Rape and college football

An examination of the troubling trend of the country’s favorite sport intersecting one of its biggest problems

(Joe Buettner/OU Daily)

In 2004, Chris Collins was charged in an aggravated sexual assault case involving a 12-year-old girl. Collins was allowed to join the Oklahoma State football team as a scholarship player.

From 2008 to 2010, one Missouri student athlete, Derrick Washington, was accused of rape followed by physical assault followed by sexual assault followed by domestic assault all before being dismissed from the football team. His coach, Gary Pinkle, admitted to knowing about the incident but refused to level any disciplinary action because no charges were filed.

In 2014, the University of Oklahoma had a trifecta of assault allegations involving members of its football team. Frank Shannon, a linebacker with the team, was accused of raping a woman at a college party. While Shannon sat out of practice, head coach Bob Stoops wrote the matter off as “personal issues” Shannon was dealing with. While no criminal charges were filed against Shannon, the University, through its own investigation, found Shannon guilty of sexual assault and suspended him for one season. One season. He returned in 2015 and now plays in the National Football League.

At the same time, Oklahoma accepted in the transfer request of a wide receiver from Missouri named Dorial Green-Beckham. Green-Beckham had been kicked off the Missouri football team following accusations that he broke into the home of his then-girlfriend and pushed her down a set of stairs. The woman also claimed that Green-Beckham dragged her by her neck and hit her. Charges were never filled because the women involved in the case were fearful of public backlash due to the nature of Green-Beckham’s football stature. Green-Beckham spent one season at Oklahoma before being drafted in the NFL and though he didn’t play, it had nothing to do with the assault allegations he faced.

Then came the highly publicized case of running back Joe Mixon breaking the jaw of another OU student at a restaurant just off campus. The incident was captured on tape by the restaurant’s surveillance equipment and shown to Stoops, Oklahoma director of athletics Joe Castiglione and president David Boren. Mixon was slapped with a one-year suspension that ultimately served as a redshirt season and still remains on the team.

Then Baylor happened.

In this most recent college football season alone, the trend has grown more troublesome. Two USC football players were alleged to have raped a 19-year-old woman before the season, videotaped the assault and sent the video to the victim’s boyfriend. They received a two-game suspension, during which they were still allowed to practice with the team.

Delaney Robinson was allegedly raped by a linebacker from the North Carolina Tar Heels. The football player was reportedly told to “not sweat” the rape allegation.

Four Minnesota Golden Gophers were accused of raping a 22-year-old woman at 4 a.m. The players were suspended by their head coach for “busting team rules” but the coach couldn’t provide a definite timetable for the suspensions. The four were eventually allowed to return to the team.

Antonio Callaway, a receiver at Florida was accused of sexually assaulting a woman, and the adjudicator assigned to hear the case was a Florida football booster.

Four Purdue football players were accused of sexual assault. None were charged.

“It’s always been there, it just wasn’t reported so I think that we didn’t realize it. So we’re seeing a rise in numbers but I don’t think that’s because it wasn’t there.” — Brenda Tracy

Should we continue?

What’s happening?

This is just a sample. A looking glass into the world of college football. These cases are not the only ones of their kind, and unless something is done, the numbers say they won’t be the last. A study conducted by a group of researchers from across the country took to one unidentified college campus and surveyed 379 male college students under the age of 23 — half of which were athletes and half non-athlete.

Fifty-four percent of male student athlete’s admitted to partaking in one sexually coercive act in their lifetime.

While raw data shows that instances of sexual assault involving college football players is increasing in frequency, the levels of reporting are also on the rise.

“There are about a 115 cases,” said Jessica Luther, an author and reporter who has covered the topic of sexual assault as it relates to college football. “There are caveats in the list: these are only cases reported in the media — which sexual violence is massively under-reported — and then for it to actually hit the media is a whole other level. It goes back to 1974, the list, and in the 70's, 80's, 90's, 2000's are only really cases that hit national media because those are the ones I was able to locate in databases that I had access to. Over the last six, seven years it’s easier to find cases from smaller towns and small newspapers because they’re all online.”

