“Sexual relationships between coaches and student-athletes have become a serious problem,” declares the opening line of a new publication the National Collegiate Athletic Association is distributing to all its member institutions, urging athletic departments to create policies that “unambiguously and effectively” prohibit such relationships.
Of course, these relationships create conflicts of interest. But the issues run deeper than that, argue authors Deborah L. Brake, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, and Mariah Burton Nelson, executive director for the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation.
The authors state that such relationships do not necessarily constitute sexual harassment because some of the relationships are consensual. But regardless of whether they are consensual, these relationships are a form of sexual abuse (though not necessarily criminal assault) because the employee holds a position of power over the athlete – rendering an athlete’s consent, stated or unstated, illegitimate. “The public understands that children can be manipulated into ‘agreeing’ to behaviors that are inappropriate and even criminal because they are, relative to adults, powerless,” the document reads. “Whether the student-athlete is 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, or older, she or he is significantly less powerful than a head coach, assistant coach, athletics trainer, sport psychologist, athletics director, or other athletics department staff with supervisory control or authority over student-athletes.”
The report states that inappropriate sexual relationships between coaches and players happen with some regularity, sometimes with tragic results. One basketball coach demanded sexual favors in exchange for playing time. A track coach spent all night in an abandoned house he owned and when confronted, justified it as an all-night counseling session. A baseball coach who had been involved with a male student jumped off a bridge after being served with felony warrants. A swimmer who had been molested committed suicide. In some cases where colleges uncovered or were alerted to a relationship, the coaches were allowed to leave with no consequences, perhaps to be hired elsewhere.
However, Brake said no one or two cases prompted the NCAA effort.
"Honestly, this was a response to the general issue more than any one notorious or particular case," she said. "In general, it's just good to have policies so that people know what to do when things arise."
Erin Buzuvis, a law professor at Western New England University, applauded the NCAA on taking a position on the issue. On her Title IX Blog, Buzuvis explained there are also potential legal implications of coach-athlete relationships under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. For one thing, Buzuvis writes, coaches’ influence over athletes may suggest lack of consent, which would constitute sexual harassment. But even when both involve profess it’s consensual, a college could be at risk of liability because the relationship is likely to negatively affect other members of the team.
Buzuvis wrote that “some initial resistance" to the model policy is likely, given that many consider these relationships to be harmless. But in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed on Monday, she said she’s hopeful that resistance will pass.
“The NCAA is offering this as a resource, not a mandate, and in that sense there is no consequence for a school that ignores the issue. Nevertheless, I think this is the appropriate first step,” Buzuvis said. “I believe that culture, not policy, is going to drive change on this issue. A tactic of providing resources and encouragement to change expectations within individual athletic departments will more effectively foster this change of culture, where a mandate is more likely to evoke backlash.”
The problem may be serious, but it’s certainly not new. The idea to create guidelines, though, arose after Nelson spoke about the issue at last year’s NCAA Equity and Inclusion Forum – which, as it happens, is underway again this week.
“[These relationships] had been going on forever,” said Karen Morrison, NCAA director of gender inclusion, calling from the forum in New Orleans. While she doesn’t think this is the first statement the association has made on the matter, it is the first time it has issued specific policy guidelines. “I think that people feel like it’s an issue that needs to be discussed and addressed, and the impression is there may not be a lot of formal policies in their athletic departments related to this…. I hope that what it does is prompt the conversations.”
Research on how often coaches become sexually involved with athletes is limited, the authors say, for a number of reasons: data in existing studies measure different things, involve athletes of different ages and athletic levels, and in different locations. Further, many lump together sexual harassment and abuse without delineating behaviors and attitudes. So “no one knows” how often this happens.
“Indeed the relative lag in U.S.-based research is itself significant, indicative of an ideology that tends to idealize coaches and overlooks or minimizes the harmful aspects of sport, especially when the athletes are adults,” the authors write.
But the document does note a few studies with interesting findings. One comprehensive study estimated the rate of sexual abuse in sport as between 2 and 22 percent. Another, based in Canada, found 22 percent of athletes said they’d had sex with an athletics authority figure, and 9 percent reported experiencing a forcible sexual encounter. And in “one of the few studies in the U.S.,” set at an unnamed major university, 20 percent of respondents said they’d “experienced behaviors from a coach that took the relationship in a non-instructional and potentially intimate direction,” and 92 percent of those respondents felt positively about it.
Despite the lack of research, staffing data and information on cases that have become public indicate that coach-athlete relationships are “largely, but certainly not exclusively,” between male coaches and female athletes. As the authors note, men coach 98 percent of male athletes and 57 percent of female ones. Further, men account for about 81 percent of athletics directors and 72 percent of head athletics trainers.
A model policy included in the publication – to be adopted both by the institution and the athletic department it houses – “strictly prohibits” amorous relationships between any coach and athlete. Policies should also prohibit coach-athlete relationships for two years after the final academic year the student plays on his or her team. If a non-coaching staff member becomes involved with an athlete over whom he or she has supervisory control or authority, it should be reported to the athletics director or the associate athletics director for program compliance. Then the staff member should be recused from any supervisory responsibilities over the athlete in question.
Any coach or staff member with information suggesting a violation of the policy must report it immediately – failure to do so would in itself constitute a violation – and must not be retaliated against. Employees found to have violated the policy should face disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.
Brake and Nelson note that historically, most universities have not prohibited these relationships, and Nelson said they found "very few" policies specifically within athletic departments. Morrison agreed that anecdotally, the impression is that few formal policies exist. She speculated this is because at the collegiate level, most athletes are legally free to engage with coaches and other supervisors.
“I think there is some hesitancy to prescribe what people consider to be the personal lives of their coaches,” Morrison said. “A lot of times there’s a fallback to, ‘Well, they’re consenting adults.' ”
Neena K. Chaudhry, special counsel for the National Women's Law Center, applauded the NCAA and its "very thorough" document.
"We obviously are very concerned about making sure that students have safe learning environments -- all students," she said. "We think this is a very positive step, and we're really glad to see that they're starting to address this problem."