Joining higher education is an exhilarating experience for anyone, and this experience is usually a combination of excitement and apprehension. Life in institutions of higher learning is quite different from high school in many ways. Besides education being on a higher level of cognitive engagement, extracurricular activities in colleges and universities are quite vibrant than in high school. Indeed, such an environment feels students with hopes, dreams, and expectations that can sometimes be overwhelming for themselves, their tutors, and the institutions. In recent times, sexual abuse has become a growing concern in colleges and universities, and athletes are considered the number one perpetrators. In this view, this paper explores the connection between intercollegiate athletes and the increasing cases of sexual assaults in American institutions of higher learning.
The Monitoring Framework
Just like any environment with a high concentration of young people, colleges and universities are bound to attract all manner of people and behaviours. Sadly, sexual assault has emerged as a serious threat in institutions of higher learning. It is for this reason that the Clery Act (1990), a federal law, requires all colleges and universities to put in place mechanisms of identifying and reporting any acts of sexual violence that happen in their campuses (Ladika, 2017). Specifically, post-secondary learning institutions that receive federal student financial assistance are expected to provide the U.S. Department of Education with crime statistics, including rape and sexual assault, and details of their security protocols (McCray, 2015). Furthermore, Title IX provision of the Education Amendments Act (1972) prohibits practices of discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual violence and sexual harassment, in school, college, or university environments (Ladika, 2017; Murnen & Kohlman, 2007). In view of these legal provisions, it is clear that colleges and universities have a mandate to ensure every student is protected against any form of sexual violence, including rape and assault; only this is not the case.
In recent times, there has been a surge of media reports about college athletes accused of sexually assaulting female students in campuses. The U.S. Department of Justice (2014) compiled statistics from the National Crime Victimization Survey and revealed that between 1995 and 2013, approximately 37,850 college and university students, aged between 18 and 24, were victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. While a majority (about 31,300) were females, males (6,550) were also reported as victims. Sadly, the percentage of females that reported the rape or sexual assault to law enforcement was 20 percent, even though 80 percent admitted to knowing their attackers(U.S. Department of Justice, 2014). The trend of intercollegiate athletes perpetrating sexual assaults is not a new trend. One study conducted in 1996 indicated that roughly 35 percent of all cases of sexual assault and battering reported to campus authorities singled out student-athletes as the main perpetrators (Ladika, 2017). Considering the small number of student-athletes as a percentage of the whole student body in post-secondary institutions, the percentages of sexual assaults associated with student-athletes reveal a disturbing picture. It must be that student-athletes have a certain level of entitlement that makes them feel they can commit crimes without any repercussions.
Today, the cases involving intercollegiate athletes accused of sexually assaulting other students are on the rise. A familiar involves Jameis Winston, a quarterback for Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who was forced to settle a lawsuit from a woman claiming he sexually assaulted her in 2012 during their studentship at Florida State University(Ladika, 2017). Just recently, Brock Turner, a Stanford University swimmer, was sentenced to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman in campus(Ladika, 2017). Even as American media law enforcement authorities heighten their focus on the sexual conducts of intercollegiate athletes, cases of sexual assaults by student-athletes have continued to make national headlines. In 2013, a graduate of Baylor University filed a lawsuit against the university in which she claims that two football players gang-raped her and that the university fostered a widespread culture of sexual violence and women abuse (Ladika, 2017). Details of the suit show that approximately 31 football players of the university committed 52 acts of sexual violence, including five gang rapes, in the period 2011-2013. The suit also states that despite the Clery Act (1990), the university did not investigate the plaintiff’s allegations for more than two years (Ladika, 2017). The two players named in the lawsuit have since been arrested. Today, Baylor University is battling with lawsuits from over 12 former female students, with the university acknowledging that 17 women have reported being sexually assaulted by approximately 20 football players (Ladika, 2017; Lavigne, 2017). Perhaps, the sexual assault case involving the Penn State University athletic department is the most infamous case in the history of sexual assaults committed by intercollegiate students. In this case, Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, was convicted and sentenced to between 30 and 60 years for sexually assaulting ten boys between 1994 and 2009 (Ladika, 2017). Without a doubt, these statistics reveal a gloomy picture concerning the behaviour of intercollegiate athletes.
