Urban Meyer is Just the Most Recent Example of the Problem of Sexual Violence in Athletes
Urban Meyer feels like deja vu. His lack of reaction is nothing new. Sexual violence in athletes has been a problem for a lot longer than Urban Meyer has been earning over $4 million. Remember Ray Rice? Ben Roethlisberger? Daryl Washington? And 40 others. . . and that’s just the NFL, not college athletics.
When this kind of problem exists in the professional leagues of a sport, you can be pretty confident that the lower rungs of the ladder also have a problem with sexual violence in athletes. Penn State? Baylor? And at least 19 others. . . Need I say more?
It is debatable whether athletes engage in more sexual violence than others on a statistical basis. The problem with that debate is that it ignores the outsized influence athletes have.
A Single Act of Sexual Violence in a High-Profile Athlete Influences Millions of Kids
Athletes – at both the college and professional level – are held up as role models for our society and for our youth. For young players coming up, if an NFL hero can make a bazillion dollars even though he has this nasty habit of choking his wife then sexual violence must not be that big a deal. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation provided clear answers as to how a professional athlete’s sportsmanship was perceived by kids. Not surprisingly, what kids see, kids do. Any mom of a 2-year-old would confirm this. The Kaiser study reports that 20% of children are heavy “consumers” of sports so there are a lot of kids seeing and hearing about what athletes do. 91 percent of those kids, and 56 percent of other kids, want to be like or look up to famous
athletes. So while John Doe’s sexual violence may affect the kids in his family and immediate circle, a professional athlete’s sexual violence may influence nearly 20 million kids (half of the 4-15 year olds in our country).
Athletes are Overly Protected from the Consequences of Their Sexual Violence
The second problem of trying to equate athletes and non-athletes is that very often “the system” goes out of its way to protect athletes simply because they are athletes. Brock Turner is a prominent example of this way of thinking, but it is common in all sports. In fact, it is more common the more prominent the sport: i.e., football over swimming. The more high-profile the sport, the more likely the athlete is protected from real consequences. One of the findings in the Baylor investigation was that university officials created a cultural perception that football was “above the rules.” This protection of the athlete has an enormous impact on the victim. As of 2014, a sexual assault allegation against an athlete was overseen by the athletic department over 20% of the time. The athletic department has one goal: protect the athletic department. The perception has been that the way to protect the program is to protect the athlete. So victims are often told not to make a complaint or to think hard about whether they really want to harm the university. Even when the victim goes to public law enforcement, she often confronts a governmental entity that perceives itself as protecting the university. An ESPN Outside the Lines Investigation studied 10 universities and looked at the question of whether college athletes were treated the same as non-athletes by law enforcement. They found that a variety of factors lead to college athletes being prosecuted less than non-athletes.
So we know that an athlete’s bad conduct has an outsized influence on our society. And that athletes are actually punished less often and often less seriously than non-athletes for sexual violence. So that begs the question that Urban Meyer should have answered differently: What should we do about it?
What Can we Do about Sexual Violence in Athletes
We have to create environments that do not tolerate sexual violence in athletes. Sexual assaults are highly influenced by culture. And the athletic culture influences our larger culture. So it actually makes a great deal of sense to highly regulate sexual violence in athletes. Rather than protecting athletes, we must take steps to enforce consequences on athletes and their personnel every time. Even if the actor, such as Urban Meyer, was not directly involved in the sexual violence, we cannot tolerate any cover up or failure to act. To do so just continues a culture in which athletes get away with rape and other sex crimes. The media is part of this and how they address these issues matters.
We must give more than lip service to resolutions and programs designed to curb sexual violence. Following the 2014 discovery that athletic departments were overseeing sexual violence investigations, the NCAA adopted a resolution trying to address these issues. The resolution must be enforced for it to have any meaning. Likewise, the NFL’s program to address sexual violence among its players must do more than sit on the sidelines.
Until there is zero tolerance for sexual violence in athletics, all those armchair quarterbacks quibbling about what has happened and what may happen to Urban Meyer need some education in the prevalence of sexual violence in athletes and the huge influence it has on promoting sexual violence in our culture.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence from athletes, contact Koller Trial Law for a free consultation.