Luther recently published a book discussing this exact issue. In it, she spent a great deal of time addressing how we’ve gotten to this point in society. When it comes to college football, sexual assault and rape culture have become a part of its very fabric. Part of that has to do with the sheer violence of the sport. Part of that has to do with the emphasis on masculinity.

The following video contains potentially sensitive material.

Luther brought up a skit from “Inside Amy Schumer,” a show on Comedy Central. The skit was about a football coach who took a job at a high school in the south, and upon instigating a “no raping” rule, his approval from the team and the community took a major hit. At the end, the team finds itself losing by a wide margin at halftime, to which the coach begins to use language closely tied to rap culture to amp up his team.

“All of the language that he’s using to describe football is so clearly rape language,” Luther said. “It just does this amazing job of showing just how built into the fabric of the sport this kind of language is which I think relates directly to the violent aspect of it.”

And football is violent. It’s very violent. Where else do you find two fully grown men in peak physical condition running straight at each other, one with the goal of driving his man into the ground and the other with the hope that he can run the oncoming tackler over. At its core, football has been portrayed as a sport for men, no women allowed.

“With football, the masculinity and the way that it’s structured,” Luther said, “(it’s) not very healthy a lot of the time. It’s certainly predicated on the idea that you’re good at football because you’re not a girl.”

The phrase “locker room talk” has become such a divisive and polarizing term now, but there’s a reason Donald Trump chose to blame what he said on locker room talk. It’s not that far-fetched to believe something along the lines of “grab them by the p****” could be uttered in that type of space. “We all have a solid idea that those are pretty sexist spaces.” Luther said.

“It’s easy for us to buy into this idea because sport is often very sexist and football is the most famous example of that, and, again, that does relate back to the fact that it’s so violent.”

The violent nature of the sport has another, more horrific, consequence too.

“On this list of 115 cases, 40 percent of them involved multiple players as perpetrators of this violence, which is an incredible percentage,” Luther said. “The highest gang-rape stat I could find was 25 percent and I think that was fraternities, so 40 is very high.”

If you include cases involving witnesses or people that helped after the fact, that number rises to 50 percent. Now, those numbers could very well be skewed by the fact that a rape case involving multiple perpetrators is more likely to provoke a response from the public and subsequently the media. Only 20 percent of college-age female students report to law enforcement in the first place. But the fact that two out of every five documented rape case has involved multiple perpetrators is astounding.

Four out of five rape victims on a college campus don’t report rape to the police.

“The thing about gang rape is it almost never has anything to do with the victim,” Luther said. “Sociologists have said that gang rape is a performance of masculinity between the men using the woman to sort of perform that. In that way it seems easy to draw parallels between what they’re doing together on the field and in the locker room versus what’s happening in the most extreme, terrible examples off the field.”

Pushing the idea of a sense of masculinity down men’s throat starts early, too.

“How are we raising our boys,” Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor and activist, said. “Are we teaching them that it’s okay to be vulnerable and have emotions or are we only teaching them they can only be tough, they can only be angry?”

Tracy’s sexual assault would fall under the category of gang rape. It happened nearly twenty years ago, when she was a student at Oregon State and she was raped by four men, two of whom were members of the football team. Tracy said this problem is a cultural one.

“It has to do with the entitlement we place on these players,” Tracy said. “We identify a kid in seventh grade as having athletic ability and then all of the sudden we adjust his life, now all of the sudden they’re special and placed on a pedestal. I talk to coaches about this a lot, I talk to them about the fact that when you identify this kid at a young age, and then society and coaches and teachers start placing this entitlement on them, you don’t know which kid is going to go off the rails.”

To be fair, not every college football player is going to perpetrate sexual assault against another person. Not every university has the systemic failure that Baylor had.

“I think most of these players are not doing these things, I don’t think coaches at every department are actively covering things up,” Luther said. “I think there’s a lot instances within the system to look away from problems such as sexual violence and harassment and misogyny and sexism, you really benefit if you don’t pay attention to these things… The system is bad the way that it’s set up, it encourages bad decision making.”

