Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Settlement in Oregon case

The woman who filed a Title IX lawsuit against the University of Oregon, including basketball coach Dana Altman, has dropped the lawsuit as part of an $800,000 settlement. The student, who will also receive a waiver of her tuition and fees to finish her education at the university, believed that the coach knew that at least one of the players who allegedly assaulted her had been kicked off the basketball team at Providence College for participation in a gang rape.

We have written about the Oregon case, especially in light of the larger issue of a school's responsibility for and awareness of past incidents when accepting transfer student athletes. Brandon Austin--the player from Providence--is now playing for a junior college in Florida. We were very interested to see what would happen in this case, whether some kind of precedent would be sent or warning issued about accepting student athletes with records of violent and criminal behavior. The settlement has less ability to do so because all parties are expected to appear with pseudo smiles on their faces and some words about respect for the system, or--at worst--say nothing at all. There is a similar case in Oklahoma where a University of Tulsa student has filed a Title IX lawsuit against the school after alleging she was raped by a basketball player who should have never been allowed on campus, she states, due to his charges of sexual assault at a previous institution; so perhaps we will see something different happen there.

What to take from this settlement? My initial thoughts center around the following: that's a lot of money, but it is unlikely that significant change will be effected.

As I said in a previous post (linked above) whether the woman's legal team would have been able to prove that Oregon and/or Altman knew of Austin's past allegations is something only a trial would have shown. I know that trials can be difficult in these cases, but a trial may have increased the discourse about the transfer process for student athletes that focuses not on when they can play (i.e., eligibility) but on whether they should play or be granted admission to the school. A trial had the potential to raise awareness of this issue. The question, of course, is at what cost to the alleged victim. Maybe it would have put pressure on the Pac-12 to pass a policy similar to the SEC's which bans the acceptance of transfer athletes with past incidents of domestic violence and assault. (Yes, I have noted that these policies will only work when there is greater transparency in the transfer process itself. Still, it signals an acknowledgement of the issue.)

Good news to take from this case: according to the woman's own statement (which admittedly is influenced by the settlement and the fact that this is over and the agreement that the parties not "disparage" each other), she received support from the university community--in addition to outside groups and individuals. This is very different from the situation at Florida State where Jameis Winston's alleged victim was targeted and driven off campus when her allegations against the now NFL quarterback became known. It is arguably a low bar we have set when praise goes out to a university community for not further harming a victim by ostracizing and doubting her. Still, she clearly feels comfortable remaining at UO and that is a good thing.

The not-so-good: The feeling that the $800,000 settlement is pay off. Insurance, according to one source, will pay for the settlement, which again is quite large which again suggests that someone knew something but what that is, we will never know. The settlement is not technically confidential, but details of the case do not appear to be forthcoming.

Also, the reforms the university have agreed to are quite frankly weak. They have made a very concerted effort to demonstrate Title IX compliance by hiring many new staff members with more hires on the way. The proposed reforms to the student-athlete transfer process, though, are a little concerning. The university plans to ask students if they have a "disciplinary record" at their former schools. Anyone who says yes must agree to sign a waiver giving UO access to those records if the student wants to be considered for admission. It is unclear what would prevent a student from lying given that student records are subject to pretty strict privacy laws. Also, given that most coaches do not want to know these things, I do not see this as being at all effective. (Happy to be proven wrong, though.) Will there be some kind of I-have-to-ask-but-please-don't-tell-me culture established? Would this provide coaches and the school some kind of immunity? "Well I asked and he told me there was nothing, so what was I supposed to do?" I do not see this kind of standard holding up in court. The school has a much greater responsibility to vet student athletes. They do it when it comes to stats and successes and skills, so it's time to extend that research and really prove, as the current president said in relation to this case that "the important thing is we’re not a school of athletes and students. We’re a school of students. Everybody needs to be part of this effort."

Going back to student privacy, another unresolved issue from this case is the gathering of the victim's counseling center records by university-hired lawyers. It is possible that that privacy violation was part of the reason for the large settlement. This is something else the university will need to address as it continues to revise its policies and procedures in cases of sexual assault and harassment.

Eyes will probably be off Oregon now that this case has settled, unless additional details that explain the settlement are revealed. The case in Tulsa, as I mentioned, has the same potential to contribute to a larger discussion of student-athlete behavior and the terms and conditions of the transfer process.