Let’s Talk Frankly About Sexual Assault and College Athletics
Anyone who follows my personal blog knows that I’ve done a series of articles over the past few years regarding college athletics and the absolute indifference big money sports programs have toward allegations of rape or sexual assault. Yes, this is a difficult topic to discuss. And yes, there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to sexual assault, athletes, and the justice system. I’d imagine that quite a few people will get pretty darn mad after reading this column — either at me or the way the world works. But that’s okay by me. I’m not afraid of Twitter taunts if it brings us nearer to our ultimate goal and that’s to significantly address the sexual assault problem in this country.
I knew there was one person whose insight I badly wanted to begin a conversation about rape and athletes. Brenda Tracy is an activist and sexual assault victim advocate who now travels the country meeting with college and high school programs to discuss this very issue with the players. Her story of being gang raped by members of the Oregon State football team in 1998 is hard to read, but I’d advise you to check it out. You may note some similarities between Brenda’s story and the stories of so many other people. Her input on this topic will be invaluable for everyone.
In recent years, it seems like every rape case you hear about any more deals with athletes as either the victims (Michigan State, USA gymnastics, Ohio State) or the perpetrators (Baylor, Minnesota, Florida State, Michigan State)and especially on the collegiate level. With big moneyed and storied programs like these having major conflagrations regarding sexual assault in the past few years, the time is long past when we, as a society, should have addressed this issue.
But in addition to these cases which have come to light, there was also the University of Tennessee case. These are the bare bones relevant facts of how the case unfurled:
In February of 2015, former UT football players AJ Johnson and Michael Williams were indicted for rape following a party the previous November during which some kind of sexual activity evidently occurred. Two days after the rape claim was filed with the Knoxville Police Department, Johnson and Williams were suspended from the team and never played another down of football for Tennessee. Almost four years passed before Johnson and Williams were brought to trial, where they were found not guilty of all charges by a jury comprised of seven women and four men.
Now, three and a half years later in the “speedy” trial guaranteed to the defendants by the Constitution, Johnson and Williams have been acquitted. The jury deliberated for ninety minutes — minutes! — and came back with verdicts of not guilty on all counts when the defense didn’t call one single solitary witness to the stand. They didn’t need to. The defense told the court in closing arguments that the prosecution under Assistant District Attorney General Leslie Nassios had failed to prove the case against the former Tennessee football players.
And they were right. The DA’s case was disastrous for everyone involved — alleged victims, alleged perpetrators, the District Attorney, and Nassios.
So stop and ask yourselves this: how is that possible? How in the name of Hades could the prosecution have proceeded with a fatally flawed case? And why would they go forward at all?
The first knee-jerk answers I saw to this question over social media this weekend were pretty universal from within Vol Nation: the accusers lied. But that’s not necessarily so according to Brenda Tracy.
False reports make up 2–10% of reports. This also includes unfounded which just means it can’t be proven either way. making over 90% and probably 98% of all reports true. A common misconception that comes up when a not guilty verdict is handed down and/or the victims statements are inconsistent — people think this means the victim lied — which is absolutely untrue.
Research I’ve done independently corroborates Brenda’s assertion. In fact, the percentage of false sexual assault claims has landed very consistently between 2% and 10% since these records started to be kept in 1929 by the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report. Studies by major universities like Stanford, by advocacy groups like the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, and independent psychological and clinical research like the study conducted by Lisak, Gardinier, Nicksa, & Cote for Sage Journals: Violence Against Women in 2010, Recent studies have the number averaging right about 6%. And there’s much more to the story — and the numbers — than just that.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center tells us that one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. More than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report being assaulted, while 63.3% of men at one university who self-reported acts qualifying as rape or attempted rape admitted to committing repeat rapes.
Since someone on Twitter decided to challenge me on source materials, let me roll out a quick list of stats and links to my sources for you. 90% of campus sexual assaults are committed by perpetrators that the survivor knows.
84% of female survivors report being sexually assaulted during their first four semesters on campus. The majority of undetected college rapists are likely serial perpetrators, committing an average of 6 rapes each. 13% of women report being stalked during their time in college. 80% of survivors of stalking know the person who victimized them. 43% of dating college women report experiencing violent and abusive dating behaviors including physical, sexual, technology-facilitated, verbal or other forms of controlling abuse. More than 57% of college students who report experiencing dating violence report experiencing it while in college.
Y’all have fun clicking.
And let’s be real here — these are older numbers. More recent numbers are even more disturbing as they highlight a progressively worsening trend. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reported in 2015 that more than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault.
NINETY PERCENT of victims DO NOT REPORT THEIR ASSAULT. The National Domestic Violence Hotline Law Enforcement Agency Report reported some reasons for this in 2015: Of those victims who have called the cops, 2 in 3 were afraid to call the police in the future. Only 1 in 5 victims actually felt safer after calling the police, and 1 in 3 victims felt less safe. Of victims who have called the cops, nearly half felt police discriminated against them. Of victims who have called the cops, 1 in 4 report being arrested or threatened with arrest.
