Commentary

Athletes part of problem, solution

Updated: October 14, 2010, 2:43 PM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Aug. 30: Missouri running back Derrick Washington is arrested on suspicion of felony sexual assault. He is accused of assaulting a former tutor.

[+] EnlargeChris Rainey
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesChris Rainey is back at practice after he pled guilty to misdemeanor stalking.

Sept. 6: Wake Forest's Tony Woods, a center on the basketball team, is arrested on suspicion of assault. He is accused of kicking and pushing his girlfriend and reportedly fracturing her spine.

Sept. 14: Florida wide receiver Chris Rainey is arrested on suspicion of aggravated stalking. He is accused of sending a text message to his girlfriend that read, "Time to die."

Oct. 5: Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn, a guard on the basketball team, is arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault. He is accused of breaking the jaw of his longtime girlfriend.

And in Charlottesville, Va., former Virginia lacrosse player George Huguely sits in jail, awaiting a January trial. He is accused of the murder of his girlfriend, Yeardley Love, who also played lacrosse at Virginia.

The headlines are both shocking and terrifying, filled with athletes who have lost control and victims whose rights seem to be trampled in the pursuit of celebrity justice.

Yet the who's who filling the pages of the police blotter is nowhere near as shocking as this:

One in four.

That, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, is how many women will be sexually assaulted during their college years.

They will be victims of quarterbacks and quantum physicists, point guards and painters.

"Violence towards women surpasses everything," said Kathy Redmond, the founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. "It has no race, no religion, no sport, none of that. It goes on everywhere."

George Huguely
AP Photo/Charlottsville Police DepartmentGeorge Huguely awaits trial for the murder of Yeardley Love.

By their very nature, college campuses are powerful incubators for this burgeoning crisis. The volatile ingredients of alcohol, independence and heartache can mix into violent, even deadly, concoctions.

Yet college campuses also provide the perfect place to combat the crisis, think tanks where people on the front lines can discuss this complex issue openly.

Athletes on a college campus stand on an even more unique intersection. They have both the power to help by using their celebrity to start the discussion on a touchy subject, and the power to harm by abusing their celebrity to earn unwarranted dispensation.

Right now both are happening. College athletes are both helping and hurting the crisis of domestic violence.

"To me, this is like cancer," said Mississippi State offensive lineman D.J. Looney, the Southeastern Conference representative to the national Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. "Everybody has been affected by it or knows somebody who has. The difference is, nobody wants to talk about it. We, as athletes, hold ourselves to higher standards and so does the media. If something happens, the whole world hears about it. Is that fair? It doesn't matter. That's what we sign up for. So we need to decide if we want to fix the problem or be a part of the problem."


There are no blanket statements to be made here. Sports no more predisposes a person to violence or violence toward women than loud music or bad diet.

Countless studies have been done and none have come up with concrete answers. The most comprehensive -- which included only a sampling from 20 Division I institutions -- was done in 1995 by Southern Virginia University professor Jeff Benedict. He found that while athletes made up only 3.3 percent of the male population, they accounted for 19 percent of the sexual assault cases.

[+] EnlargeLaceDarius Dunn
Tim Umphrey/Getty ImagesLaceDarius Dunn could be on the court this season for Baylor.

Scary numbers, to be certain, but determining a direct cause and effect has been impossible.

That, however, doesn't mean there isn't a problem. The locker-room mentality, the concept of keeping everything in the family all come into play.

But by far the biggest problem in regard to athletes and violence is what is done after a crime is committed.

Or more accurately, what isn't done.

Sexual assaults and domestic violence remain the most underreported crimes in the country, with victims either too afraid or too ashamed to come forward.

And when a charge is made -- especially one that involves a headline-grabbing, name-brand athlete -- and then is either dismissed or reduced, it hurts everyone.

