Tuesday, December 13, 2016

On suspending seasons

Yesterday, Amherst College suspended all team activities for the men's cross country team after a student publication revealed social media messages and emails to incoming team members that included racist. misogynist, and homophobic comments.

Last month, Harvard suspended the men's soccer season in the wake of revelations that the team has continued its practice of ranking first-year members of the Harvard women's soccer team in sexually explicit ways.

In a few weeks, the Baylor football team will play in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl against Boise State despite accusations of sexual assault by 17 women against current and former football players and a clear evidence of cover-ups.

One of these things is not like the others.

Things have been brewing, arguably boiling over, at Baylor for some time, which is why Paul Finebaum, ESPN commentator, expressed outrage last month that the team had not been suspended. Finebaum said on-air that Baylor's football season should have been suspended in light of its many misdeeds (chronicled here--and everywhere). Finebaum was calling for the Big 12 to issue the suspension because neither the NCAA nor the university itself will do so. The NCAA is not planning  anything in response to the cover-up of the sexual assaults and to an institution that does not have control over its athletics program. Baylor hired a law firm to do an external investigation and then failed to make changes and refuses to acknowledge a culture of sexual hostility and athlete privilege.

The two events at Amherst and Harvard have commonalities: introduction of the first-year class into team culture using offensive discourse; elite, private schools; men's "minor sports"; both schools will conduct investigations into the matters.

At Harvard the offense was directed at the women's soccer team; a betrayal of what many of the women felt was a familial (non-sexual) relationship. Since the soccer scandal was revealed, it has come out that similar practices have occurred within the men's cross country team. The initial response was meh. The athletic director said Harvard would handle it internally and by trying to make it less of a media thing--he made it more of a media thing. The additional findings that 1) players were not being "forthcoming" about what was happening and 2) it was still happening forced the AD as well as the university president to make stronger public statements and ultimately cancel the season. Investigations are ongoing.   

At Amherst, it does not appear--at the moment--that the commentary was directed at a female team. A June 2015 list of female students has surfaced that includes pictures and comments about their sexual pasts, including guesses about STD infections. The incidents in question are from 2013-15. Of course, as we saw at Harvard, these things often do not just disappear on their own, even when there is new leadership--as there was at Harvard when they hired a new soccer coach a few years ago.

Also, the cross country season is over. "Team activities" would likely include team banquets or coach-led practices, but it's finals week at Amherst, and I assume there is not much on the docket for the team. So now Amherst must decide how to proceed. Will athletes involved be individually punished? Will the be prevented from running next season? Many cross country runners will also run indoor and outdoor track. Will team members be allowed to compete for their other teams? To its credit, Amherst, under its (not so new anymore) president, has taken issues of sexual assault and harassment more seriously than in the past. The school's response was immediate and the AD and president are seemingly on the same page. I hope this one does just fade away. Investigations are ongoing.

What have we learned? Well male privilege and sexual misconduct are not just the province of football players. This is obvious when taking a broad look at the cases of harassment and assault involving athletes. Baylor gets the most attention because it is a big-time football program. (There is also the issue of adherence to "Christian values" that are the alleged bedrock of the institutional mission; this has received less attention.) So what it looks like is that there is more at stake at Baylor--for the athletes, for the coaches, for the school. I do not agree with this view because what I know for sure is that the stakes are the same for the women who are the victims of these athletes and for potential victims. They are on campuses where sexual violence is a known reality (as it is on most campuses). The crimes and misdemeanors may be different and, at the individual level, the effects on victims may be different (in part because of school response). But all these schools have a climate of sexual hostility and it is manifesting in their athletic departments, among their male-student athletes (and probably at higher levels as well). And this means that students do not feel safe at their schools.

PS. More on Baylor:

The university received word this week from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an accrediting body, that it would be monitoring Baylor's ability to 1) maintain institutional control over intercollegiate athletics, 2) create a safe and healthy environment for students, and 3) provide adequate student support services.

In other words, while there are a lot of external pressures on Baylor, it continues to do very little. Baylor fans might say that ditching Art Briles was enough. Finebaum, and many others, do not think so. Firing Briles (who is suing the school for libel) was cleaning house. It is was not shoring up the structure of the house. In fact (to continue to metaphor) Baylor brought in a temporary coach, Jim Grobe, who seemed to be predisposed to making things dirty again and further weakening the structure. (Based on comments during his early press conferences and interviews.) The new coaching staff has been named. We shall see what those press conferences bring.

Investigations are over.

PPS. Columbia wrestling
I knew I forgot something! Columbia University (also elite, private) suspended its men's wrestling team ("minor sport") after some members' racist and misogynist texts were discovered. Columbia completed its investigation last month. While the investigation was pending, members were not allowed to compete. The team was still practicing.

The messages were sent in a group message format. Those not participating in the group message were allowed to resume competition. Some members were suspended for the rest of the season. Others were suspended until the start of spring semester.

Notable in this case: former assistant coach Hudson Taylor who founded Athlete Ally, a group that supports LGBT athletes, took some responsibility for the culture that engendered these messages:

"[The actions] are a reflection of our culture and my coaching. I apologize to the Columbia campus, to the alumni, and to my former wrestlers for not doing more to develop them into young men of better character.”