The recent report of the Special Oversight Committee on Sexual Misconduct at Amherst contains some good suggestions on how to improve the disciplinary system and the delivery of psychological and medical care to victims of rape, recommendations that are already being implemented. But in one important respect, the report is seriously flawed.
That flaw appears in the very first pages of the report. The Committee tells us that it is a “stereotyped assumption that athletes are more prone to sexual misconduct than non-athletes.” It concludes that it would be “counterproductive to indict any one demographic.” The report claims that their research found that athletes were not disproportionately represented among perpetrators of sexual misconduct.
But it seems clear that the Committee found no evidence because it didn’t look. Numerous studies throughout the country have shown clear relationships between single sex teams and sexual assault. Meegan Mercurio of Providence College provides a useful summary of such research in her 2010 thesis, “Athletics and Violence Against Women: A Study of Relationship.” (available at Digitalcommons@Providence.edu) Mecurio notes that in one study, at a university where male athletes made up only two percent of the undergraduate student body, male athletes were found to be responsible for approximately 20 percent of reported cases of sexual assault. And in a literature review concerning rape myth acceptance, Rosemary Iconis, in a 2008 article for Contemporary Issues in Education Research (2nd Quarter, 2008, available at http://journals.cluteonline.com/index.php/CIER/article/viewFile/1201/1185) notes that at least three independent studies over several decades have shown that male athletes are more prone than others to believe that women lie about being raped 50 percent of the time. Moreover, the research notes that there was a variety of levels of acceptance in these studies, with members of individually focused sports such as golf, for instance, and older students, being less likely to believe rape myths.
The body of existing scholarly studies on the connection between male athletics and rape culture is substantial enough to have warranted the Committee treating this connection — at the very least — as a valid hypothesis to be investigated. Given the Committee’s reliance on existing scholarly studies to consider other hypotheses, and to defend their use of sanitized language, it is truly odd that it did not even entertain the connection between male athletics and rape culture as a hypothesis to be verified (say) through systematic, confidential interviews with students in general, and rape survivors in particular. A more critical committee would have at least entertained the hypothesis that the predominance of athletic culture on campus, and the tight bonds of team unity, might contribute to the underreporting of alleged assaults by team members. If a student is raped by someone on a prominent sports team, surely it is plausible that she now has to entertain the idea that she is at odds not only with all members of that team, but also perhaps with its fans. Surely it is plausible to suppose that on a campus where athletics is so central, victims and survivors face a stronger disincentive in this case to report than they would if they were to report a rape by someone affiliated with no team at all.
Perhaps more relevant to us, there is far too much anecdotal evidence from Amherst students themselves that tells of an athletic culture that encourages misogny and homophobia and that discourages victims of sexual assault from reporting such acts for fear of ostracism by their peers. Why is it that, instead of being curious about this question, which is warranted not only by existing scholarly studies and by student anecdote alike, the committee instead criticized as “stereotyping” the very idea that one might be curious about this question?
Given the prominent role that team sports plays at Amherst, for a select committee assigned to address sexual violence to ignore athletics is very disappointing. The stated fear of stereotyping, or unfairly identifying a particular group for responsibility for sexual violence is a red herring. (This claim, by the way, is an implicit criticism of anyone who would even raise the issue, for they are seen as being prejudiced. Nothing is more detrimental to open discussion.) It is to turn away from the obvious need to have a critical examination of one of the most important extracurricular forces at our College, one that does so much to shape the character of so many of our students.
Without trying to assume that I know the minds of the members of the Committee, I do know that athletics at Amherst College provides a major link between alumni and the student body, that contributions to the College are correlated with the relative success of our teams, especially, though not exclusively, the football team. And, while I do not know because I don’t have access to the budget for the athletic department, my eyes tell me as I drive down Route 9, that we are spending more and more money to support a violent sport that inevitably results in brain injuries to at least some of our students.
How is this related to the report on sexual assault? It provides us with a possible reason why athletic culture was not discussed at any length by the Committee. The very reluctance of the Committee could be — and has been — construed as testimony to the outsized role that athletics plays in the life of the College: in admissions, in budget, in interference with the curriculum. For us to avoid having a serious and independent investigation of the current athletic culture at Amherst is to do a disservice to the community, especially to those students who have had the courage to speak out, privately and publicly, and who have themselves been accused of being “anti-athletic.”
It is, in my opinion, long past time for us to reevaluate the role of sports in the life of Amherst. That the occasion of this Committee’s investigation did not even touch upon the matter is not a good sign, because it suggests that such a discussion is not possible, given the outsized power of our athletic complex, especially among alumni and trustees.