Benedict used newspaper and LexisNexis reports to identify 217 cases of assault involving collegiate or professional athletes from 1986 to 1995. Of those 217 athletes, 172 were arrested. Only 66 went to trial and only 10 were found guilty. More often than not, the charges never came to fruition (45 never faced formal charges), were eventually dismissed (for 63 more) or resulted in a plea agreement (43).

"We do a horrible job of holding perpetrators accountable," said Sarah McMahon, a Rutgers professor of social work who has done extensive research on athletes and violence. "And in high-profile cases, it sends a very clear message. The 'boys will be boys' mentality diminishes the issue dangerously."

In the past month alone, local police recommended that two unnamed Michigan State basketball players be charged with criminal sexual conduct for a reported assault of a woman on campus. Instead, the district attorney's office, after interviewing the victim, declined to press charges.

[+] EnlargeLaMichael James
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireLaMichael James has rushed for more than 800 yards since his offseason arrest on domestic violence charges.

Woods, who reportedly broke his girlfriend's spine, pleaded guilty to assault on a female, but two other charges -- assault inflicting serious injury and assault inflicting serious injury with a minor present -- were dropped. His punishment: a 60-day suspended sentence, a $100 fine and 100 hours of community service.

And in Waco, Texas, Dunn's girlfriend, LaCharlesla Edwards, asked via a statement that the "district attorney's office dismiss these charges." Edwards' lawyer said the victim and her family were "extremely disappointed" that Dunn had been charged with a felony, despite the police's belief that Dunn had punched his girlfriend in the face hard enough to cause two minor fractures in her jaw.

To the credit of their head coaches, none of those players has been reinstated to their respective teams, but they could be. There is no rule in place to stop them.

The NFL has a personal conduct policy, with clear punishments in place for players who step out of bounds off the field. It's what sidelined Ben Roethlisberger for four games even though prosecutors declined to charge him after a woman accused him of sexually assaulting her in Georgia.

At the collegiate level, there are no such rules. Every conference has a code of conduct that addresses in-game behavior only -- no physical or verbal abuse toward an opponent, an official or an opposing coach or administrator.

And while the NCAA has strict language about in-game fighting -- in basketball for example, a player engaged in a fight "shall be suspended from participating in the team's next regular-season game," and a second fight results in a full season's suspension -- off-the-field problems are left solely to the discretion of the university.

And that's where the problem lies.

Some coaches and universities act swiftly and with authority -- coach Gary Pinkel immediately booted Washington from the Missouri football team after his arrest, Baylor suspended Dunn from classes, and Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik decided to release Woods from his scholarship altogether -- and others less so.

In June, UNLV's Tre'Von Willis, the leading scorer on the basketball team, was arrested and charged with felony domestic battery by strangulation. He was able to agree to a plea bargain that reduced the charge to a misdemeanor, and in September, UNLV suspended the Mountain West Conference's leading scorer for three games, two of which are exhibition games.

In February, Oregon running back LaMichael James was arrested and charged with assault after allegedly grabbing his girlfriend by the neck and throwing her to the ground. He sat out the Ducks' first game of the season. He has since rushed for 848 yards.

In the adversity is a teaching moment. You can always look back and have 20/20 vision on what you should have done. The question is, what is the response? What can we do better? You can become reactionary and point fingers, or you can pull together, reduce the panic and figure out what you need to be doing.

-- Jim Pignataro, director of student-athlete support services at Michigan State

And Rainey, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor stalking, is back practicing with the Gators. In a statement, coach Urban Meyer said, "I'm disappointed that he violated a core value of our program, but he continues to pay a price for his actions. Chris will have to meet a set of conditions to become a part of our team again and although he is practicing, he will not play this weekend. The timetable for his return will depend on his ability to follow the guidelines that we have laid out for him."

New NCAA president Mark Emmert is well aware of the mixed messages being sent by the varying punishments and has convened an internal team to more closely examine what the national organization can do.

