On January 2, Oregon State pulverized Florida State 59-20 in the College Football Playoff semifinal game; what was considered a victory cry—some Oregon players screaming ‘No Means No’ in the Seminoles’ controversial war chant— became one of the many examples of a larger locker room culture that influences silence in sexual assault cases. The chant was a response to FSU quarterback Jameis Winston’s widely followed 2012 sexual assault accusations. Just a month before the playoff game, Winston was cleared of violating the student code of conduct on four counts—two for sexual misconduct and two for endangerment. The judge over the hearing, former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding, reviewed 1,000 pages of evidence generated from three separate investigations and found “the preponderance of evidence has not shown that [Winston is] responsible for any of the charged violation of the code. Namely, I find that the evidence before me is insufficient to satisfy the burden of proof.” This preparation deficiency in handling sexual assault cases is no new revelation. In fact, Florida State is currently being investigated by the Department of Education on how it handles Title IX violations. Title IX is a federal statute that bans discrimination at schools that receive federal funding. In 2011, the Department of Education instructed schools to immediately investigate allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence, regardless of its pending criminal investigation status. Florida State is one of 85 colleges and universities being investigated for Title IX violations, including Harvard University’s Law School, Princeton University, Penn State and the University of South Florida, to name a few. A few days later, on Jan. 7, it was reported that his accuser filed suit against the university on the grounds that the university failed to properly investigate her accusation and violated her Title IX rights and Winston declared he will enter the NFL draft this year. With much of the Winston case being representative of a larger issue of sexual assault on college campuses, many question if there is a connection to the college’s misinterpretation of procedures, and their propensity to sweep allegations under the rug to maintain their team’s/college’s brand.
Throughout college football history, there has been a pattern of top colleges protecting their big-name players in order to maintain stature and revenue within their programs. Many of these administrators go so far as to shame and slam victims who report sexual assault. In 1974, a University of Notre Dame undergraduate accused six players of rape. A university administrator called the victim “queen of the slums with a mattress tied to her back.” In 1993, University of Nebraska defensive lineman Christian Peter was placed on probation and missed one exhibition game after being convicted of third-degree sexual assault. In 2013, four Vanderbilt University players were charged with raping an unconscious woman in a player’s dorm room—students filed a federal complaint alleging that the university had turned a blind eye to sexual assault on campus. And football isn’t the only sport in which accusations of sexual assault have surfaced. There was the 2006 case in which Duke University lacrosse players were accused of gang raping and assaulting a stripper from neighboring North Carolina Central University. The case exposed what one author called the “power of the elite and the corruption of our great universities” as it grappled with issues of race, class and social status in addition to the assault itself. On Jan. 8 of this year, a University of Oregon student sued the university and head basketball coach Dana Altman for admitting Brandon Austin as a transfer student to the team knowing he had been accused of sexual assault at Providence College. The complainant, who chose to be identified as Jane Doe in the lawsuit, claimed she was raped by Austin and two of his teammates in March 2014. Attorney John Clune, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Jane Doe, said in a statement, “It is time for athletic departments to stop trading the safety of women on campus for points on a scoreboard. UO is a good school with a great community and they deserve better.” Austin and the other accused teammates were not charged, due to lack of evidence, but were dismissed from campus and banned from returning for up to ten years, depending on the complainant’s length of study.
“Sexual assault is a topic that a lot of people just don’t want to talk about,” said James Hines, a graduate assistant in the department of Sport Management at Arkansas State University.
Jessica Luther, a Vice Sports columnist, believes these incidents, and particularly the cloudy Winston trial “offers yet another opportunity to seriously consider and to question the practical utility of college disciplinary systems and their ability to protect the civil rights of students, especially when the accused at the center of all is one of the biggest players in one of the most lucrative sports in the land.”
Part of that discomfort with the discussion is drawn from fear of the possible damage to the university’s brand and the brand of its star players, the faces of the program.
But what is the cause for this proclivity to protect an accused teammate or player? Some point to the hyper-masculine nature of the locker room culture.
Playing for Keeps