Besides student-athletes in post-secondary learning institutions gaining the notorious reputation of sexually assaulting female students, the same trend has been reported in high schools. For example, baseball and basketball players at La Vernia High School, which is in Texas, were accused of participating in team initiation ceremonies that involved sexually assaulting male team members. The incidence caught headlines after one parent filed a federal lawsuit against the school district for tolerating a persistent rape culture in the district football program (Ladika, 2017). Clearly, sexual assault seems to be a favorite pass time for student-athletes irrespective of the schooling level.
However, there are those who claim that not all cases against intercollegiate athletes’ involvement in sexual assaults are genuine. Falsely accusing student-athletes is also a problem in colleges and universities as this is seen as another route to fame (Sønderlund et al., 2014). In 2012, prosecutors had to drop a sexual assault case against Xavier University football player Dez Wells after they realized the woman in question was driven by malice. After the University expelled Wells for violating its conduct code, the student sued and was compensated(Ladika, 2017). Nonetheless, cases like Wells’ make a tiny proportion of all cases of sexual assault brought against student-athletes.
Sexual violence is a serious social problem with debilitating physical, emotional, and psychological effects on its victims. Several studies have associated experiences of sexual assaults with binge drinking, substance use, and suicidal ideation among victimized students (Black et al., 2011). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sexual assault victims are more likely than non-victims to exhibit sleeplessness, frequent headaches, chronic pain, and activity limitations (Black et al., 2011). In this light, society must take the increasing trend of sexual assaults in colleges and universities seriously, and take actions that complement the federal legal framework that is the Clery Act.
The growing cases of intercollegiate athletes facing accusations of sexual assaults have raised the question of what exactly informs or drives this association/connection. According to experts, sexual assault is prevalent among athletes of aggressive team sports, and the so-called rape culture causes this behavior. Ideally, rape culture tends to normalize sexual violence against women by making it look cool. Additionally, a sense of entitlement that accompanies the celebrity status is also to blame for increasing connection between intercollegiate athletes and sexual violence. The fact that most of the colleges and universities facing lawsuits have been accused of tolerating the rape culture or covering up for their star athletes mentioned in incidences of sexual violence only confirms this growing problem.
Various authors have investigated the trend of sexual assaults committed by intercollegiate athletes in the United States. In her book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, Lisa Wade investigates sex in American schools and came across what she calls the ‘hookup’ culture (Wade, 2017). Fundamentally, status is what drives the hookup culture and inevitably creates the problem of sexual assault by student-athletes. Apparently, college and university female students view hooking up with students athletes, such as football players, who are basically celebrities as cool and a tremendous achievement (Wade, 2017). Indeed, this might explain why there are low cases/reports of sexual assaults by low-status male students. Sadly for these female students, most of the male student-athletes misinterpret the coziness of their female fans as meaning they consent to sex (Wade, 2017). In the book Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, Catharine A. MacKinnon states that rape is not prohibited, merely regulated (MacKinnon, 1991). Despite the controversial nature of this statement, the increasing numbers of sexual assaults committed by celebrity student-athletes render some truth to MacKinnon’s words.
On the whole issue of hookup culture, MacKinnon discovers that student-athletes more than any other students are more likely to identify with hyper-masculinity and to justify their tendency towards sexual violence using rape myths.
Sex and Status
As MacKinnon found out, proponents of the hookup culture tend to hook up with student-athletes believing that such as association will enhance their own status/personality in the campus (Wade, 2017). Those interviewed argued that associating with star athletes is like getting bragging rights (Wade, 2017). For female students, having sex with student-athletes allows them to point out their new ‘catch’ to their peers. In most cases, it is like female students compete in hooking up, and sometimes having sex, with football and basketball players in their campuses. In this light, the hookup culture acts as a catalyst and camouflage for sexual coercion or violence ((Wade, 2017; Young, Desmarais, Baldwin, & Chandler, 2017). Simply put, the culture instigates sexual violence while making it invisible. Therefore, as much as student-athletes may not want to commit sexual assaults, they find themselves as the biggest perpetrators courtesy of the hookup culture.
