Athletic Departments Handling Sexual Assault Cases: Never A Good Idea

AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Five UConn women (represented by Gloria Allred) recently settled their lawsuit against the university for improper investigations of sexual assault allegations.

A quality few NCAA athletic departments possess: transparency.

From something as simple as a coach's salary to something as complex as Title IX compliance, big-time -- and, for that matter, even small-time -- athletic departments can be a sea of red tape, entangling anyone wading through. Of course, an athletic department is often just a microcosm of the university system as a whole, and finding answers about how and why things happen often feels like walking a maze filled mostly with dead ends.

For example, one of the most explosive topics in sports right now is how colleges and universities handle sexual assault allegations involving student-athletes. This week's stunning report from "Outside The Lines" is Exhibit A in how and why athletic departments are decades behind where they should be. 

As detailed in the OTL report, a Title IX lawsuit was filed Monday against the University of Tulsa, alleging that the school failed to protect sophomore Abigail Ross from one of its men's basketball players, who has a history of sexual assault allegations.

And in July, the University of Connecticut settled a federal lawsuit brought by five women who alleged that the school responded indifferently to their claims of sexual assault. In the settlement, the school did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to pay $1.3 million, the bulk of that going to former women's hockey player Silvana Moccia, who alleged that she had been kicked off the team after accusing a male hockey player of rape in August 2011.

These are just two recent, public examples of what has become a pervasive issue on college campuses. Universities are supposed to have a practiced protocol in place, as should an athletic department, just in case an allegation involves an athlete. But according to a recent congressional report based on a survey of 440 four-year schools, "Many institutions are failing to comply with the law and best practices in how they handle sexual violence among students."

This report does not specifically focus on college athletic departments, but it does offer this eye-opening statistic: More than 20 percent of institutions give athletic departments oversight in cases involving student-athletes. Just think about that number for a second -- at about 1 in 5 schools, if a student makes a sexual assault claim against an athlete, that allegation will involve oversight from athletic department personnel, the people with big foam fingers whose livelihoods revolve around the school's athletes and sports teams. 

What does this oversight look like? What might a woman (or man) expect if making an allegation against a student-athlete?

Truthfully, the topic is a legal and public relations land mine. Most athletic departments should have written protocols, including chains of command on how to report, but finding an administrator who was willing to walk me through a real-life example proved impossible. And on the flip side, women who have brought claims against student-athletes are usually legally bound from discussing specifics in a way that could shine a light on the process, thereby highlighting the problems.

Of course, there is something else at play, as well: the culture within athletic departments, how frequently they have closed ranks rather than looked in the mirror, and the history of victim blaming, which still keeps the majority of women silent.

Because of those reasons, that 20 percent number in the congressional report is chilling, as athletic departments (as well as colleges in general, of course) have competing interests: Yes, they're charged with protecting the welfare of student-athletes but also with protecting a very lucrative brand.

Too often, their commitment to the former is sacrificed for a preservation of the latter.

An interesting layer in some NCAA sexual assault cases, such as the one involving UConn's Moccia, is what happens when a female student-athlete makes an allegation against a male student-athlete. This can introduce an interesting dynamic. An athletic department, which is often being carried along on the current of big money and "the brand," must come face to face with its stated commitment: equality, without regard to gender or bottom-line impact.

The culture within most athletic departments is something created, and believed in, by all members of that community -- regardless of the supposed hierarchy among revenue and non-revenue sports. Female athletes can feel as much ownership in the culture as men, so they assume they'll receive as much protection, too.

But that wasn't the case for Katie Hnida, who alleged that a football teammate at the University of Colorado sexually assaulted her in 2000. Hnida, you might recall, was a kicker at CU and eventually became the first woman to score in an NCAA Division I-A football game. At first, Hnida kept the allegation internal within the department, speaking with the head coach and the athletic director. But she says she was given lip service, nothing more. "You like to think that when you're a student-athlete and you're in it, you're also part of the family, so you expect they're also going to take care of you," Hnida said. "But when you stop and point out a problem, instead of recognizing the problem along with you, you are ostracized. There is a loyalty within teams and programs, but the second you strike out and say something is wrong and not working the right way, the group tends to bind together."

Women have the suspicion that they will not receive fair treatment if an accusation is made against an athlete. And, often, that is justified.
Gloria Allred

Of course, one of the greatest qualities a team can foster is loyalty. But, on the flip side, one of the most destructive is blind loyalty. And many of our collegiate athletic departments seem to continually drift across that line. Whether intentional or just a byproduct of university culture, protecting the school image can occasionally take precedence over proper protocol under Title IX. Schools become like miniature nations, with flags and anthems, a distinct culture -- even their own police force. "They talk about having a zero-tolerance policy, about doing the right thing first -- 'We're here to create good men and shape their characters,'" Hnida said. "While I always want to believe that's true, so often it comes down to wanting to protect your own image, which comes back to money. And then also to winning, which in turn also comes back to money."

And unfortunately, each cautionary tale can serve as a reality check for future women who might speak out. The message: Know what you're getting into. For Hnida, that meant being discredited in every way possible: her skills as a kicker, questioned; her history with men, peeled back; any behavior deemed slightly questionable, put forth as evidence of her culpability.

I happened to play basketball at Colorado at the same time Hnida played football and was a member of the same athletic department, and, when I was on the phone with her last week, she even said, "You probably heard some of the things people said about me on campus."

I had, of course -- although it had been years since I'd thought about the gossip and whispers that traveled through the athletic department like a twisted game of telephone. "If a female athlete goes up against a male athlete who is in one of the big money-making sports at the school -- football, basketball, at UConn, ice hockey -- the woman suddenly becomes less important," Hnida said. "It's like the athletic department is literally saying, 'You are less important, your life is less important.'"

Today, most female athletes grow up believing themselves equal; they grow up proving themselves on courts and fields, just like the boys -- sweat and effort know no gender, so why should they? A level playing field is all they've ever known; the promise of it has even been coded into law: Title IX.

So, as you might imagine, the disappointment can be acute when women -- female student-athletes, but also many other college-aged women -- are confronted with the fact that, on college campuses, Title IX exists on paper but not always in practice. And in the majority of contexts, this piece of legislation isn't about equal gear and practice time -- it's about much more. It's about protection in extreme situations. "Young women today have different expectations for the system -- they have high ones," said Gloria Allred, who represented the young women in their case against UConn, in an interview with espnW. "They expect they will be treated based on their merits because some of them even won a scholarship because of their athletic abilities, and so the last thing they expect is to be treated as having less value than a male. Of course, because they have these higher expectations, they have farther to fall. They don't just think of Title IX as a piece of paper. They expect it to be practiced."

Added Allred: "I've seen situations where the department errs on the side of protecting the male athlete, and the reasoning is simple: Women's sports are less valued than men's sports, and women are less valued than men. Also, frequently, the male coaches will have more influence within an athletic department than the female coaches."

Summarizes Allred: "Women have the suspicion that they will not receive fair treatment if an accusation is made against an athlete. And, often, that is justified.

"What you hear and read about really is the tip of the iceberg because there are many confidential settlements that you'll never know of," Allred said. "There needs to be more monitoring of the athletic departments by the Title IX coordinators at the universities -- to make sure the law is being complied with. Because right now, it's just not working."

And at the moment, no strategy exists to change that reality.

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