THE BLOG
08/12/2014 11:44 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2014

College Football, Sexual Assaults, and University Accountability

With the college football season set to officially begin on August 23, many collegiate teams find their rosters in question, with a number of football players accused of sexual assaults against other students.

Two University of Miami linebackers were arrested early last month after reportedly buying alcohol for a 17-year-old girl and sexually assaulting her after she was heavily intoxicated and "physically helpless to resist."

At the University of Texas, two wide receivers have been suspended from the team indefinitely after the two were charged with sexually assaulting a female.

At the University of Oklahoma, linebacker Frank Shannon is still listed as a member of the Sooners football team, despite some protests that he should be suspended based on an allegation that he sexually assaulted a woman after a party early this year. Shannon's teammate, freshman running back Joe Mixon, however, is not reporting for team activities, following allegations that he punched a female student in the face during an altercation.

In Shannon's case, however, the District Attorney declined to prosecute, citing both a lack of evidence and the refusal of the young woman involved to press charges. Without a conviction or even a criminal charge or arrest, is it really the responsibility of the university to mete punishment for a crime that may not have occurred? Should the university's investigation override a legal presumption of innocence?

Maybe.

Recently, the University of Connecticut agreed to a $1.3 million settlement with four women who filed lawsuits alleging that their rape and sexual harassment complaints were not investigated by the university. More than 50 schools are currently facing similar Title IX lawsuits from victims of sexual violence on campus. However, even in the face of pending litigation across the nation, many universities have still failed to adequately address allegations of sexual assault.

Take for example the recently scrutinized Air Force Academy investigation of sexual assaults. An investigation regarding the Academy's athletes revealed that female students were given drinks laced with Flunitrazepam (Rohypnol), commonly known as a date rape drug, prior to being sexually assaulted at an off-campus party. In this case, there were no police reports -- the victims did not know what had happened to them. If not for witness reports to the university, the allegations may never have been investigated.

Regardless, the Academy failed to report the sexual assaults for more than two years, when officials were eventually confronted by the press.

Consequently, pending federal legislation attempts to enforce university accountability in reporting campus sexual assaults and in protecting the student body. Often, athletic departments are accused of covering up allegations of sexual assault in order to protect their prized athletes and their money-making teams, according to Senator Claire McCaskill, co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill to combat campus sexual assault. The hope is that this bill would put an end to that perception (or reality).

According to CDC statistics, nearly 20 percent of undergraduate women experienced sexual assault in college. Despite sexual violence against 1 in 5 college women, a survey of colleges and universities found that 40 percent of responding institutions had not conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the last five years. McCaskill called that figure "unbelievable," and said that many universities' policy of allowing athletic departments to internally investigate sexual assault allegations only fosters the protection of student athletes, rather than the protection of the entire student population.

With this in mind, forcing universities across the nation to become even more involved in the realm of sexual assault allegations might not be the best idea.

The Campus Safety and Accountability Act includes provisions to add resources for victims of sexual assault, minimum training standards for campus employees, transparency requirements including the publication of the results of an anonymous student survey about sexual violence, uniform policies for dealing with sexual assault allegations, and coordination with local law enforcement. The Act would also increase fines and penalties for unreported incidents.

Clearly, colleges and universities have a responsibility to report sexual assault. We have seen what happens when officials turn a blind eye to reports of sexual abuse (Penn State, we're looking in your direction). But Anne Neal, the President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has a point when she says, "Colleges are simply unable to play judge, jury and executioner."

Although university officials should be required to report allegations of sexual assault to law enforcement, there has to be some room to allow the criminal justice system to do its job, unfettered by the pressure from universities which implement the proposals with a heavy-handed approach.

After all, isn't the incompetence of the universities one of the biggest gripes which led to the proposed legislation? Why in the world would we want colleges even more involved in the investigation and aftermath of the allegations if they are already doing such a horrible job? The underlying issue seems to stem from the idea that universities are too biased towards their athletic programs to assess sexual violence allegations in a detached and neutral manner; as such, I think students would be better served if the universities were simply removed from the equation.

Now, don't get me wrong. There needs to be required disclosure if the allegations are made directly to the university, and there should be penalties for failure to disclose the complaints directly to law enforcement. After the initial disclosure however, universities should remove themselves from the situation and allow law enforcement to do its job. With the history of negligence (or perhaps recklessness) on the part of educational institutions, it would be counter-intuitive to push them to be more involved in the arena of sexual assault allegations.

I have no doubt that the provisions of the Campus Safety and Accountability Act that support these aims are on target. Still, expecting educational institutions to serve as pseudo law enforcement jeopardizes both the institution and the rights of its students. If the Act becomes law, where should universities draw the line if and when law enforcement or the prosecution decides that criminal charges are unnecessary?

Subscribe to Breaking Alerts.
Don’t miss out — be the first to know all the latest news.