"Ideally this is something that happens at the university level, where there is a much greater familiarity with the individual situation," Emmert said. "But on the other hand, at the national level we have to have serious conversations to see if we can find a way to send an unequivocal message that this will not be tolerated."

The challenge is just what can the NCAA do? Every college or university has a different judicial system set up for its students, with different punishments. If the NCAA were to legislate punishment for athletes, it would basically be usurping the college's power for one specific group of the population.

And where would the punishments stop? Would the NCAA intervene only in the case of domestic abuse? What of alcohol abuse? Or stealing?

The complications of the issue are why Emmert can't offer a simple, blanket solution for either the problem or his organization's role in eradicating it. The NCAA is far from issuing any sort of decree, let alone proposed legislation, but Emmert said he wants conversations about domestic violence to be fast-tracked.

"I would describe it as just in the talking stage right now, but it's something we'd like to move on quickly," he said. "We've done a great job in terms of educating and working on alcohol abuse and drug abuse. We haven't done everything we can in regards to domestic violence and we absolutely have to. One incident is one too many."


The satellite trucks and news media have long since departed Boulder, taking with them the whispers and heavy glare of the unwelcome attention.

The stain and the memories haven't been so easy to erase.

Seven years ago, Colorado University came under scrutiny after seven women claimed they were raped by football players. The university was accused of using sex and alcohol to lure recruits; team members were accused of hiring strippers and paid escorts at parties.

[+] EnlargeGary Barnett
Paul Chapman/US PresswireGary Barnett lost his job in the wake of the Colorado scandal.

No one was charged or even arrested.

But the rush to judgment, which would be repeated at Duke University amid a lurid lacrosse scandal three years later, cost the chancellor, president, athletic director and football coach their jobs.

"That impacted everyone, not just the campus," said Ceal Barry, the former women's basketball coach at Colorado and now the university's assistant athletic director for student services. "Everyone was just overwhelmed by the negativity and I'd say everyone was in a real healing process for the first five years afterward. There are still scars."

But the university has done more than just lick its wounds.

It's changed -- particularly the athletic department.

From hiring a substance abuse counselor/therapist who works as the director of student-athlete wellness to requiring all athletes to attend sexual assault training, the university is arming its athletes with resources and information.

The university also developed the CU/DA Task Force, a group comprised of the Boulder chief of police, the university chief of police, the district attorney, the athletic director, the director of the university's victims assistance office and Barry. The group meets twice a semester and reaches out one another if they suspect an athlete is heading down a bad path.

"If we have a guy that's demonstrating out-of-control drinking or his behavior is a little violent, it's communicated to all of us," Barry said. "You can't necessarily prevent a catastrophic event, but we're not going to sit back with our fingers crossed, either."

Colorado is far from the exception. According to McMahon's research, athletic departments are among the more active groups on college campuses when it comes to domestic violence education.

The NCAA, in fact, partnered with people at the University of Arizona to help develop Step Up!, a program designed to encourage people to intervene when others are in trouble. More than 70 universities have ordered materials from the organization.

"You can set up models, where you can help people recognize the signs of abuse and the precursors so people can seek help early," said Emmert, who knows the perils of domestic violence on campus firsthand. He was president at the University of Washington three years ago when a woman was shot and killed by an ex-boyfriend. "You can help your coaches get better at recognizing what needs to be done and when to intervene, as well as peers."

Three years ago, when two members of Congress proposed legislation that would begin a national campaign against domestic violence spearheaded by athletes, the NCAA balked. Administrators feared that the message would paint athletes in an unfair light. Emmert, the NCAA president, understands that reaction.

"On campuses, athletes can provide a leadership role in a variety of things," he said. "But unfortunately what happens, when there are incidents because of the nature of the attention they get, they are more heavily scrutinized. It's a challenging predicament."

But it's a predicament plenty of athletes are willing to tackle.

Instead of hiding in the shadows, afraid they'll be stereotyped by the actions of the minority, they are empowered to act and change how athletes are perceived.

