Are Student Athletes More Likely to Commit Sexual Assault?

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An investigation found that Baylor University had mishandled sexual assault accusations against its football players.

By Kate Wheeling

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Then-Baylor head coach Art Briles looks on from the sidelines. (Photo: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

Last week, Kenneth W. Starr was stripped of his title as president of Baylor University after an independent investigation found that the university had mishandled sexual assault accusations against football players. Football head coach Art Briles was also fired as a result of the investigation.Starr, who will continue to serve as both chancellor and a law professor, gained notoriety as an independent counsel for his investigation of President Bill Clinton, the New York Timesreports:

Mr. Starr’s demotion delivered a twist to the biography of a man whose reputation was built on what many considered an overzealous pursuit of allegations of sexual transgressions by Mr. Clinton. Now he is being punished for leading an administration that, according to a report from an ostensibly independent investigator, looked the other way when Baylor football players were accused of sex crimes, and sometimes convicted of them.

The relationship between athletes and sexual assault is a decades-old discussion. Since at least the 1980s, high-profile rape cases involving famous athletes have led the press to speculate on whether players might be more prone to committing acts of sexual violence. A string of sexual assault allegations in recent years has ensured that college athletic programs and the athletes that populate them will remain in the spotlight. In the last two years alone, players from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Florida State University, and the University of Oregon have made headlines for assault allegations. More than 160 higher education institutions are under investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for sexual violence allegations. But are athletes actually more likely to commit sexual assaults, or are we just more likely to pay attention when they’re the ones accused of committing the crime?

One factor to consider is that sexual violence does not occur in a vacuum. Anthropological research suggests that, rather than a purely psychological- or biological-driven act, sexual assaults are also highly influenced by culture. Peggy Sanday, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, found that some societies are more prone to rape than others; tribal societies with higher levels of male dominance, sex segregation, and tolerance of interpersonal violence had higher rates of rape. In other words, some environments can encourage sexual aggression.

The recent investigation into Baylor concluded that university officials “created a cultural perception that football was above the rules.”

College athletics are highly sex segregated, extremely male dominated, and, at least in the case of some sports — football and hockey, for example — violent by design. While no university could be accused of explicitly encouraging sexual assault, several have been blamed for condoning such behaviors, or sweeping assault allegations under the rug. The recent investigation into Baylor, for example, concluded that university officials “created a cultural perception that football was above the rules.”

And the perceived lack of consequences for star athletes might embolden them to behave in sexually aggressive ways. Consider surveys that have found that between one in six and one in three men would be willing to “use force” to obtain sex from women as long as there were no consequences for their actions.

While members of sports teams — and other male-dominated groups like fraternities and the military — are indeed more likely to commit gang rapes than the average person, there are few conclusive studies to show that athletes are more likely to commit sex crimes. There is some evidence that not all athletes are equally likely to be violent, according to Laura Finley, a sociologist at Barry University. Finley told Wisconsin Public Radio that players of “power and performance sports” — football, hockey, wrestling, and basketball — commit violent crimes more often that their peers in sports like swimming or tennis. An analysis of National Football League players by Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight showed that, though the football stars displayed lower levels of domestic and sexual violence than the national average, the rate of domestic violence was still much higher than expected given their income bracket.

Without better data, it’s hard to say anything definitive on the matter. Even the oft-cited statistic that one in three sexual assaults on college campuses are carried out by athletes dates back not to a scientific study, but to a 1986 Philadelphia Daily Newsarticle. (One 1995 study did, however, find that male athletes were overrepresented in reports of sexual assault on campuses.) Literature reviews, which are usually useful for identifying patterns in the sea of conflicting single studies that science produces, are also unreliable here: One recent review found that the bulk of research on the subject was inconclusive; another, however, found higher rates of violence among student athletes.

We can at least say with certainty that universities have not been effective in handling the cases of sexual misconduct by athletes. A 2014 survey found that, in more than one-fifth of universities, the athletic department oversaw cases involving sexual assault allegations against athletes, prompting the National Collegiate Athletic Association to issue a resolution that athletic departments can only participate in, but never lead, investigations into such allegations. Still, the recent investigation at Baylor found that the university’s football program frequently dealt with sexual assault allegations internally.

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