In the hierarchy of national controversies, sexual assault on college campuses has maintained a prominent position over the past decade. As female students look into perspective institutions, safety has become an inherent part of their questioning.
Recently, a new boogeyman has arose in the conversation about sexual assault on college campuses: athletes and the departments behind them. As a growing number of cases involving sexual assaults and subsequent coverups rises, the presence of a nationwide and even systemic issue within intercollegiate athletics becomes clear.
Over the years an extensive amount of research has gone into the prevalence of sexual assault on campuses. There are perhaps few phrases more well-known and studied than the “one in four” factor, a phrase stating that one in four (in some cases, five) college women experience sexual assault in their lifetime. This notion rose from a survey held by the Association of American Universities which found that 27.2 percent of the respondents, all female seniors, had experienced some kind of undesired sexual contact.
As “one in four” became a rallying cry for female students across the nation, the watchful eye of the media turned up the heat on college campuses and began finding something ugly: a trend of crime and denial involving athletes and athletic departments that was perpetuating the problem.
This year sexual assault has often dominated national conversation, with an alarming number of cases involving athletes and/or their superiors.
Frequent coverups of sexual assault involving football players at Baylor. A gang rape involving multiple basketball players at University of the Pacific. The lenient treatment of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, whose six month sentence for sexually assaulting another student in an alley way ignited debate across the country.
While the national spotlight on the problem with athletes and sexual assault has come to an ugly head, the correlation has been observed by researchers for years.
In the 1990s, prominent researcher Jeff Benedict was interested in examining the prevalence of sexual assault and domestic violence amongst intercollegiate athletes. His research discovered that athletes account for 19 percent of sexual assault perpetrators and 35 percent of domestic violence perpetrators, despite the fact that they make up only three percent of the college population.
The statistics only get more disturbing as the years go by and the problem continues to lack an answer. In a study published by researcher Belinda-Rose Young in the journal Violence Against Women earlier this year, surveys found that 54 percent of male college athletes admitted to engaging in “sexually coercive” behaviors in their lifetimes.
Despite the apparent obviousness of the problem, it doesn’t seem to be going away, leaving many questioning as to what is happening in athletic departments that is encouraging the issue.
Some argue that institutions give far too much agency to the coaches and athletic directors behind the perpetrators, thus making offending athletes feel more empowered to commit crimes. In an article he wrote for the New York Times, Benedict said that “coaches who choose not to suspend defendants frequently say that the team’s “structured” environment will help reform them. Such rationalizations are small comfort to the victims.”
“Left to their own devices, colleges can’t be counted on to protect students,” Benedict concluded.
The researcher’s sentiments have been echoed by modern critics and polls they have conducted as well. A recent poll conducted by the offices of Sen. Claire McCaskill found that 22 percent of institutions reported that their academic departments had oversight in regards to sexual assault reports involving athletes, a finding the senator called “borderline outrageous.”
McCaskill, among a slew of others, has argued that the freedom colleges give to athletic departments in dealing with these cases frightens victims into failing to report their assault, as is the case with more than 90 percent of college cases according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
“It is hard to imagine a victim that would be willing to come forward if they knew that the athletic department is going to be making all of the decisions on the case when the alleged perpetrator is, in fact, a scholarship athlete within their department,” McCaskill stated.
While many believe the structure of institutions and their athletic departments are to blame for the encouragement of sexual offenses, researchers believe there is a deeper issue at hand: the culture inherent in locker rooms and on the field.
Young’s study concluded that sexual assaults involving athletes were “contingent, at least in part, upon the development and implementation of prevention programs that address risk factors for sexual coercion, including rape myth acceptance and attitudes toward women.”
The “rape myth” is a masculine one, the belief of an offender that their crime is justifiable or not even a rape or sexual assault at all. Despite many calls on both sides of the issue for coaches to stay out of the sexual assault conversation, Young and other researchers believe that their role as “masculine socializers” will help athletes to dispel the “rape myth.”
Others believe it is ultimately up to various different leaders to encourage athletes themselves to engage in dialogue about the issue. A study in the Journal of American College Health found that by teaching athletes what to do as a bystander in a situation where they believed sexual assault could occur, they themselves changed their attitudes about sexual assault.
A later survey conducted in that study found that around 1 in 3 of the participants had used a personal plan of action to prevent sexual assault within the several months following the program.
Ultimately, the issue surrounding sexual assault and intercollegiate athletes has no easy solution. The issue itself is a murky one that extends into bigger conversations about student life, the role of secondary administrations and even the potential dangers of sports culture.
However, the problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Researchers continue to strive to find connections underlying why athletes are committing so many assaults and figure out how to prevent more assaults from happening. They are motivated by the statistics that let them know the boogeyman is real, including the ones that remind us that nine out of ten sexual assaults are repeated by undetected, repeat rapists. Young stressed in an interview with the Washington Post that the answer in the need to continue research, as the current data provides no answers.
“We don’t know what’s going on or by whom,” Young said. “It’s certainly not being reported or researched. If there is something being done, it hasn’t been published.”
Only time will tell if colleges, athletes and bystanders nationwide will encourage the erasure of the systemic problem amongst college programs and in turn provide safer, more responsible communities for students whose only wish is to learn and live free of fear. As government officials and many others have declared in the past few years, it truly is on us.
(Note: DU CAPE, The University of Colorado Denver Center for Domestic Violence, and the DU Department of Sociology & Criminology were all contacted for this article. All were unavailable for comment.)