On the campus of a Division I school, football game days are somewhat of a local holiday. It is impossible to walk outside without the instant assault of school colors and tailgating merriment. But among the camaraderie and jubilation, the cheering and the revelry, one disturbing fact lingers — reports of campus sexual assault on football game days increase by 41 percent.
There is a longstanding history between college football and sexual assault. Maybe the general nature of college tailgating lets potential assailants feel more inclined to commit assaults under the guise of increased alcohol intake and lowered inhibitions. Or maybe they believe the assaults will go undetected under the veil of partying. Whatever the underlying contributing factors, one fact remains glaringly clear: These assaults are occurring at an alarming rate, and universities are failing to protect victims.
The connection between football and sexual assault goes much deeper than the increase of sexual assault reports that accompany football game days, both home and away. Universities, particularly ones that rely on major sports like football for mass revenue, protect athletes accused of sexual assault at the expense of their victims. Studies show that college student-athletes commit one-third of sexual assaults on college campuses, a rate that is six times that of their non-athlete peers. While it is undoubtedly unfair to insinuate that all athletes are at risk of committing sexual assault, or even that all athletes contribute to the issue, the connection between campus rape culture and sports must be explored.
Based on statistics, it is clear that college athletes commit sexual assault at a rate that is disproportionately higher than non-athletes. However, it is infuriatingly also the case that their victims are much more likely to have their voices silenced in order to preserve the reputation of an institution. Take, for example, the story of Jameis Winston, the current Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback and former Florida State University quarterback. In December 2012, while a freshman at FSU, he allegedly raped fellow student Erica Kinsman in the bathroom of his apartment. When Kinsman went to authorities to press charges, she was told by Tallahassee police officer Scott Angulo that “this is a huge football town. You should really think long and hard if you want to press charges.” Tallahassee police never charged Winston for the assault. The sexual intercourse between the two, which was proven to have occurred via a rape kit, was deemed consensual. An FSU code of conduct hearing cleared Winston of all wrongdoing, allowing him to continue playing for the football team. Kinsman dropped out of school due to constant intimidation from her peers, saying, “They were calling me a slut and a whore.” Winston won the Heisman Trophy, the highest honor in college football, “with his DNA in a rape kit,” said retired NFL player Don McPherson.
Stories of institutional failure to protect sexual assault victims while enabling the success of the perpetrators get more abysmal from there. The tragic case of Lizzy Seeberg highlights just how drastic the ramifications of poorly handled sexual assault reports can be. In September 2010, Seeberg was a freshman at St. Mary’s College when she was allegedly sexually assaulted by a football player at nearby University of Notre Dame. She promptly reported the assault to Notre Dame campus police, and shortly thereafter was told by the friend of the accused football player, “Don’t do anything you would regret. Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea.” No charges were filed against the football player, whose identity is not public information, and just 10 days after the assault, Seeberg died by suicide at age 19. Her assailant was not questioned in relation to the assault until five days after her death. Seeberg was then repeatedly described as a “troubled girl” who “had done this before,” and was pinned as the “aggressor” in the situation. Even after a disciplinary hearing was finally held in 2011, the perpetrator was found not guilty of any wrongdoing.
It may seem easy to point fingers at outside institutions when it comes to the mishandling of sexual assault, but to find examples of egregious maltreatment of victims, we need not look far from home. In November 2009, Brendan Gibbons, then-freshman University of Michigan football kicker, was accused of rape by a female athlete while attending a party at a fraternity. When reports of the sexual assault first surfaced, two University football players reported to police that Gibbons’s roommate, fellow football player Taylor Lewan, threatened to rape the victim again if she pressed charges. Lewan admitted these threats to the police who later notified the University. No action was taken against Lewan. Furthermore, despite the fact that the University was aware of the actions of both Gibbons and Lewan, no disciplinary action was taken against either individual until December 2013, when Gibbons was expelled from his graduate program.
This timeline effectively determines that the University protected an accused sexual predator from any consequences for over four years, leaving his victim in the dark.
While instances such as these may seem anecdotal, it is not difficult to find an abundance of cases of generally well-respected universities covering up the sexual misconduct of their athletes and employees alike. It is an issue that extends far beyond individual players, coaches and institutions. The blame does not lie at the feet of each athlete who dedicates a large portion of their life to bring pride to the name of their university, or each coach who helps them along the way. Rather, the blame lies in the longstanding practices that promote rape culture within athletics, and that encourage universities to bend over backward to protect the reputation of their largest source of revenue. It is a culture that allows the accused to play professional football and win Heisman Trophies, while the accusers drop out of school or take their own lives due to constant harassment. It is the same culture that we, albeit unwittingly, take part in several Saturdays a month throughout the fall semester, and a culture that will never change until we finally decide to hold each other responsible.
Alanna Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.