College Recruiting and Sexual Abuse

This is probably one of those essays I will eventually wish I had written and not posted.  I take a little courage from the experience of Hannah Arendt who wrote about the trial of Adolph Eichmann and called it “the banality of evil.”  The OED defines banality as “anything trite or trivial; a commonplace.”  Eichmann?  The guy who ran the Nazi death camps?  Trite?

That’s what Arendt was reviled for saying, but she had a point to make.  The point was the Eichmann himself was a nonentity.  He was a petty bureaucrat.  The death machine the Nazis created and put at his disposal was a horror beyond all previous imagining, but there was no way to put this horrific institution on trial; we had only Eichmann to try, and he was small fish.  Arendt’s critics were not satisfied.  They wanted Eichmann himself to be evil.  Arendt said that was missing the more important point; it was missing the point we really needed to understand, which is that evil can be routinized and turned over to “rule-followers.”  Killing all the rule-followers is not going to help us.

So…I’ve got a point to make, too.  It is that sex is a big time part of big time sports programs in the NCAA.  It is, to this point, to the advantage of the major athletic programs to arrange the sex, to deny how commonly it is used to buy athletes, or to look steadfastly in some other direction while it is occurring.

The article this post is based on appeared in the New York Times in 2002.  I am going to pick out of this article a series of events that suggest that sex is a normal part of the recruiting process.  It is a system.  Because of that, it does not exclusively represent the choices made by individual men and women, although that is also true; it represents a system that has enough goodies in it that it will continue despite periodic scandals on this campus or that.

By the way, I normally illustrate these posts with pictures that make the topic more visually compelling.  You will understand why I am not doing it for this post.

The article is based on the New York Times, but the fact is that I am a University of Oregon alum and the recent scandals about basketball players at the U of O provide an occasion.  Bear in mind my idea that these scandals are the by-products of a system and that the system benefits from continuing to have them.

Here’s what the University of Oregon believes happened.

Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis and Brandon Austin were named in a police report alleging that they assaulted a woman at an off-campus home on March 8. None of the three players were charged with a crime.  The police couldn’t find anyone with a clear and verifiable memory of what happened.

Oregon President Michael Gottfredson said at a press conference, “that he has worked with several campus organizations to make sure that allegations of sexual assault in the campus community are dealt with swiftly and appropriately. It’s my great hope that we as a community can address the broader issue directly, openly and decisively,” he said. “We will do whatever it takes to foster a culture of respect and shared values on our campus.”  Very presidential.

Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens said that the alleged actions of the three players involved in the incident aren’t befitting of a University of Oregon student-athlete. “It was very clear to us that we didn’t want them representing our organization,” Mullens said.  It’s about the players, you see; not about the party.

Basketball coach Dana Altman said, “I’m very disappointed in these players.  When I read the report, I was disappointed.”  A somber, fatherly tone.

I don’t want to imply that any of these responses is insincere, but it is what the occupants of those statuses always say when another in the long series of sexual abuses becomes a news story.

Here, for instance, is James Duderstadt, who was president of the University of Michigan from 1988 to 1996.

“These parties are a major problem and I can’t say for certain, but I think they are a problem at a number of universities, mainly because these are high school kids away from home and there is a total lack of supervision and structure. I was shocked when I heard about how they were handled. They basically turn these kids loose and hope things work out.”

The parties are the problem.  The kids are not up to the challenge of behaving themselves.  “They”—that’s someone from the university—just turn these kids loose and hope things work out.

Mary Keenan, the district attorney from Boulder, Colorado, looked into recruitment parties and found them to be “an ugly football subculture.”  A 17-year old woman had told the Boulder police that she had been raped by a Colorado football recruit at a party in 1997.  “These recruiting parties are definitely concerning,” Jim Fadenrecht, director of public safety at the University of Colorado, said. “The bottom line is there are certain ingredients when you put them together that can be a problem. Those things are alcohol, young kids and a lack of supervision.”

Fadenrecht’s comment is the closest one so far to that way I am approaching things.  There are these “ingredients.”  You put them together and you are going to get trouble.  I like that because it begins to define a system that is a good deal larger and much more stable than the individual intentions of individual men and women.

Not everyone agrees with the “mix of ingredients” approach.  Tyrone Willingham, who was the football coach at Notre Dame at the time, said “Most players and recruits behave like gentlemen at these parties…I think there are [sic] only a handful of troublemakers.  Barry Switzer, former coach at Oklahoma doesn’t see it that way: “There are groupies everywhere and sex is going to happen when kids are involved.”  That’s not much of a mix of ingredients and by “groupies,” I think he means women who go to the parties to score with athletes.

Mike Freeman, who wrote the New York Times piece I am relying on for information, thinks it may be more a misunderstanding.

