“It’s really a sense of power that comes from specialness … anyone who finds himself at the center of the world [he’s] in has a sense of impunity.”
—Ken Dryden, lawyer and Hall of Fame NHL goalie
“The entire group will fall behind the accused and deny an offense has been committed. The entire community associated with this group will come to its defense. In every single case they will deny there was gang rape but that there was group sex.”
—Dr. Claire Walsh, former director of the sexual assault recovery program at the University of Florida
“…young men in the school-based athletic subculture … typically occupy a privileged position in school culture, and particularly in male peer culture. As such, male student-athletes ... tend to have enormous clout when it comes to establishing or maintaining traditional masculine norms. Their support or lack of support for prevention efforts can make or break them.”
—Mentors in Violence Prevention
Are you a college athlete? If so, you know what it’s like to have people look up to you. You also know what it means to carry the responsibility of protecting your team’s and institution’s reputation. Read below to understand the link between college athletes and sexual assault and most importantly, learn how you can take the strength, team spirit, and leadership skills that got you where you are today and use them to be a role model for positive change on your campus . You can help stop rape on your campus.
Over the past 20 years it has become evident that a disproportionate number of sexual assaults on campus are committed by college athletes, often in situations involving gang rape (2 or more assailants).
There are several reasons for this, all of them tightly woven into the fabric of college sports culture: a sense of celebrity entitlement, a tradition of impunity, group peer pressure, and the value placed on aggression.
Male sports teams, especially successful ones in high-profile schools, have long enjoyed more attention, financial support, and adulation than other school-affiliated teams, no matter how victorious the latter might be. Bigger budgets, stronger recruiting efforts, and greater academic leniency are also reserved for athletes, which can lead to a sense that the expectations and limits appropriate for others do not apply to them.
Another reason athletes may commit assault at higher rates than other men is the group mentality that naturally arises within a team. When one member of the group—usually a leader—crosses a boundary, it is more likely for others to become co-participants in the event rather than to challenge the leader.
Lastly, sports culture values, encourages, and rewards aggression. When athletes transfer this aggression to the social arena, it can lead to sexual conquest that exhibits the same kind of “just do it” mentality that gains them accolades on the playing field. Rutgers researcher Sarah McMahon suggests that athletes need to be coached to understand how to take “the pressure to be aggressive and dominant within the context of sports and then to turn it off—that is, how to manage the privilege and sense of entitlement that often accompany the male athlete status.”
Because sports bring in so much money to a school, and because athletes reflect so publicly on the reputation of a school, both coaches and school officials tend to be more protective of athletes than of other students. Many college athletes accused of sexual assault have been shielded by coaches while victims were ignored, disbelieved, or maligned. Accused players are sometimes scolded but often not disciplined during investigations. In those cases where charges are successfully brought, school officials have provided athletes with top-notch legal representation unavailable to the victims. This creates a dangerous cycle for the whole campus. If an athlete believes he can commit crimes with impunity, he is more likely to commit subsequent assaults.
The 2009 landmark settlement in a case involving a female student raped by an Arizona State University football player raises hope that this may be starting to change. The victim was awarded $850,000 in damages and the Arizona university system agreed to the demand that it establish a Student Safety Coordinator for its three campuses.
Just as hopeful is the rise of bystander intervention programs being implemented at colleges and universities, which engage athletes in becoming part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
The same group mentality and leadership opportunities that sports provide can be used to teach and model respectful interactions between men and women. Coaches have an opportunity to help their student athletes redefine masculinity as a strength that is used to help others, a force for good in the world rather than a force for coercion, exploitation, and domination.
Since most men don’t rape, college athletes, as campus leaders, can set an example of what respect and compassion looks like. After all, teams want to be known for their good reputation, which means that their actions both on and off the field impact their community.
You’re already a role model. You’re admired for your strength and you enjoy a certain amount of status and privilege. You can use your strength and status to make a lasting difference on campus by taking a stand against sexual assault.
How? Make sure your strength of character is as well developed as your muscular and cardiovascular systems. You know what hard work and sacrifice mean. Apply that same discipline to your relationships by modeling respectful behavior towards women, by speaking out when your teammates are acting disrespectfully, by intervening when necessary to prevent a situation from escalating, and by getting educated on sexual assault and how it affects everyone involved—whether victim, assailant, bystander, or the broader student body.
Coaches and athletes can start to make a difference right away by making the PACT at the very first team meeting.
For even more information on what athletes can do to end sexual violence, see Men Can Stop Rape’s information sheet.