"Someone needs to bring it to the table," said Julia Adden, a soccer player at Temple University. "This is happening and people need a wake-up call. If we can go out and set the example, help get the message out, we should. No one is going to listen if you don't say anything."


Yeardley Love's death stopped everyone in their tracks.

For a handful of weeks, colleges and athletic departments did some serious soul-searching. Coaches gathered their athletes to ask questions and lead conversations that they previously had left unsaid.

Love's death was tragic, but the lingering question -- could it have been prevented? -- was equally crippling.

In the days after Huguely's arrest, numerous reports surfaced showing previous violent outbursts against teammates and police officers, and most damning, against Love herself.

[+] EnlargeYeardley Love Tribute
Jay Paul/Getty ImagesLove's teammates honored her life in the games after her death last season.

Their relationship served as a heartbreaking example of what can happen at the intersection between domestic violence on campus and the culture of sports.

That Love stayed with Huguely isn't at all surprising to people who are familiar with domestic violence. Redmond said she is stunned when she gives talks to women -- many still in high school -- who don't recognize the signs of an abusive relationship, or worse, are completely dismissive of it.

"Unfortunately I've seen it a lot more than I want to," Adden said. "A lot of people defend their relationships and make excuses. They don't see how something simple like jealousy can build up and become a bigger problem."

After Huguely, the blame was placed at the foot of lacrosse. The sport, sullied before by the Duke scandal, was attacked again, with critics arguing that the typically moneyed and privileged lacrosse player would be more apt to condone Huguely's behavior.

And in the ensuing mayhem, of lacrosse fans screaming in defense of their sport and detractors insisting it was nothing more than a bastion of testosterone-fueled trouble, the real problem was lost.

It wasn't about lacrosse.

It's about a college climate, where young men and women still experimenting with adulthood try to survive the land mines in front of them. Emotions, too often fueled by alcohol, bubble and burst without Mom and Dad to help bring them back to a calm simmer. People struggle with doing the right thing versus testing the limits of their coveted friendships.

"Here's what we try to teach -- the person is more important than your friend," Johns Hopkins lacrosse coach Dave Pietramala said. "If you care about a person, you're going to say, 'Cut this out. You can't act that way.' If you treat them as a friend, you don't say anything because you don't want to challenge the friendship. We want them to understand that the person is the most important thing and if he doesn't like you and won't talk to you, so what? You still have to say, 'Cut the crap.'"

But bystander intervention is among the trickiest issues confronting domestic violence. People don't want to get involved in what they deem a "personal" situation.

A Step Up! survey conducted at three universities (the University of Arizona, the University of California-Riverside and the University of Virginia) revealed that almost 90 percent of the students encountered some sort of social problem -- from sexual assault to eating disorders to hazing to alcohol abuse -- they believed could have been avoided if someone had intervened.

The Washington Post reported that other Virginia lacrosse players did nothing when Huguely and Love fought during a party. Eventually visiting players from North Carolina intervened.

The culture of sports only makes bystander intervention more complex. The whole notion of team and the concept of family sold by coaches -- what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room -- makes a difficult situation even harder to navigate.

"How many of these guys knew that he was violent?" Redmond asked. "How many have seen him do the same thing before? But they don't want to go to the coach because they don't want to rat somebody out. They're a family. Well, when something like this happens, forget it. It's no longer about keeping it in the family. The family is broken."


[+] EnlargeTeresa A. Sullivan
AP Photo/The Daily Progress/Andrew ShurtleffVirginia president Teresa A. Sullivan led the Charlottesville community in a Day Of Dialogue.

On Sept. 24, the University of Virginia community gathered for a "Day of Dialogue." Spurred by the death of Love, 1,500 students as well as faculty and staff members gathered to discuss on-campus violence and ways to prevent it.

The night before, Pittsburgh defensive back Jeff Knox was dismissed from the team after being arrested and charged with assault.

He is accused of slapping and choking a woman after she told him she was pregnant.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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