'Continuum' of Sexism in Sports

Recruits visiting the University of Louisville were allegedly entertained by nude dancers and prostitutes paid for by a program assistant. How culpable is head coach Rick Pitino, and is the case a symptom of a larger problem in college sports?

October 26, 2015

First it was the claim of one prostitute, but now a scandal at the University of Louisville has grown. For years, Louisville basketball recruits attended parties at a campus residence hall that included nude dancers and paid sex, former and prospective players told ESPN, lending credence to claims made by a former prostitute in a book published this month.

The former escort, Katina Powell, said she was paid by Andre McGee, the team's former graduate assistant and director of basketball operations, to provide recruits with strip shows and sex during campus visits. Powell said she was given about $10,000 by McGee for supplying dancers -- including her own teenage daughters -- for more than two dozen parties during a four-year period. In one instance, McGee allegedly offered the escort a bottle of whiskey signed by the team's head coach, Rick Pitino, as payment.

On Friday, McGee resigned from his position as an assistant basketball coach at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, where he moved before the scandal broke. “The university deserves a full-time assistant coach and I am not able to provide that to the basketball team while the false allegations against me are being investigated,” McGee stated.

But some Louisville faculty members and other critics aren’t satisfied with McGee’s resignation, saying that Pitino is also culpable and that blame can ultimately be laid at the feet of big-time college sports as a whole. In the arms race that is Division I intercollegiate athletics, they say, some colleges are all too comfortable using attractive young women as a recruiting tool, and powerful coaches can count on underlings to handle the logistics.

“If Pitino didn’t have knowledge about this sort of thing, then he should not be a coach at all,” Nancy Theriot, a professor and chair of women’s and gender studies at Louisville, said. “If he did have knowledge, then he shouldn’t resign. He should be fired.”

While the case is being investigated by both the university and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Louisville officials are adamant that the university has no plans to fire Pitino, who denies knowing about the parties. The veteran Hall of Fame coach said last week that he’s not quitting.

“I will not resign and let you down,” Pitino wrote in a blog post. “Someday I will walk away in celebration of many memorable years, but that time is not now. I do not fight these accusations by others, but rather turn the other cheek. Couldn’t do it at 33, but at 63 it’s the wise thing to do. Let’s let the investigators do their job and we will play basketball.”

In the post, he also referenced Pope Francis’s recent visit to the United States, saying the pope would frequently answer controversial questions with the phrase “we will let God judge.” It’s advice Pitino said Louisville students and fans should remember as the investigation continues. “Let’s not try to justify,” he wrote, “but let the Lord judge.”

Pitino will also be judged, however, by a considerably less celestial entity: the NCAA Committee on Infractions.

Louisville alerted the association about the possible recruiting violations (providing impermissible “extra benefits” to prospects) a month before Powell’s book was published, but it could be months before an investigation is complete. Even if Pitino was unaware of the alleged sex parties, he would likely still be found to have violated NCAA rules. Recent NCAA decisions about recruiting and academic violations at Syracuse University and Southern Methodist University have placed sanctions on head coaches despite finding no evidence that the coaches knew about the misconduct.

That’s because the NCAA revised its rules last year to hold coaches more accountable for all violations within their programs.

“An institution's head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all institutional staff members who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach,” the revised rule states. “An institution's head coach shall promote an atmosphere of compliance within his or her program and shall monitor the activities of all institutional staff members involved with the program who report, directly or indirectly, to the coach.”

Pitino’s contract -- which runs through 2026 -- contains similar language. The coach is required to “diligently supervise compliance of assistant coaches and any other employees for which [he] is administratively responsible.” The dormitory in which the parties took place was also under Pitino’s purview. The building is designated for athletes and was built at his request.

“You build a basketball dorm because you want more control, not less control,” sports columnist Rick Bozich wrote. “You build a basketball dorm because you want more information about what is going on with your players, not less information. You build a basketball dorm to make certain that scandals like this scandal do not turn your program into a national punch line. You control the security there. You control who comes and goes. You control everything because coaches like Pitino insist upon control.”

As tawdry and sensational as the Louisville case may seem, it is not the first time a program has been accused of using sex to attract athletes to a university.

In 2013, Sports Illustrated reported that Oklahoma State University’s football program used a group of women to entice recruits. Officially, the group, called Orange Pride, was meant to show visiting high school athletes around campus. Unofficially, according to Sports Illustrated, some of the women were having sex with the players. “There's no other way a female can convince you to come play football at a school besides sex,” one former OSU football player said. “The idea was to get [recruits] to think that if they came to Oklahoma State, it was gonna be like that all the time.”

The NCAA ruled that the allegations were "unfounded" but found the university in violation of "engaging in impermissible hosting activities" for using Orange Pride in recruiting activities. Such recruitment groups, or hostess programs, are not uncommon, despite the NCAA having banned “gender-based student hosting groups.” Louisville has used such programs in the past, too. Sex isn’t always part of the job description -- especially not formally -- but it does happen, and sometimes it happens without consent.

In 2007, the University of Colorado at Boulder reached a settlement with two women who said they were gang-raped at a party for recruits. The alleged assaults stemmed from a larger recruiting scandal that included strippers hired to entertain recruits and allegations that hostesses were being paid to sleep with the athletes.

Scandals involving hostess programs have also hit Arizona State University, the University of Oregon, the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University.

To be clear, Theriot, the chair of Louisville’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, said, using recruiting hostesses is not the same thing as paying for prostitutes to have sex with players. But the two “do exist on a continuum,” she said. They’re both part of a larger pattern of behavior where women are offered up as eye candy or more in an attempt to entice male athletes to join a team.

“With this sort of case, where staff members are paying for sex, it puts an extreme spotlight on what I think is actually a very widespread problem,” Theriot said. “And that is this sexist situation on campus where men are recruiting other men to play sports by providing them with girls.”


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