“Some of the accusations connected to recruiting parties seem to have their origins in confusion over their purpose. Some participants have acknowledged after an incident that they knew the women were expected to have sexual relations with visiting high school players. While the relations generally appear to have been consensual, occasionally women who attended a party said afterward that they had no idea what was expected of them.”

I find that same passive construction in a protest by several women’s groups:

“Some women understand they are expected to have sexual relations with the recruits and do so willingly, but others do not have a clue about what is expected and become unwilling participants.”

I’m looking at the passive verbs here: “were expected to have sexual relations” and “no idea what was expected of them.”  I put the emphasis on other people’s expectations of the women in Freeman’s account and the emphasis on “groupies” in Switzer’s account.

Inevitably, we get down to the question of whether the women consented to sex.  We want to talk about that because we want very much to distinguish between between “kids having fun” and “sexual abuse.”  Everyone who wants that distinction to be very clear will be unhappy about the amount of alcohol consumed at these parties.  Freeman tells of a woman who volunteered to have her apartment used for such a party.  She drank eight beers and two shots of run and went to lie down.  She woke up with people on top of her.  Did she consent?  Is that a question that means anything?

These parties are going to happen.  The universities’ athletic departments like it, the boosters like it, the recruits and players like it, the women who go to these parties for thrills like it.  The NCAA says it is up to the universities to police these matters.  The universities say they do police the official ones but there are a lot of unofficial ones.  These parties are going to happen.  “Recruiting parties can be harmless fun,” observes Mike Freeman, “but they can also cross the line.”

I have argued that there is an organized system of beneficiaries and that the sexual abuse that sometimes happens is a by-product.  One of the ways of making sure that these parties don’t “cross the line” so frequently is not to run the whole recruitment enterprise so close to the line.  That means that university officials must make it their business to know what is happening and to actively prevent it or lose their jobs.  If “I didn’t know about it” is not acceptable as an excuse and “they are boys away from home for the first time” is not an acceptable excuse, and if “you failed in your responsibility as president/athletic director/coach and so you are fired” is the consequence, then these parties will stop.

Let me return to the system emphasis.  My point here is that there is a confluence of interest so great that this kind of recruiting WILL continue, and people will continue to be victimized by it.  But these “victims” are also free agents.  The recruits and the veteran players who decide how to “show them a good time” are agents.  They can decide what to do and what not to do.  They are accountable for their choices.[1]  The women who go to these parties for the thrill of it and who drink themselves into irresponsibility are still accountable for their choices.[2]  The boosters who arrange the parties and, in some widely noted occasions, arrange the strippers, are accountable in the same way the players are.[3]  The NCAA, the university president, the Director of Athletics, and whichever relevant coach or assistant coach it is, are still accountable for their actions and should be condemned if they fail.  When they fail twice, i.e., both by ignoring the behavior and then by denying that they knew anything about it, they actually are condemned.  Many formed presidents can testify to that.

There is a lot of fun to be had, as I see it, in condemning any or all of these people; their choices, their distorted priorities, and their self-centeredness.  But now, I get to cash in the business end of the Eichmann analogy.  Hannah Arendt never denied that Eichmann was culpable for what he did.  Her point is that if we allow ourselves to be distracted by this person—his choices, his distorted priorities, his self-centeredness—we will not attend as we should to the much greater evil.  That greater evil is that a system was built that was so large and so powerful that “holding people accountable” doesn’t even slow it down.

And that is my point about sex and recruitment in big time athletic programs.  The sexual abuse that occurs is a predictable by-product of what is done all the time and that most of the time, produces no complaints.  For instance, the woman who drank eight beers and then two shots of rum and then woke up with a very large athlete on top of her—remember her?—was one of four women at that party and the other three said they got exactly what they came to the party to get.

That means that we need to shut down the machine because the low percent of regrettable by-products is too high or we need to say that keeping the machine going is so important that we can afford that percent of regrettable by-products.

I think those are our real options.  What some people think of as “a better option” does not seem like an option at all to me.  That would involve a new recruit, brought to a room of strippers in the presence of people he looks up to and whom he hopes to join as a teammate, saying, “No thanks.  This isn’t something I want to do.”  It would involve women refusing to go to “parties like that” as her friends do or going to the parties in non-seductive clothes and staying resolutely sober the whole evening, making herself conspicuous in the process.  It would involve coaches, ADs, and boosters choosing “good character” and lower athletic skills and watching their program decline relative to their traditional opponents and, of course, losing their jobs in the process.

Those don’t look like “options” to me.  I think the real options are the two I offered earlier.



[1] Of course, they are accountable for the failure of their alternative (“not showing them a good time”) strategies, too.  These recruits are going to play somewhere.
[2] Of course, the one woman in clothes unlike the other women and drinking club soda, unlike the other women, will have to find a way to answer the question, “So…why are you here?”
[3] They must explain, in other words, why they seduced the recruits (not just with the strippers) or why they allowed the program to decline or, in a more just world, both.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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