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Sports and Sexual Abuse: An Interview with Beth Adubato
December 12, 2011 - 3:00am

As noted here, I have been deeply disturbed by recent sports-related scandals on college campuses, but I don’t feel equipped to comment with any authority because I somehow was not issued the competitive-sports microchip. For this reason, I asked Dr. Beth Adubato to help me understand these phenomena and put them in perspective. Beth is a criminologist whose specialty is crime and sports. She grew up in the sports world; her father, Richie Adubato, is a distinguished and beloved basketball coach, and Beth herself worked for several years as a TV sportscaster. She currently teaches criminal justice at Rutgers University.

Beth, what is behind the apparent cover-up of Jerry Sandusky's alleged abuse of at least 10 boys, and the less than diligent responses of Syracuse University, the Syracuse Post-Standard and ESPN to Bobby Davis's attempts to get someone to pay attention to his claims of abuse by Bernie Fine? Is it all about money, or misplaced hero-worship, or is there something else going on?

First of all, we know rape is an under-reported crime, so that always clouds the picture.  When you’re talking about children, it becomes even murkier.  Having said that, from the perspective of “big-time” college sports, these kinds of stories spell disaster and no program wants any kind of controversy.  College sports are big business and football is king.  The amount of money involved is staggering.  If college football were not such a big money-maker, you wouldn't be seeing all these increases in coaches' salaries. While classes and departments are being cut, budgets are being slashed, and faculty is being asked to teach more for the same money, coaches' salaries are on the increase.

So, combine the difficulties of under-reported crime with the reverence for the bottom line and you can have a recipe for a cover-up.

As for misplaced hero worship, that often occurs after the crimes have been exposed. The myth that star athletes and even coaches are too heroic to be criminals has pretty much been debunked in the last two decades. Because of the increase of media sources and 24-hour news coverage, some stories that heretofore would have slipped by unnoticed, have come to light. Kobe Bryant's rape case could be an example of this.  The hero worship really becomes apparent when a star is accused and the public sides with the star rather than with the alleged victim.

Jeff Benedict has written some excellent books on this subject; for example, Public Heroes, Private Felons:  Athletes and Crimes Against Women and, with Don Yaeger, Pro and Cons:  The Criminals Who Play in the NFL. While his research focuses on professional sports, he traces some of the cases back to these athletes' college days and there are blatant examples of crimes being covered up in the name of sports.

As you point out, rape accusations involving children are even less likely to be reported than those with adult victims. And this leads to the question, why are the alleged child victims who are now in the spotlight all male? Our best current understanding of pedophilia is that it is not particularly gender-focused; that is, it is an expression of sexuality that is too immature to differentiate, so that an individual pedophile is as likely to pursue little girls as little boys. Is this just a case of opportunity--boys are more likely to be junior athletes and ball boys -- or might there be systematic abuse of girls on college campuses that we don't hear about?

In this case, we are probably looking at a form of Routine Activity Theory. These young boys are more likely to be suitable targets for a motivated offender than young girls would be.  There are just fewer college sports for women, so there's less chance that girls are being recruited overall. No sport has as many players on a team as football does; as in the Penn State case, a football coach would not have the same kind of access to young girls.

As far as sexual abuse of women on college campuses, this is, indeed, a serious problem and often members of sports teams are involved. When a star player is accused of sexual assault, there is often a cover-up and/or a discrediting of the female accuser.  In this case, however, with the accusation of pedophilia, it's a whole different ballgame, so to speak.

Thank you. Any other thoughts?

I have recently participated in a conference at the Department of Justice on the subject of rape on college campuses. As I mentioned earlier, it is a major problem -- affecting mostly females -- and it particularly deleterious to these young women's college careers. While many athletes are involved, it is not only athletes who commit these crimes.  Fraternity membership is also highly linked to sexual assault.  However, in research such as Jeff Benedict's, it is clear that the cover-up of star athlete behavior is far more prevalent. There are countless examples of Division I, highly-competitive programs that have swept these incidents under the rug, in order to keep stars on the roster and Ws in the win column.


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