Besides the Clery Act (1990) that is supposed to discourage sexual violence on campuses, there is what is known as the bystander intervention. Chiefly, this is where colleges and universities encourage and train students to interrupt and report any forms of sexual violence before they take place (Coker et al., 2011). As MacKinnon found out, however, the high status of student-athletes makes it harder for peers to interrupt and report potential sexual assaults within the campus environment (Wade, 2017). When bystanders do not intervene, victims of sexual assaults are left helpless, and this explains why almost 80 percent of sexual assaults that take place in American colleges and universities go unreported (U.S. Department of Justice, 2014). It seems, therefore, it will take more than laws and student sympathy to stop the tradition of sexual assaults in post-secondary learning institutions.
Another factor that might explain the increasing cases of sexual assaults by intercollegiate athletes is an institutional cover-up. As already seen, many of the lawsuits filed by former female students accuse these colleges and universities of either covering up sexual assaults or tolerating a culture of sexual violence and women abuse. A survey by the U.S. Senate found that college and university staff and administrators tended to discourage victims of sexual assault from reporting to law enforcement (U.S. Senate, 2014). In some cases, they downgraded the severity of the assault, delayed proceedings until the athlete in question completed graduated, or simply failed to investigate as required by Clery Act (U.S. Senate, 2014). Baylor University is a perfect example of institutional cover-up or lethargy regarding sexual assaults. Even after severally changing its leadership, the university has continued to face investigations and lawsuits for deliberately tolerating sexual assaults involving student-athletes (Baylor University, 2016; Grinberg, 2017; Lavigne, 2017). Despite a growing number of colleges and universities enacting policies to address sexual assaults, cases of administrative indifference to the menace have been reported in leading institutions. Most of the affected include Amherst, Columbia, Notre Dame, and Vanderbilt. Others include the Universities of Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Niagara, Missouri, Kansas, and Montana (Strauss, 2017).
Due to the heat that comes with an association with sexual violence against women, some colleges and universities have begun taking stern actions. Even though these institutions may not be willing to report cases of sexual assaults to law enforcement or U.S. Department of Justice as required by the Clery Act, they are suspending and/or expelling students athletes accused of such vices. In the spring of 2014, for example, the University of Oregon expelled three players from the basketball team for allegedly perpetrating acts of rape (Norlander, 2014). In April of the same year, Brown University expelled two football players on accusations of sexually assaulting a freshman female student from Providence College (Walsh, 2014). Indeed, such stern actions are a positive trend that might make student-athletes to think twice before deciding to perpetrate any form of sexual violence.
The growing trend of sexual assaults involving intercollegiate athletes is becoming a social nuisance and menace in the United States. Student-athletes carry with them celebrity status, particularly in campuses, and this makes them a target of the hookup culture. The extent of sexual assaults committed by student-athletes is quite disturbing as evidenced by the increasing number of lawsuits against leading student-athlete, former student-athletes, and individual colleges and universities. As far as the hookup culture is concerned, student-athletes are victims of their high social status since every female student thinks hooking up with them is a ladder to enhanced personality. While the Clery Act and bystander intervention are positive intervention approaches, it will take education to make students realize the harmful effects of sexual violence. The fact that some colleges and universities have begun enacting policies that among others raise awareness of sexual violence and its effects indicate a positive trend in solving this growing menace.
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- Young, B. R., Desmarais, S. L., Baldwin, J. A., & Chandler, R. (2017). Sexual coercion practices among undergraduate male recreational athletes, intercollegiate athletes, and non-athletes. Violence against Women, 23(7), 795-812.
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