Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Should Western Kentucky's Women's Swim Team Have Been Suspended?

Last week Western Kentucky University announced the suspension of its swimming and diving program for five year after a Title IX investigation revealed widespread incidents of hazing, harassment, and sexual assault.  The investigation was reportedly prompted by a police report filed by one of the swim team members, alleging numerous examples of criminal and otherwise reprehensible conduct.  For example, the complainant reported that another of his male teammates sexually assaulted a female teammate who was unconscious, while others watched. He also reported that one of his male teammates had once placed in a chokehold for as long as he could stand it, causing him injury.  When the police searched the house where swim team members lived and held parties, they found photographs of teammates who had passed out from drinking, arranged in nude or semi-nude sexual positions and, in some cases, having been written on with racist and homophobic language.

As I told a columnist for the local paper in Louisville, I am glad to see universities taking seriously the problems of hazing and sexual assault. Suspension is a reasonable response to pervasive and intractable climate of hostility, aggression, and assault like the one revealed at WKU. However, one angle on this case that no one seems to be publicly discussing -- and that I myself was slow to realize -- is that all of the examples of misconduct appear to involve male swimmers, yet the university has suspended the entire program, men's and women's alike. This raises Title IX concerns under the principal of equal treatment that is codified in the regulations. Female athletes' participation is impaired -- by virtue of being held accountable for other athletes' misconduct  -- in a way that no male athletes' participation is impaired.

It may have been the case that in the course of responding to a serious problem with necessarily promptness, university officials did not consider the discriminatory effect on female swimmers.  Perhaps in retrospect they can reexamine the decision to suspend the female swimmers and, if warranted, reinstate their athletic opportunities.