And for the idiots who spent the weekend talking about “how many times alleged victims make false reports of sexual violence” ponder this False Allegations of Rape Study that provides analysis of ten years’ worth of reported rape cases at an American university for a moment:
Of the 136 cases of sexual assault 8 (5.9%) were coded as false reports, 61 (44.9%) did not proceed to any prosecution or disciplinary action, 48 (35.3%) were referred for prosecution or disciplinary action, and 19 (13.9%) contained insufficient information to be coded. It should be noted that in no case did the research team “override” the classification of a false report made by the police department. The eight cases that were described as false reports by the police investigators were also categorized that way by the coders.
So let’s dispel with a lot of these myths, shall we? As much as 90% of campus rapes are unreported by the victims. That number improves to around 60% in society at large. This isn’t an issue where only women are assaulted sexually, because men are being raped as well and the numbers of those assaults are growing fast. And even if you take the highest percentage of false allegations, at most you’re looking at 6%. Brenda Tracy is well aware of the spectrum of assaults beyond men raping women too:
Please note I’ve been speaking in terms of men and women, but let me be clear, Sexual violence does not discriminate. Anyone can be a victim. This is a human issue. These are crimes committed against humanity and the saddest part is its all preventable. Marginalized and vulnerable communities of people experience higher rates of assault.
After all this, I think we can all agree that the numbers not only don’t lie but are remarkably consistent. So now we need to decide logically if 94 legitimate rape victims should be ignored because of the 6 who lied about being assaulted?
Brenda Tracy nails this argument to the wall swiftly.
The take away from the research is to believe survivors. And let me add that false reports for rape are no higher than false reports for other crimes. People lie. We all know this, but we only care when it comes to sexual assault. If one person lied about getting robbed society would never say ‘now we can’t believe the other 99% of people who report being robbed because of that one report.
That means that we, as part of the Tennessee community, need to determine why the DA’s office miscalculated a criminal case so badly that they dragged the proceedings on for almost four years? How could they have proceeded with these indictments for that long when they knew the alleged victims’ and witness testimony wasn’t going to match up with the allegations?
Defense attorneys David Eldridge and Stephen Ross Johnson — in the face of the prosecution’s lack of forensic evidence, conflicting or changed testimony from the accuser and witnesses on the stand, and the fact that both accusers deleted their social media and texts and then ditched their cell phones within a day of each other a few weeks before Johnson and Williams were indicted — put forth the opinion that the prosecution of such a flawed case was the result of a conspiracy because the accused were Tennessee football players.
Last week, that seemed like hyperbole but today that’s kind of difficult to argue against, isn’t it?
But, perhaps we should argue with that conspiracy theory. I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories or flat earthers or tin foil hats anyway, so let’s do a little more shredding of this case.
It was just a little over two years ago that the University of Tennessee settled the Title IX case alleging a “rape culture” for such things as the kinds of sound bytes used during game and the music played by the DJ. Because…you know…Lil Jon. That case included the two accusers in Johnson and Williams’s criminal case as plaintiffs. You can read the accusers’ allegations specifically in the Title IX lawsuit here, beginning on page 27.
What really struck me about Jane Doe IV’s statements included within the lawsuit at the time was a comment about “whose side they were on”, meaning the university.
Side? Nothing could demonstrate the he said/she said nature of this case any more clearly than that statement. Now that comment seems really odd in the face of what Johnson and Williams endured and will always endure as the result of this case.
The fact of the matter is that we will never know the full extent of what happened at the party, but we can be absolutely certain that what the women alleged in the Title IX lawsuit — for which they received significant financial remuneration from the university in 2016 — is not what they stated on the witness stand during the rape trial this week. And while the jury may not be aware of that fact, it evidently didn’t matter. The accusers destroyed the prosecution’s case all by themselves because what they’d originally alleged and what they admitted to under oath in court last week were two different things. Brenda Tracy offered this thought on the verdict:
If the Tennessee case is a legitimate case of a false report then the system worked and those men were exonerated. What more as a society can we ask for than for the system to work? Does that mean any one deserves to go through that? No. Of course not, but there is nothing perfect in this world. People lie and people hurt other people. That’s why we have systems in place to prevent innocent people from going to jail. The response to this case, if it is a true false report, should be ‘good, the system worked’ not ‘all victims lie and we should disbelieve all survivors’. If the system is failing then you fix it, you don’t punish all victims of rape because a small percentage of people lie. If innocent people are being jailed and prosecuted then you fix the system — you don’t ignore, shame, invalidate, and dismiss survivors of rape.
