Vice President Joe Biden introduced Lady Gaga at the 2016 Oscars on February 28 and the message he delivered was very clear: We must change the culture of sexual assault on college campuses. Florida State University, the University of Oregon and, most recently,the University of Tennessee are the latest in a string of schools that have been in the spotlight for sexual assault allegations against male student-athletes, Title IX violations and alleged athletic department cover-ups. So why are we still surprised to learn about sexual assault cases involving male student-athletes on college campuses?
The scandal of assault stands in contrast to what it means to be a male-athlete, playing a high-revenue sport on a big college-sport campus. This small but distinguished group of student-athletes have local, national and international fanbases that rival most professional athletes, so their celebrity status on campus affords them certain privileges and benefits that are not accessible to the rest of the student body. These student-athletes are assets, earning their institutions over $100 million annually, primarily from basketball and football programs. In addition, their success on the field contributes significantly to student experience, athlete recruitment and student enrollment. So despite the law, Title IX and other university policies, athletic departments and universities have incentive to hide sexual assault allegations and the gumption to hand out settlements. They are protecting their assets and their reputations as educational institutions.
Being a celebrity on campus also comes with another benefit–a large selection of women described as groupies or jersey chasers, who have a specific interest in getting to know the athletes placed On High. Unfortunately, some of these women will go to great lengths to be noticed and acknowledged. Although they do not represent the majority, their notoriety has become the stereotype for women on campus interested in or dating high-profile male athletes. This murky environment breeds a culture that is conducive to sexual assault because consent, even if withheld, is somehow presumed because of this stereotype. Worse yet, because of false reports in the past (like the the Duke lacrosse scandal), the general assumption is that women who speak out do so out of bitterness following some sort of rejection. The reality, however, is that according to the Benedict-Crosset Study, male-athletes commit 1 in 5 college sexual assaults, and, although they constitute less than 4 percent of the entire student body, they represent 19 percent of sexual assault perpetrators and 35 percent of domestic violence perpetrators reported on Division I campuses.
The statistics demonstrate that this is indeed a serious problem on college campuses. The perceived impossibility of a celebrity athlete choosing to assault a woman when he has plenty of admirers is what triggers the criticism, harassment and defamation of the victims that have the courage to speak out, despite the social ramifications. For most of these victims there is often little to no evidence to prove their allegations, especially when alcohol or other substances are involved. A he-said, she-said battle almost always favors the athlete because he is equipped with a platform and support system designed to protect him as an asset.
So how do we start to change this culture? It is imperative that we continue to applaud and rally behind the women who do speak out in this fight to end sexual and gender-based violence on college campuses. We must continue to have these conversations. The day we stop being surprised about allegations on campuses is the day we will know that our voices and those of the victims are prevailing. As Vice President Biden proclaimed, “We must and we can change the culture so that no abused woman or man…ever feels like they have to ask themselves, ‘What did I do?’ They did nothing wrong.”