Why Do Colleges Recruit Athletes Who Have Committed Sexual Assault?

Indiana University recently adopted a policy that bans athletes with a history of sexual assault, raising the question why other institutions and NCAA conferences aren't doing the same.

May 18, 2017
 

When Indiana University at Bloomington last month adopted a policy barring athletes with a record of sexual violence, people questioned: Why aren’t all institutions doing so?

Amid high-profile cases and an increased awareness of sexual assaults perpetrated by college athletes, advocates have lobbied the National Collegiate Athletic Association to institute some sort of blanket measure.

The NCAA, and even individual conferences, has shied away from an associationwide decree, however.

A rule from the Southeastern Conference inspired Indiana’s policy, though Indiana’s is more expansive, said Jeremy Gray, Indiana’s senior associate athletic director.

Indiana disqualifies both freshman and transfer students who have been convicted of or pleaded no contest to a felony sexual violence charge, including dating or domestic violence and rape.

The SEC rule, though similar, applies only to transfer students across the conference.

Though an SEC working group composed of university athletic directors, administrators and college presidents has extensively discussed the prospect of extending the ban to freshmen, thus far the conference has been satisfied with the rule adopted in 2015, which some felt disadvantaged the conference competitively, said SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.

Concerns were raised that prospective first-year athletes may have committed offenses as minors, and so information may be shielded, Sankey said -- not so with a transfer who is being judged on their “adult record,” he said. Some states prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for certain charges, so there are people being recruited as new students who have records.

Back when the rule was first being debated, some believed that the conference shouldn’t take such a role, Sankey said. But he said that athletes with a history of sexual violence can present a safety concern to the rest of campus, as well as causing harm to an institution or the conference’s reputation.

A number of significant sexual assault cases in recent years have involved college athletes. Baylor University made headlines in 2015 when a Texas Monthly story detailed how the university recruited and enrolled athletes whose past records should have made the university hesitate. Other stories and an investigation followed; ultimately 17 women reported 19 domestic or sexual assaults by football players between 2011 and 2015. The University of Oregon found three basketball players responsible for sexual misconduct in 2014. One of the players had been accused of sexual assault at his previous institution before transferring to Oregon, and all three later transferred to other colleges and joined their basketball teams.

In an interview, Sankey would not endorse a NCAA-wide policy, saying though heightened attention to these issues is important, he said he would “want us to think carefully” before adding a rule across the entire association.

He did encourage respective conferences to consider a policy, calling the SEC’s “beneficial.”

Adopting such a policy like that communicates the seriousness of sexual violence and infringement of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, the federal law barring gender discrimination, said Katherine Redmond Brown, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.

Brown stressed, however, that nuances of a policy must be clearly defined and actually executed properly.

She said responsibility falls to the coaches and athletic directors to determine who vets athletes. Blue-chip recruits may naturally be afforded some leniency because they strengthen a college or university team’s competitive edge, Brown said.

Writing the specifics of a policy in a student or athletic handbook would help, Brown said.

She has urged the NCAA to embrace an associationwide policy, but also said that each conference adopting a policy would be more valuable than just at individual institutions.

A conferencewide policy would alleviate legal concerns or a student simply transferring to another institution, Brown said.

A representative from the Big 10, which Indiana is a part of, acknowledged by email he had been contacted for a story but did not comment further. The Big 10, unlike other conferences, does not have a rule on transfers with "serious misconduct" issues.

At Indiana, coaches and the sports administrators to whom they report investigate prospective athletes, Gray said.

Though a formal background check isn’t conducted during the recruiting process, many of these athletes are well-known and so information on them is readily available, Gray said.

The policy was instituted right away following the university’s Faculty Athletics Committee vote, Gray said. Thus far it has been generally well received, he said. The policy language was posted to Indiana’s website and then distributed to head coaches and other senior staff.

“It doesn’t necessarily link to their athletic ability, but it definitely links with how we want to represent ourselves as an institution,” Gray said.

The change grabbed headlines last month and criticism that such a ban was prejudicial against athletes, much like the initial conversations surrounding the SEC rule.

To Brown, this sort of policy doesn’t discriminate against athletes but rather is in investment in risk management for a college or university. She noted that the recidivism rate for sexual assault offenders is high.

“That’s a big risk to bring on somebody with a history of violence, of sexual assault, of domestic violence. I think it’s seen as basic risk management and to ensure the students are safe. That’s a huge obligation,” Brown said.

Maintaining a position, ideally a woman, to serve as a consistent presence and mentor and to help athletes understand and work through these types of issues would change the culture in academe, Brown said. Athletes observing a woman in that type of role would benefit them, she said.

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