In a society where allegations of sexual assault committed by athletes have become almost commonplace, what happened last week in Knoxville could be a massive blow to legitimate victims of rape and sexual assault. Now, whenever an athlete is accused of sexual misconduct, there’s a huge section of the athletic world that’s going to say, “She’s a liar, just like those women at Tennessee were” just like they used to say “she’s a liar, just like that woman with the Duke lacrosse team”.
And that’s not the case.
See, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t accept that sexual assaults occurred at Baylor or Michigan State or Ohio State but fall back on the “she’s a liar” defense for players with teams you root for. The fact of the matter is that our society has an obligation to believe people who report being the victims of rape. For hundreds of years, the justice systems in this country and other nations have routinely used a ‘blame the victim’ defense strategy.
She/he was dressed provocatively.
She/he was drunk.
She/he wanted it.
She/he is a slut.
She/he enjoyed it.
That legal strategy has only one real purpose: to keep real rapists out of jail. Instead of saying ‘I never touched her/him’ the perpetrator is saying ‘I never would have touched her if she hadn’t enticed me with her behavior. Yeah, I had sex with her but it was consensual because she is a slut.’
And it’s not like that ‘blame the victim’ mentality doesn’t go on anymore. It absolutely does, and Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s case is a prime example. Turner found a girl passed out in a parking lot and — instead of calling 911 like a responsible citizen — decided a quickie was the right way to go. Regardless of whether you think he was guilty or not, he and his family (who coincidentally live where else but not-so-smart Ohio)launched a ‘blame the victim’ publicity and social media campaign in which they bemoaned the fact that Brock wouldn’t be able to eat steak on Fridays because of some stupid slut’s addiction to alcohol.
Believe it or not, last week, Turner’s attorneys filed an appeal to overturn the guilty verdict and the three whole months of his six-month sentence that Turner served in jail, stating that he just wanted to have “sexual outercourse” with the victim.
Sexual outercourse? What in the heck is that? Apparently, it’s a form of sexual encounter that is comprised of “non-vaginal sex” or penetration of the vagina with anything but the penis. I guess in Turner’s world, non-consensual non-vaginal sex is somehow okay to do to a non-conscious person. Turner was presented as an all-American boy…an athlete whose father publicly reinforced the elitist entitlement Turner displayed with a letter on Facebook:
His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.
Although sexual assaults happen on a daily basis at every college and university in the country, the only cases we hear about are the ones that are centered around college athletes. I asked Brenda Tracy why that is.
There is nothing bigger than sports in this country. When sexual assault happens, we don’t hear about the chess club President. We hear about the football player and the point guard. The athletes and those stories make the news. The stories we see in sports shape the attitudes and beliefs we have about victims and perpetrators — and its an ugly one mainly because society has decided that all athletes are heroes and we can’t believe our heroes would disappoint us in this way. It’s also a huge inconvenience for the sports fan. They don’t want a rape victim ruining their game. And if we believe that the athlete committed this crime then we would be obligated to do something. We would need to demand change and accountability, but it’s easier to blame the victim and place the onus on them so that we don’t have to do anything — and this way we can get back to cheering for our team and our sports hero.
Brenda’s remark is harsh, yes, but it’s also accurate. When I first heard about the allegations against AJ Johnson and Michael Williams, I got that sick feeling in my stomach…that oh no, not UT! Dangnabbit,there’s got to be something wrong with this story because this is the last thing Tennessee needs…
I wasn’t thinking about the victims or the athletes. I wasn’t thinking about the lives that had just been irrevocably changed, for good or ill. I was thinking about how that accusation was going to impact the football season, and how other fan bases would be dogging us online, and that just when I thought UT had reversed an ideology that made me ashamed of the athletic department in general a couple of guys got their drink on and ruined everything…
…or how some chick made a bad decision and decided to ruin the lives of two great athletes out of spite or greed.
Yes, I went there. And so did you. Most of us in this current conversation moved on from that gut check fairly quickly. For me, the gut check came within the first hour. I was 100% okay with the university’s response to the indictments. Once the allegations went into the criminal system, UT absolutely made the right decision to suspend both players immediately — a lesson Dan Mullen and the Florida Gators need to learn, by the way.
But there’s a sizable proportion of the fan base that did not move past that first reaction. A ‘blame the victim’ ideology is the fastest and cruelest knee-jerk response to any allegation made against the young men who wear Tennessee uniforms and represent every single person with a love for UT.
How different the Turner case ended up from the Johnson and Williamson case. There were eyewitnesses, other men who intervened and prevented Turner from doing even worse then kept him on the scene until the cops got there; the victim’s testimony never wavered; the physical trauma of Turner’s attempts at ‘sexual outercourse’ was documented properly. Turner was convicted and served 90 steakless days in jail. Johnson and Williamson were acquitted, and lost four years of their lives. If the accusers in the UT rape case did misrepresent what happened initially, we’ll never know for certain if that was intentional. We do know that Turner’s victim did not lie. So, it is fair for Turner’s victim to be disbelieved just because the women that accused Johnson and Williams were not believed by a jury?
