The Louisville men’s basketball team advanced to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament’s Elite Eight this season, but they did so without their best defensive player: Chris Jones, a senior guard, who was dismissed from the program in February and shortly afterward pleaded not guilty to rape and sodomy charges. One of his two accusers was a fellow Louisville student.
Duke, who are scheduled to play Michigan State on Saturday in the semi-finals, dismissed junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon in January. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said at the time that Sulaimon had “repeatedly struggled to meet the necessary obligations.” Duke’s student newspaper subsequently reported that two students had accused Sulaimon of sexual assault.
It is in several ways a new world for big-time college sports. In August last year, the NCAA voted to award the five most prominent conferences — three of which account for all of the teams in the Final Four — more autonomy. Then in January, in response to criticism that the organization does not share its profits with its athletes, those conferences granted colleges the right to offer scholarships several thousands of dollars higher than previous limits.
However, more under the radar has been a change in how sexual assault is discussed in locker rooms.
At a news conference last month, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who like Krzyzewski is one of the most accomplished coaches in the college game, reflected on what he saw as a new era in college athletics.
“Ten years ago, I would speak about drugs once a week to the team,” he said. “And now I speak about women once a week to the team. Not even going to the extreme of sexual assault, but just on how to treat women and just getting them to understand what the world is today.”
The issue of sexual violence on campus has taken on increased prominence, and US President Barack Obama’s administration has pressured universities to raise awareness — for example, by citing Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity at institutions of higher education. The administration has organized a public awareness campaign about sexual assault, called “It’s on Us,” that has received significant airtime during the tournament.
Several prominent college athletes, including former Florida State star quarterback Jameis Winston, have been accused of rape or sexual assault, and some — including, in January, two former Vanderbilt football players — have been convicted. As a result, coaches and universities find themselves having conversations with players on the subject.
“At the beginning of the year, he talks to us about things like that,” Iowa junior center Adam Woodbury said, referring to coach Fran McCaffery. “He makes it clear to us how we should treat women.”
College coaches view their roles as extending beyond X’s and O’s to include teaching and mentoring. The main purpose of the discussions, they say, is to develop young men into adults.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said the issue extended beyond keeping players on the court.
“I want more from them than to just be eligible, than just to be able to keep playing,” Pearl said. “I want them to excel — in the classroom, on the court and off the court. We want to be leaders in how we treat women.”
Donna Lopiano, president of consulting group Sports Management Resources, said many universities still had a long way to go.
“Everybody’s playing catchup,” Lopiano said.
“Most colleges and universities are just getting to the point now where they’re appointing qualified Title IX compliance officers,” she said. “I think most coaches are not trained to talk to their students about this.”
In many cases, universities stepped up education on sexual assault — from the perspectives of perpetrators and victims, and also of bystanders — after the Obama administration made it known that it was taking an interest in the subject.
In 2011, the US Department of Education issued the Dear Colleague letter, stating that Title IX requires institutions of higher education to establish frameworks for handling sexual assault claims. In January, the department revealed that more than 90 postsecondary institutions were under investigation for their compliance with Title IX in handling such cases. Among them were many colleges with major sports programs, including Michigan State, one of the participants in this year’s Final Four.
In September last year, “It’s on Us” was introduced, with partners that included several athletic conferences and the NCAA. Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, said the White House had approached the association about the campaign.
“In many ways, the most visible students on any one campus are their athletes,” Emmert said, noting that data showed that athletes were not disproportionately represented among either perpetrators or victims.
Beyond coaches, universities treat the matter in different ways. Some make use of their compliance staff; others the office of the dean of students.
The Big East Conference, which like the NCAA was a charter partner of “It’s on Us,” had its lawyers brief the presidents of its 10 universities on developments in law and policy over the summer. At several universities, athletes produced public service announcements — DePaul enlisted the Chicago Police Department’s Sexual Assault Task Force for athlete training, according to the conference.
“I think people are very dialed in to this now in ways they maybe weren’t five and 10 years ago,” Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said.
Notre Dame sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson said of sexual assault: “Before the season starts, we go over that with our compliance officer. We sit down and have meetings about it, what we can do if a situation ever occurs, where we can go for help.”
“It’s almost like a class,” he said.
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