Over the summer, Jim Grobe — the man who was tapped to replace Art Briles at Baylor — told a congregation of media members that what happened at Baylor wasn’t exclusive to the Waco campus, that sexual assault is a problem elsewhere in the country as well. Grobe isn’t wrong. Coming from him, it wasn’t the smartest move to make, but coming from someone like Tracy or Luther? Then it would be a critical analysis of the landscape college football currently finds itself drowning in.

“Baylor is an extreme case I would say, I don’t imagine that’s what’s going on in most football departments,” Luther said. “ I wrote a whole book and Baylor was four pages at the end of it, I was able to write systemically on this issue and Baylor’s just the epilogue, the footnote at the end.”

Where do we go from here?

The US Department of Education currently has 76 cases open involving Title IX offenses at colleges and universities across the country.

After years of relative silence, the NCAA, at the urging of Tracy, created an ad hoc committee to find a way to punish and prevent cases of sexual assault.

But what about reporting? What about education? What about punishment? We still have a long ways to go.

“ We have to start understanding that this happens everywhere and we have to start addressing it and taking it on head first,” Tracy said.

Luther agreed, and said that the media has as big a role to play as any.

“There’s this double-edged sword where good media might possibly encourage a survivor to come forward if they feel safe enough to tell their story in a space they won’t be destroyed by it,” she said. “At the same time bad media can do the opposite of that, can make people fearful. And they should be, we’re not kind at all to survivors who come forward.”

Exposure can cause all kinds of unintended consequences. Mia Molitor, the woman who was assaulted by Mixon, left the University of Oklahoma — a place she had always wanted to be at — because of continued harassment from other students that blamed her for what happened.

“When I watch someone do any kind of coverage that blames the victim or removes the violence completely or centers the story around whether or not a report is going to ruin a man’s life,” Luther said, “those moments make me wonder how much harm is being done on whether or not survivors will come forward in the future.”

Coaches have an important role as well.

“I think coaches have probably one of the biggest jobs and the most responsibility,” Tracy said. “If a coach steps in and sets the bar high and makes it clear what their expectations are and what they expect of these guys, I believe the majority of them will reach those expectations — they’ll do the right thing — especially if they’re threatened with losing playing time or not being able to be on the team because for some of these kids it’s not really even about school, it’s about playing ball, it’s about ‘what can I do to stay eligible, what grades do I need to get and where do I need to show up to be able to be on the field.’”

Though that’s the right thing, it’s still a big ask. It’s a lot to ask someone who has come up through the same system, been exposed to the same ideologies for an even longer period of time, to go and rewrite everything they know. It’s not too much to ask though.

“If we’re going to take this issue seriously coaches have to be a part of the solution,” Luther said.

And Tracy acknowledged that most coaches already know the influence they have over their players. “They get that,” she said, but she added that because of the recency and the newness of this particular issue being in the public spotlight, coaches just haven’t had the correct conversations yet with their players.

“It’s kind of something you don’t really talk about and I don’t know if that’s because it’s uncomfortable, I don’t know if that’s because they don’t want to deal with it, they feel like it’s complicated or whatever, but I think in many ways we see coaches trying to train up these young men into good men but we’re not seeing them hone in on this one particular issue,” Tracy said. “We have to start addressing it head on, whether it’s comfortable or uncomfortable. There may be coaches that think this isn’t an issue, it doesn’t happen, sexual assault happens over there… In some ways it’s not even talked about, at all, it’s just not addressed and we have to start addressing it.”

There might come a day when football is no longer the thing we see before our eyes now. It could look vastly different. It could not even exist. The numbers of kids entering into the sport have been on the decline for some time now and there is the ugly issue of concussions staring football in the face. But something like sexual assault undermines the future. Seeing something like “C.A.B.” is heartbreaking to people like Tracy, who are fighting to put the emphasis on raising good men and valuing human life above winning.

“We can have football, and we can have winning seasons and we can have good strong young men that aren’t perpetrating violence against other innocent human beings,” Tracy said.

“We can have it all.”