Of course not.
There are currently 310 open Title IX investigations ongoing at US universities. That’s indicative of an epidemic, which is a problem we absolutely must address. Part of the price we pay for the enforcement of Title IX and the protection of victims of sexual assault has to be belief. We have to agree to believe without question any rape or assault allegation that arises. We owe that to the victims of sexual assault. We know the majority of rape cases are never reported. Why?
Because of what Brock Turner’s accuser has had to face, including a relentless assault by the accuser and his family on her character and reputation.
If you’re looking at someone to be mad at regarding what happened to AJ Johnson and Michael Williams, the culprits are easy to find.
Look at the court system, that dragged this case out for four years without resolution.
Look at the DA’s office, who went ahead and prosecuted a case in which the material witnesses, the accusers, couldn’t keep their testimony consistent. \
Look at the attorneys who handled the Title IX lawsuit, for making sure their clients got paid despite the damage those false allegations wreaked upon AJ Johnson, Michael Williams, their futures, their prospects, and their families.
These are the people at fault. These are the people to blame.
For those of us who’ve watched this case from afar for four years, we need to come to a realistic understanding of the issues surrounding big time athletics. We can neither afford to disbelieve assault accusers nor rush to judgment and condemn the accused without due process. We have to understand that the university’s actions in this case are absolutely what needed to happen as well. UT’s immediate suspension of the players is precisely what the university had to do under the circumstances. Once the DA indicated that the players were being indicted for a crime, Tennessee had no other choice.
But we also much hold the people who really profited from this fiasco responsible for their actions. I think there’s definitely reason to look at repercussions for multiple parties and especially those in the DA’s office.
I would have to wonder as well what legal ramifications there might be for the accusers, who said one thing under oath during legal depositions in the Title IX suit and an entirely different thing under oath on the witness stand during the trial. If the difference is that extreme — which upon first glance it appears to be to a layman like myself — I would think there are avenues through the civil courts for Johnson and Williams to seek some kind of remuneration.
So should there be legal and criminal ramifications for people who bring false charges of rape, domestic violence, and assault be? Well, lying under oath is perjury, which in the state of Tennessee is a Class A misdemeanor. That carries a jail sentence of 11 months and 29 days maximum and a fine up to $2500.
That doesn’t seem right, does it? Not when set against four years of two young men’s lives, months of backlash against UT for the Title IX suit, tens of thousands of dollars used to prosecute the case, and two shares of the $2.48 millions UT shelled out to the Jane Does of the lawsuit. Sure, Johnson and Williams can file a civil suit against their accusers, but that’s probably not going to accomplish a lot. Not really. Perjury during a trial is rarely prosecuted, so there isn’t much of a chance that the legal system would step in. At the end of the day, four young adults walked away from the courtroom on Friday and were freed from the trauma of a four-year court case.
But they’ll never be free of the lingering aftereffects. Because of the DA’s’ ineptitude, the accusers will be forever thought of as liars and the accused as having ‘gotten off’ on all charges brought against them but…
The stigma of having been accused of rape is inescapable.
This story is tragic on multiple levels, but it’s also a cautionary tale. Young athletes need to demonstrate strong decision-making skills before they initiate a sexual encounter with anyone. Here’s a big hint — a party with lots of alcohol is probably not the right place for that kind of fun. For poor judgment, at least, AJ and Michael have to own up to their own responsibility. That one night of “fun” ruined almost everything for them. Young women need to make good decisions as well. The same advice I just gave the athletes works for them too — don’t have sex with a guy you don’t know at a party because you’ve been drinking. Just don’t. Save everyone involved the grief that follows.
Brenda Tracy is a person who understands, probably better than anyone in my acquaintance, of how to deal with the conversation that all of us need to be involved in. She travels the country, speaking to athletes in high school and college about sexual assault and its ramifications. Her #SetTheExpectation campaign educates young men and women all over the country, including downloadable pledges for athletes to commit to upholding — setting the expectations for the teams in simple terms. Athletes sign the pledge, acknowledging that if they break any of the commitments against sexual violence, they will be dismissed from the team. And their coaches sign the pledge as well, committing themselves to dismissing any athlete, no matter who, from the team if they violate that pledge. #SetTheExpectation does exactly that, and binds athletes and coaches alike to a code of behavior.
As for the rest of us, we need to continue this conversation. We need to expand it, to develop it, to wowrk together assertively to change the trend toward sexual violence in our society. We need to teach our kids to make better decisions, athletes and non-athletes alike. And we need to make sure that no one is afraid to report sexual violence against them to authorities.
That's our responsibility to the generations that follow us. Best get started, folks, because this is a Herculean task.