Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Considering the new SEC policy

The SEC announced a new policy this week that would prevent student-athletes with records of domestic violence and sexual assault from transferring to SEC schools (as athletes). It was a proposal made by Georgia and adopted fairly readily according to reports. Whether one particular incident (like Alabama's acceptance of a football player who was under investigation at Georgia for domestic violence at time of transfer and has allegedly re-offended) or just greater awareness of the issue of sexual assault and domestic violence inspired the new policy has not been made clear.

The exact wording of the policy is as follows: "a transfer student-athlete who has been subject to official university of athletics department disciplinary action at any time during enrollment at any previous collegiate institution (excluding limited discipline applied by a sports team or temporary disciplinary action during an investigation) due to serious misconduct (as defined herein) shall not be eligible for athletically-related financial aid, practice or competition at an SEC member institution."

In my recent research/writing/thinking, I have been looking at why athletics departments have not been affected by the increasing visibility of activism aimed at addressing campus sexual assault. In other words why have they, arguably, been relatively unscathed for not following correct policies and procedures when they learn that student athletes have been accused of sexual violence. Most colleges and universities accused of mishandling sexual assault reports do not truly fear the ultimate--and only--penalty the Office of Civil Rights can levy--loss of federal funds--because it has never happened. There are potential large financial penalties if students file lawsuits rather than or in addition to a complaint with OCR, as happened at University of Connecticut.

The biggest hit at the moment, however, is the one schools take to their reputation. As campus sexual assault becomes more visible because of activism, media coverage, survivor narratives, and investigations schools are receiving considerable negative attention. And schools do not want this.

The desire for reversing negative publicity does not seem to apply at the moment to athletics departments. They seem to be weathering the storm fairly well. Look at Florida State. Look at Colorado, who paid out a multi-million dollar settlement in the mid-00s. Look at Oregon currently under investigation and facing a lawsuit. Have their athletics departments suffered? Have people called for boycotts of games or stopped buying merchandise? No. Have schools reprimanded their athletics departments by imposing internal sanctions or firing administrators who fail to policy and procedure in these matters? Not that I have seen.

Actually, let's go back to Oregon. It provides an example of how the SEC policy, while a good one, would not work in this case because of a culture of secrecy and protection of student athletes. Oregon took as a transfer a player from Providence College who was kicked off that basketball team for alleged participation in a gang rape. But he was not formally punished or investigated by the college. There was nothing on his transcript. Oregon officials maintain that they did not know of his past. He was then kicked off the basketball team, along with two other players, after a student accused them of rape. Said player, Brandon Austin, has transferred to a junior college in Florida. They are aware of the accusations against him.

So the SEC policy, if it existed at this junior college or the conference to which it belongs, would have prevented Austin from transferring there for the purpose of playing basketball. But it would not have prevented the original transfer from Providence to Oregon.

In other words, this policy does not get at the whole problem. It is based on the premise that schools and their athletics departments are doing their jobs in reporting and investigating sexual assault and violence in the correct way. This is not universally true. We cannot know statistics, unfortunately, on this matter. Most of the evidence is anecdotal and we have to assume that the lawsuits that have emerged are a small percentage of actual mishandling based on what we know about underreporting and the harassment and dismissal of those who do initially report.

The SEC's policy does not mean there will be no more offenders accepted as student athletes at SEC schools. Look again at the exception in parentheses: "excluding limited discipline applied by a sports team." This is the type of discipline being doled out to accused student-athletes in an attempt to appease victims. It is a violation of Title IX if the act in question is sexual assault or harassment. It cannot be handled internally. This policy is a start at addressing this issue, but we need more done at the front end of this problem, including stronger punishments against offending athletics departments.