Ending Sexual Violence in Athletics Departments

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Often when a survivor of sexual assault tells their story, they relive the experience. There is bravery in the retelling of trauma.

The gymnasts Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Maggie Nichols and Aly Raisman sat in front of the U.S. Senate two weeks ago and called for the FBI to face accountability for their inaction after receiving reports of the assault they experienced at the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar. These women, just four of the at least 160 assaulted by Nassar, have retold, and relived, their stories over and over again.

The question is: are colleges and universities listening?

• Nassar – spent 19 years in the employ of Michigan State University

• Dr. Richard Strauss – spent 20 years in the employ of The Ohio State University

• Jerry Sandusky – spent 30 years in the employ of Penn State University

• Dr. Robert Anderson – spent 37 years in the employ of University of Michigan

Those are just some of the authority figures in athletic departments on campuses across the nation who have committed acts of sexual violence

Tracy VitchersTracy Vitchers

“One in four women will experience sexual violence on campus. That number hasn’t changed in 30 years,” said Tracy Vitchers, executive director of It’s On Us, a nonprofit that combats campus sexual assault.

“Less than 10% of sexual assaults on college campuses are actually reported,” said Vitchers. “If it’s [done by] somebody that’s high profile within the community, the likelihood that that person faces consequences is low. It usually takes a major news story or a breaking point for action to be taken.”

In order to stop the widening of sexual assault on campuses and to ensure that predators do not find shelter within a school’s walls, experts say colleges need to embark on a mission of institutional courage.

They argue that institutions must change the way they educate students, faculty, and staff about sexual violence. They added that administrators must remove the fear of backlash, or being ignored, for those who report, and create and uphold a culture of accountability, not just for the perpetrator of violence, but for the policies that enabled it.

Katherine Redmond is the founder of the WeLead Project, formerly the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. Many times, especially in athletics, she said that justice comes down to a cost/benefit analysis.

“You can have the most toxic coaches show up, and as long as they have the wins, it’s ok,” said Redmond. “If you’re in the top ten, top five, you have powerful cover, because that’s all that matters.”

She said that athletics departments can be very insulted, from those at the top to the athletes themselves.

NCAA policy requires all member schools to issue sexual violence training, and many institutions now require the same education for students, faculty, and staff before classes begin. Vitchers adds, however, that  unless the quality of instruction  is worthwhile, those courses ultimately become less about sexual violence education and more about compliance.

“That’s not prevention, that’s risk management,” she said. “So, when an incident does happen, the school can say, but 100% of our students, faculty, and staff have completed a sexual violence education course.”

Redmond said that schools can do all the training in the world, but if there’s no access to an accountability component, the power will ultimately shift back to the perpetrator. Institutions, she said, need to “have literally zero tolerance” when they receive accounts of sexual violence.

“While schools do want to handle this, the way they look at this type of violence is through the eyes of an attorney or the eyes of law enforcement,” said Redmond. “The eyes need some work.”

In March 2021, President Biden signed an executive order to reexamine all Trump-era regulations to Title IX, which makes advocates hopeful that some reformation might occur to help build a culture of accountability. Vitchers hopes for a return to an Obama era policy, when the U.S. Department of Education published a list of schools who were consistently under investigation for Title IX violations. Something like that, she notes, could go a long way toward the transparency needed for true accountability.

“If you have somebody who is going around campus lighting buildings on fire, you would expel them. So, if you have someone going around committing acts of sexual violence, why are you not expelling [or firing] them?” said Vitchers. “Too many students don’t trust that, if they do report, anything positive will come out of it.”

Primary prevention means creating change to stop assault from happening in the first place. That means institutions must be “transparent about the culture of sexual assault, and [have] the hard conversations, creating a blueprint to show how you’ll tackle [sexual violence] and commit to it,” said Vitchers.

The concept of institutional courage, developed in 2014 by Dr. Jennifer Freyd as the counterbalance to institutional bullying, goes deeper than the transparency required by the Clery Act, which forces institutions to report the number of gender-based violence and sexual harassment incidents on campus to the Department of Education. Institutional courage requires an institution to submit itself to a careful self-study, to ask what it’s doing wrong or could be doing better through anonymous surveys. It means institutions going beyond checking boxes for compliance and instead ensuring they follow civil rights codes.

Freyd also calls for institutions to hear the accounts of survivors with more sensitivity, to bear witness, be accountable, and apologize for the harm caused under their watch. Freyd said that institutions must “cherish the whistleblower,” as “those who raise uncomfortable truths” can be the best allies an institution has.

All of this will require not just lip-service, according to Freyd, but a budget that prioritizes changing the status quo.

“It will take a Herculean effort,” said Redmond, to require institutions that are deeply competitive with one another to lay down their arms and come together to make a change. But without change, said Redmond, “it’s the fox guarding the henhouse.”

“And that’s what keeps us in this cycle.”

Liann Herder can be reached at lherder@diverseeducation.com.