University Athletes Punished for Bad Thoughts | Professor John Hasnas

Sentence first — verdict afterwards.

Last month, I criticized Harvard’s decision to cancel the remainder of its men’s soccer season because some members of the team created “scouting reports” on the women’s soccer team — reports that assigned women players numerical scores on the basis of their perceived sex appeal, and included photos of the women accompanied by vulgar descriptions and suggested sexual positions.

I objected to Harvard’s collective punishment of the team for the wrongdoing of some of its individual members, arguing that this was a violation of the liberal values that the university professes to uphold.

At the time, I regarded the matter as merely an unfortunate example of the contemporary academy’s penchant for virtue signaling at the expense of innocent individuals. I did not think that it carried larger implications. Subsequent events and subsequent reflection lead me to believe that I was mistaken.

The Suspensions and their Justification

The subsequent events are the flood of team suspensions for similar crude behavior by male athletes at various universities — e.g., Princeton’s swimming and diving team, Columbia’s wrestling team, Amherst’s cross country team. The subsequent reflection is on the nature of the students’ offenses and the purported justifications the universities offer for punishing them.

Consider the most recent example of this trend, the indefinite suspension of the men’s soccer team of Washington University in St. Louis. According to the Washington Post, the university “has suspended its men’s soccer team indefinitely while it investigates allegations that the 2015 team kept an online document of ‘degrading and sexually explicit comments’ toward women.”

In justifying this action, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori S. White stated,

Let me be clear: There is absolutely no place at Washington University for sexism, discrimination or harassment of any kind. This alleged behavior flies in the face of the university’s core values of community support, diversity and inclusion, and we are firmly committed to conducting a timely and thorough investigation to address this matter.

Doing Wrong or Thinking Wrong?

What is the nature of the offense that demands such a strong response? Ms. White declares that there is no place for sexism, discrimination, or harassment at Washington University.

Discrimination consists in treating others more harshly because of their race, religion, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, or membership in other protected classes. It is discrimination to refuse to hire or promote someone because of his or her membership in one of these protected groups, or to refuse to serve someone in a hotel, restaurant, or other business open to the public for such a reason — or, in the educational setting, to exclude someone from an educational opportunity on such a basis.

But the members of Washington University’s men’s soccer team were not engaging in any such actions. In fact, they were not interacting with the aggrieved women at all. This suggests that, whatever their offense is, it is not discrimination.

What about harassment? In the educational environment, sexual harassment consists in unwanted and unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that interferes with the right to receive an equal educational opportunity.

This can come in two forms. The first is quid pro quo harassment, which occurs when a school employee explicitly or implicitly conditions a student’s participation or success in an educational activity on the student’s submission to unwelcome sexual advances. The second form is hostile environment harassment, which occurs when faculty, staff, or other students make unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or engage in other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile or abusive educational environment.

In the context of the Washington University soccer team, only hostile environment harassment can be relevant. But this form of harassment requires that the offensive verbal or physical conduct be communicated to the potential victims. In order for the conduct of some students to create a hostile environment for others, it must at least be known to those others. But the players’ offensive comments about their fellow students were secret and were not directed at or shared with the women students. This suggests that whatever the soccer players’ offense is, it is not harassment.

That leaves sexism. Sexism is an exceedingly broad term. It has been defined as

  1. the assumption that one sex is superior to the other and the resultant discrimination practiced against members of the supposed inferior sex,
  2. behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex,
  3. the unfair treatment of women because of their sex, and
  4. unjust distinction based on gender and made against one person or group in favor of another.

Now, it is not clear that creating an online document that contains degrading and sexually explicit comments toward women satisfies any of these definitions, but at least it is in the neighborhood. So the soccer players’ offense must be sexism, manifested by sharing among themselves vulgar and offensive sexual comments about fellow students.

Apparently, the players’ offense was that they thought bad things about some of Washington University’s female students, which they memorialized in a private online document. I’m not sure, but this seems to me to be a fairly good exemplar of a thoughtcrime.

Given the facts of this case, Ms. White appears to be declaring that there is absolutely no place at Washington University for bad thinking.

From George Orwell to Lewis Carroll

Next, consider the Alice in Wonderland quality of these proceedings. What punishments could the university assign to the men’s soccer team if its members behaved improperly? Cancelling its season would appear to be the harshest. But note that this is the action the university has taken “while it investigates [the] allegations.” University Provost Holden Thorp issued a statement saying,

We must respect the integrity of the investigative process and carefully review the findings as they become available; however, these allegations suggest an unacceptable culture within our men’s soccer program. We have no choice at this point but to put a halt to all team activities — indefinitely — while we conclude the investigation and determine the most appropriate next steps.

Does this remind anyone else of the Queen of Hearts’ dictum “Sentence first — verdict afterwards”? Does the provost really believe that he has no choice but to impose punishment before the investigation is concluded, and before “appropriate steps are determined”?

Notice also that it is the 2016 team that is being punished for the alleged bad behavior of the 2015 team. How would it feel to be a freshman on the 2016 team? How would it feel to be told that you could not play intercollegiate soccer because of what others did while you were in high school?

The provost felt compelled to cancel the men’s soccer season because the allegations made against the 2015 team “suggest an unacceptable culture within our men’s soccer program.” But why the emphasis on the program’s “culture”? If some members of the team violated university rules, why not bring them up on academic charges as individuals? Unless — of course — no rules have been violated.

Breaking Rules That Don’t Exist

Exactly what academic offense have the students committed? Is it a violation for students to keep a private journal containing degrading and offensive comments about their fellow students? What could the students be charged with? Is Washington University an Orwellian world in which wrong thinking can be punished?

If not — if the students who created the journal have not violated any specific university rule — and the university does not have grounds to sanction the individuals who actually engaged in the objectionable behavior, then on what grounds can it sanction the entire team?

The provost said the university had “no choice at this point but to put a halt to all team activities.” I disagree.

I think the university faced a clear and meaningful choice. With no grounds to punish individual students who engaged in conduct that the University found objectionable, the university could have pursued two distinct courses of action. It could have voiced its extreme disapproval of the students’ behavior, but acknowledged that a commitment to liberal values entails a commitment to tolerate offensive conduct that does not harm others, and then taken no action against the soccer team.

Or to publicly signal its virtuous commitment to “community support, diversity and inclusion,” it could abandon its commitment to liberalism and impose collective punishment on the team even though no individual had committed a punishable offense.

This presented what academics call a teachable moment — and, as an academic, I am deeply troubled by the lesson that Washington University decided to teach.

Given the way teenaged boys away from home and free from parental authority are wont to behave, I expect that incidents similar to the ones at Harvard and Washington University will continue to come to light. I sincerely hope the next institution presented with a comparable teachable moment departs from the course taken by Harvard and Washington University and instructs its students on what a true commitment to liberal values entails.


Article by John Hasnas, Professor of Business at Georgetown University. Originally published at www.learnliberty.org.