Hostesses? In 2015?

Rape trial involving former Vanderbilt U. football players revives debate over the use of attractive women to rope in athletic recruits.

January 27, 2015

A high-profile rape trial involving two former Vanderbilt University football players has put the spotlight back on the deep-rooted practice of using “hostesses” to help recruit prospective football players.

Defense lawyers have asked several witnesses about the use of female hostesses for recruits and suggested that the woman who has accused the players of rape helped in recruiting players to the team. The first mention of the use of “pretty girls” to attract recruits appeared in court filings last year.

Vanderbilt hasn’t confirmed whether such a program exists, saying that it doesn’t comment on issues related to ongoing legal matters.

The defense’s broader legal argument has focused on blaming a culture characterized by sex and alcohol. Some have dismissed the arguments as sexist attempts to justify rape. But aside from the trial, the descriptions of using women to recruit football players have reminded people of a tradition some may have assumed was a thing of the past. 

If the allegations in court documents are true, it wouldn’t be the first time the practice of using attractive young women to try to hook teenage football recruits has come under scrutiny.

Most notable was a large recruiting scandal at the University of Colorado at Boulder that included strippers hired to entertain recruits and allegations of hostesses being paid to sleep with recruits. In 2007, the university reached a settlement with two women who said they were gang-raped at a party for recruits.

Inappropriate hostess relationships in programs at Arizona State University, the University of Oregon, and the University of Tennessee also made headlines after the Colorado case.

Facing those revelations, the National Collegiate Athletic Association issued new recruitment regulations in 2004, essentially saying that host groups could no longer be limited to females and that athletic recruits should be treated like other prospective students during campus tours.  

But more than a decade after that rule change, despite scandals and court documents relating to hostess programs at big-time college football programs, the use of women in recruiting and special treatment for prospective football players still appear to be going on, if informally.

Football recruitment has become a sport in and of itself, where the game is to impress each prize recruit in every aspect of his visit, said Gerald Gurney, a professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma. Gurney also serves as president of the Drake Group, a faculty organization concerned about the academic integrity of college athletics.

Recruitment visits to major football and basketball programs are heavily planned and orchestrated, which makes it hard to believe when universities claim they don’t know what’s going on, Gurney said.

The only role Gurney sees for hosts is giving recruits campus tours. There’s no justification, he said, for showing them the social life of a campus, particularly with an underage high school recruit.

“What is the point, except to potentially get the recruit and the hostess into a dangerous situation?”

Not all commentary on the use of hostesses has been critical, though. A story this week in Bleacher Report suggests hostess programs have been unfairly cast in a negative light. In interviews, football coaches, recruiters, and women who participated in the programs say hostesses aren’t “eye candy” but are picked for their ability to connect with players and their parents.

My role was about life as a student. A lot of it was very similar to the things I did in my job as a general tour guide and working for new student enrollment, one former recruiting hostess said.

Those interviewed in the story also denied knowing of any inappropriate activities, including drinking or sexual relationships.

Host programs are a logistical necessity for football programs, said Todd Crosset, associate professor of sports management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. They’re the equivalent of tour guides for athletes, and for a football team that’s recruiting dozens of students during a time when coaches are busy, hosts play an important role.

But it’s also a moment where the recruiting process can become corrupted if it's not done correctly, Crosset said.

In a way, the use of attractive women to recruit football players is byproduct of the college athletics system, Crosset said. The NCAA rules limit what universities can do to charm athletes. “The one thing universities can offer is attractive classmates, and the idea that you’re going to be high status, so that’s what they’ve been selling,” he said.

In other words, until colleges stop viewing the recruitment of athletes as something that has little to do with academics, the culture of hostess programs will likely continue to be a part of football teams’ sales pitch. Crosset also thinks that changing the rules to allow colleges to pay for parents to come on official recruiting trips would help eliminate the temptation for inappropriate behavior.

He also pointed out that a lot of women who go into being recruiting hosts take the position and their responsibilities seriously and use it to network or boost their résumé.

“We can’t condemn host or hostess programs,” Crosset said. “What you can get upset about is how the adults around the football team encourage or discourage moral and ethical behavior.”

It may be true that there’s a practical need to host recruits, and even that groups will have be selective and screen candidates to find the most charismatic hosts, said Erin Buzuvis, director of the Center for Gender Studies and Sexuality at Western New England University and cofounder of the Title IX Blog. 

But the changes spurred by scandals such as Colorado case were intended to stop athletic departments from using women to attract football players, Buzuvis said. The purpose was to make a safer environment.  

If that was a change in name only -- that is, if a gender-neutral program isn’t enough to keep these host programs safe -- that’s problematic, she said.

“I think the bottom line for athletics programs is to say, ‘Is our program safe for all involved? If it’s not, are there changes we can make to make it safe?’” Buzuvis said.  


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