No More Second Chances?

At a forum organized by the Big 12, the conference urged colleges to hold athletes accountable when they commit acts of sexual and domestic violence.

September 29, 2016
Big 12 Conference
Brenda Tracy and Ray Rice speak at a forum organized by the Big 12 Conference.

The commissioner of the Big 12 Conference on Wednesday called on colleges to prevent athletes with histories of violence from so easily transferring from team to team, and expressed support for allowing the National Collegiate Athletic Association to punish programs that mishandle sexual and domestic assault cases involving athletes.

Speaking at a forum about sexual assault and domestic violence organized by the conference, Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12’s commissioner, said that colleges should use “every tool that is available in eradicating the behavior,” including possible NCAA intervention. Bowlsby described the topic of the forum as “timely and important,” but some victims’ advocates worry that the forum’s message may be muddied by the fact that the Big 12 invited Ray Rice, a former National Football League player who was arrested in 2014 for domestic violence, to speak at the event.

“The challenge is someone gets in trouble, it’s cloaked in darkness, they move on to another institution and they’re a perpetrator all over again,” Bowlsby said, with Rice sitting two chairs to his left. “We have to weed out the perpetrators and we have to hold them accountable, and that doesn’t just mean packing their bags and moving to another institution. If conferences or the NCAA can have a role in that, I’m all ears to listen.”

The NCAA indicated in September that it might be willing to take a larger role in punishing sports programs when teams and athletic departments interfere with sexual misconduct investigations. The announcement followed two years of debate over the issue.

In July 2014, U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, released a report suggesting that more than 20 percent of institutions allow their athletic departments to oversee sexual assault cases. McCaskill called the finding “borderline outrageous,” and in a Senate hearing that week, Mark Emmert, the NCAA's president, promised he would raise the issue with the association's members.

Later that year, the NCAA released a handbook instructing colleges on how best to prevent and respond to sexual assaults involving athletes, and adopted a resolution telling athletic departments not to interfere with such investigations. The guidelines are not enforceable rules, however, and since the handbook’s release, several institutions -- including the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and Baylor University -- have been accused of allowing their athletic departments to influence disciplinary decisions for athletes accused of sexual violence.

During a discussion on college sports issues at the Aspen Institute earlier this month, Emmert admitted that the guidelines had been ineffective at some institutions, despite strong support for the handbook and resolution among the association’s members.

“We passed that unanimously, promulgated it, continued to talk about the issue, and then we had a series of very high-profile issues happen yet again over the past, even, just six months,” Emmert said. “It’s pretty shocking to me personally when you see universities not understanding what that relationship should be.”

Emmert added that the NCAA recently created a new committee to explore the possibility of creating rules that would allow the association to punish colleges that do not follow the 2014 resolution. The decision came after 170,000 people signed a petition created by a sexual assault survivor named Brenda Tracy and her son that asked the NCAA to ban any athletes who have committed violent crimes.

Tracy said she was gang-raped by football players while attending a party at Oregon State University in 1998. The Oregon State players were punished with a one-game suspension and 25 hours of community service. The players’ coach at the time, Mike Riley, called the two men “really good guys who made a bad choice.” Since 2014, Tracy has visited college campuses speaking to football players about sexual assault, including recently meeting with the team at the University of Nebraska, where Riley now coaches.

Earlier this year, Tracy and Oregon State’s president persuaded the Pac-12 conference to adopt new rules barring programs from offering scholarships to athletes who have been kicked off another team for assault and harassment. The Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 have also adopted similar policies. Tracy spoke at the Big 12’s forum on Wednesday.

She said too often sexual assault is thought of as a women’s issue. It’s up to men -- and in the context of athletics, that includes players, coaches and athletics directors -- to find ways to prevent sexual violence against women, she said.

“Asking women to end sexual violence is like asking children to end child abuse,” Tracy said.

The Big 12’s forum comes four months after one of the conference’s members forced out several administrators over a long-brewing sexual assault scandal. In May, Baylor’s Board of Regents asked the university's president to resign and fired its head football coach over allegations that they had continuously mishandled -- and sought to suppress public discourse about -- sexual assaults committed by its football players and other students. Baylor’s athletics director later resigned, as well.

Pepper Hamilton, a law firm the university hired to investigate how it has handled allegations of sexual assault, presented a lengthy oral report to the board, which placed blame on the university’s president, athletics director and football coaching staff, noting that the staff covered up assaults involving players. The following month, the Big 12 Conference's Board of Directors requested "a full accounting of the circumstances surrounding the sexual assaults" at Baylor.

The board asked that Baylor provide "written materials as well as any information that has been conveyed orally to university leadership or to its Board of Regents including, but not limited to, the unedited written or verbal information from Pepper Hamilton, omitting only the names of any involved students." Baylor officials said no written report was ever created, and in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, the university's executive vice president said there are no plans to release any other documents related to the investigation, citing student privacy laws.

The conference met with Baylor officials for two hours in July, and the Board of Directors said it came away satisfied that the university was being forthcoming and making the “changes that are necessary.”

Other members of the conference have recently faced allegations that they have mishandled cases of gender violence involving athletes. Last season, the University of Oklahoma’s football roster included a player who was charged in 2014 with punching a woman and breaking four bones in her face. In defending his decision to keep the player on the team, Bob Stoops, Oklahoma’s head football coach, espoused the importance of second chances.

The forum itself was also not without criticism. Among the panelists speaking at the event was Rice, the former NFL player who was fired from the Baltimore Ravens in 2014 after a video emerged that showed him knocking his then-fiancée unconscious during an argument. Rice has not been employed by any other teams since the assault, though he has said he would like to continue his career in the NFL. In recent months, he has spoken to high school and college teams about domestic abuse.

“I was so concerned with being the man instead of being a man,” Rice said Wednesday, calling his act of violence a "self-check."

Some victims’ advocates said this week that they don’t believe enough time has passed for Rice to be addressing gender violence in this way. Criminal charges against him were dropped after he agreed to undergo court-supervised counseling, and he sued the Ravens in 2014 for $3.5 million for wrongful termination. The team settled with the player.

“I think in time it would be appropriate to include Mr. Rice in these discussions, but it is our position that it seems too soon for him to have learned much,” Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said. “The dynamics of domestic violence are complicated and it seems to me that Mr. Rice should still be in a learning mode. The Big 12 is asking that Mr. Rice be trusted to speak on the issue from a changed and learned space. For some of us, we are just not trusting that this change has occurred.”

Ken Luce, a spokesman for the Big 12, defended Rice’s inclusion on the panel.

“The reason for including Ray is a very simple one,” Luce said. “Ray has been out talking about what he has learned in counseling and what were the root causes that caused his actions. If we’re going to inform and educate and move forward on some of these issues, it’s important to hear that rationale and hear what he has learned.”


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