Second Chances

Former Stanford swimmer is but the latest example of university athletes accused of assaulting women who seem to escape punishments that are serious enough for their crimes.

June 8, 2016
 
Brock Turner sentencing photograph

The father of a former Stanford University swimmer convicted of sexual assault has fueled outrage on social media by arguing that his son should not have been punished for “20 minutes of action.”

Last Thursday Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in county jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a fraternity. His father, Dan Turner, wrote a letter to Judge Aaron Persky urging a light punishment. “Brock's life has been deeply altered forever …. His every waking minute is consumed with worry, anxiety, fear and depression,” Dan Turner wrote in the letter. “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20-plus years of life.”

Many condemned the letter, saying it diminished the seriousness of the offense and reflected rape culture. Observers of the case have also criticized Persky for issuing a lenient sentence and seeming more concerned with the well-being of Turner than the victim, a 23-year-old woman not enrolled at Stanford. Prosecutors pushed for six years in prison, rather than six months in county jail.

The Turner sentencing came just weeks after Baylor University ousted its president amid allegations that he fostered a culture of second chances among football players and other students who -- given those chances -- sexually assaulted Baylor students. And at Mississippi State University, a signee charged with simple assault will be allowed to enroll and play football this year following a one-game suspension. Whether in decisions by universities or courts, many athletes who attack women are receiving second chances.

Who Is to Blame?

Not all college sexual assault cases enter the criminal justice system. But when they do, the authority to offer second chances rests with actors in the criminal justice system, rather than colleges or universities, said Marc Edelman, associate professor of law at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College of City University of New York. “If an individual is given another opportunity to swim next year, the blame should not lie with a college for giving him another chance, but rather on the criminal justice system for perhaps giving him too light of a sanction,” he said.

In court, athletes at elite institutions may be likely to draw sympathy, said Nellie Drew, adjunct professor of law at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In a lengthy courtroom statement that has garnered more than five million views on BuzzFeed, the Stanford victim alleged that Persky heavily considered the impact of disrupting Turner’s athletic career at a prestigious university.

“The judge gave the explanation that he’s an athlete,” Drew said. “It’s unbelievable given the facts and circumstances. Any rational person would find it abhorrent.”

Wealthy, white athletes with greater access to legal resources may also be more likely to receive second chances in court, Edelman said. Turner hired defense attorney Mike Armstrong, who has worked in private practice for over 30 years and been ranked one of the best lawyers in America in criminal defense and white-collar criminal defense.

“One concern, both as a sports lawyer and a member of society, is whether sentencing would have played out the same way if the defendant was a low-income, African-American football player rather than a high-income, Caucasian swimmer,” Edelman said.

Drew expressed similar worries about Turner’s privileged background. “It sounds like there’s a diversion of justice here, because this young man did have access to particularly effective legal counsel,” she said.

An Insufficient Sanction?

Beyond the Turner case at Stanford, the idea of second chances has been debated in recent developments at Mississippi State and Baylor with athletes who were neither wealthy nor white.

Mississippi State announced Thursday that signee Jeffery Simmons will be allowed to enroll and play football this year after being charged with simple assault in March. But he will be suspended for the Sept. 3 home opener against the University of South Alabama -- one of the two least important games of the season -- and required to complete any programs recommended by Student Counseling Services.

Video footage shows Simmons repeatedly striking a fallen woman during a March fight. Simmons, who was ranked as one of the best players in Mississippi and signed with the Bulldogs in February, is expected back in court June 14.

Scott Stricklin, athletic director at Mississippi State, told ESPN Friday that a range of administrators helped make the decision to let Simmons play. Stricklin said the university ran a background check on Simmons and uncovered no previous incidents.

Sid Salter, chief communications officer at Mississippi State, released a statement on behalf of President Mark Keenum. "I have the fullest confidence in the judgment of Athletics Director Scott Stricklin," Keenum wrote in the statement. "I am satisfied that Scott and his staff did their due diligence in their very deliberative efforts to reach a decision that incorporated a measure of accountability while also providing Jeffrey with an opportunity to mature and continue his education in a supportive and structured environment. He will be under overarching scrutiny while he is a student at MSU and a member of our football team. Expectations for him will be high, and there is no margin for error with regard to bad behavior." NOTE: This paragraph has been updated to correct an incorrect statement that the university declined to comment.

Several recent columns have attacked Stricklin for giving Simmons the same penalty as a player who makes an illegal hit in a game, thereby downplaying the gravity of violence against women. In a Sports Illustrated column on June 2, Andy Staples wrote that Stricklin sent the “troubling message” that “a man punching a woman is the same as a targeting foul or a first positive marijuana test. No big deal.”

Lisa Smith, assistant professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School, said Mississippi State gave Simmons similar treatment as colleges that accept applicants with criminal histories. When schools accept this type of applicant, “they are taking the position that they’re giving the person a second chance, and that whatever happened doesn’t make them feel that the accepted student would be a danger to the community at all,” she said.

But while the Turner case and the Simmons case both involve an element of second chances, they differ in terms of seriousness and determination of guilt, Edelman said. Whereas Turner was convicted of a felony, Simmons is innocent until proven guilty of a misdemeanor.

Mississippi State’s decision comes on the heels of a whirlwind period at Baylor University, which has faced allegations of mishandling sexual assaults committed by football players and other students. Last month, these allegations led to the resignation of President Kenneth Starr and the firing of head football coach Art Briles.

The law firm Pepper Hamilton, which Baylor hired to investigate its handling of sexual assault allegations, issued a lengthy report on its findings. According to a source familiar with the investigation, the report found that Starr encouraged a culture of second chances and provided little oversight to the athletic department and the football team.

Unlike the Turner case, the Baylor situation illustrates how universities are often inclined to give second chances to athletes in revenue-generating programs like football, Edelman said. Stanford’s swim team does not make money for the university, he said. In contrast, Baylor’s football program raked in over $106 million in the 2014-15 fiscal year, marking the third-highest revenue in the Big 12.

“From my perspective, what is going on at Baylor is a private university has recognized the opportunities to profit from big-time football, and consequently the university has been willing to turn a blind eye to a wide range of issues because doing so has been profitable,” Edelman said.

While the incidents at Stanford, Mississippi State and Baylor all occurred within the last few months, second chances for athletes have figured as a recurring issue in recent years. In 2014, it came to light that a star football player at Alcorn State University was a registered sex offender. In 2015, it was revealed that a football player on Hocking College’s inaugural roster had been convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl. The National Collegiate Athletic Association does not have a rule against allowing convicted felons to participate in its sports and does not foresee changing its policy. Absent any policy changes, more second chance debates are likely.

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