for young men is not about wagging a finger at them, telling them to banish their testosterone driven urges. It is normalizing and validating them, while challenging them to be disciplined and “do things the right way”.
Not surprisingly, drug and alcohol education must be accentuated considering the high frequency in which intoxicants are present, if not deliberately utilized, in sexual assault. Attention to and changing the male athlete culture is a worthy endeavor. The demand to hide one’s emotions and take what they are entitled to is engrained in boys from the youth sport level. This doesn’t magically appear in college…or high school. Accountability must be taught to boys from the earliest of ages. Truth be told, our society treats athletes differently as soon as their talent is seen. They get a different set of rules and start to “drink their own Kool-Aid” when adults let them miss classes, inflate their grades, give preferential treatment and forget that they are still little boys with a ton of growing up to do. We see it, as well, with the local high school coach being deified to the point that they have more local authority than the town’s mayor. If Joe Paterno and the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal taught us anything, it is that we should not assume that any segment of our society is safe.
Sexual assault is happening all around us…not just some small town in Wisconsin. If we want to change the problem, we have to change the culture. Prevention has to improve. It has to target the factors that research has shown are at the core of sexual assault. It needs to be much more than just Bystander Education and a brief conversation of consent. It needs to teach consequences; what incarceration is like. It needs to be comprehensive and not the result of a one-time, shotgun approach lecture. It requires an institutional commitment to overhaul the system.
Prevention is the first step, but it is also in need of complimentary services. Institutions must have the means to assess an accused athlete to determine their risk of future assaults. These risk assessments can identify the risk factors that contribute to the likelihood of the athlete re-offending. Schools have been surprised that in addition to the number of sexual assaults on campus, there are also many repeat offenders.
The risk assessments are at the interface of sport and forensic psychology. There are not enough professionals trained in how to perform these evaluations but they are critical to determine how to provide TREATMENT to these offenders. While the current mandate, when a perpetrator is identified, is to expel them from campus and distance them from “The Brand”, this is short-sighted because now, Title IX lawsuits have been filed by accused perpetrators who have been expelled, based upon their argument, without due process. Even more important though, if treatment is not provided to these perpetrators, there will be more victims. The only thing that may change is that the victims may not be on the campus at which they currently are matriculating.
Sounds expensive, huh? Considering that there are currently more than 250 Title IX lawsuits active and there have been settlements in the millions, it would seem to be far more expensive to not address the problem appropriately.
Baylor Football may be the most glaring example of how a program can go off the rails. Yet, the gaping wound of sexual assault on college campuses is not restricted to Waco. The whole college culture needs a Band-Aid….and the bandage currently used is simply not big enough.
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