Partying, Football and Sexual Assault: An Unholy Trinity?

January 12th, 2016 | by Karen Gross
Partying, Football and Sexual Assault: An Unholy Trinity?
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Sexual Assault

A recent working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research in late December 2015 bears the title, “Campus Party Culture and Sexual Assault” and is written by Professor Jason M. Lindo et. al.  The Study has gotten a plethora of media attention because it links the intensity of partying on campuses to prominent DI football games. With the partying and drinking, especially when there are home games and/or rival or upset games, there is a sizable uptick in reported sexual assaults by students.  

This study worries me, although I appreciate the attention it is getting. I am concerned because I think people can and will misinterpret the Study and conclude erroneously that football games cause rape.  People will be led to see causation when there is none established. They will miss the real point of the study, namely that it is the partying culture that enables and encourages and perhaps even tacitly sanctions sexual assault.  It is the culture on campuses that needs to change as aptly addressed in a recent New York Times article that showcased campus programming for students on the meaning of consent.  The elimination of football programs is not the answer and will not solve the issues of rape on campus.

Here is a specific sentence from the Study that shows how easy it would be to link – falsely – football and rape among students. And, there are other similar sentences throughout the Study.  Note the very careful wording of this one sentence:  “In this paper, we aim to fill this gap [related to partying and sexual assault] in the literature by considering the effects of football games — which intensify partying among college students — on the incidence of rape at schools with Division 1 programs.”  (Emphasis added.) The Study authors could have been much clearer, diminishing the likelihood of misunderstanding among readers.  They certainly were clear in the Study’s title.

The attention the Study is getting taps into both our expectations and our criticisms of big time college football and the NCAA. The news media has written plenty about this past football season, the recent Bowl games and the Championship game.  The new movie Concussion focuses on physical injury in the sport of football but the Study points out the costs – in dollars – of each added rape, suggesting that the price of DI football is high in every sense of the word.  There are no shortages of other issues in college football including the question of who is actually paying for these expensive programs and could the dollars be better deployed elsewhere.  And, there are issues being raised about Guarantee games and whether they are wise from the perspective of the dollar-receiving institutions and their players.

Sexual Assault

But, the Study in reality is not about the flaws of college football itself.  The Study is about the partying that comes with football games and I suspect lots of other campus events like Rush Week and Homecoming and Spring Fling and Senior Week. We need a lot more data, and a study with a different emphasis, before we can say with conviction that there is a unique unholy trinity between football, partying and rape.

For me, the Study – when one reads it in its entirety rather than just excerpts — raises a host of questions, observations and concerns. But, the topic is a critically important one that will keep us thinking – as well we should.  Before turning to these issues with the Study, let me be abundantly clear about two points: First, the Study is not about the behavior of the athletes themselves; it is about the effects of the game of college football on the behavior of students at the institutions hosting these games.  Second, there is no justification for the outsized number of sexual assaults on America’s campuses; this behavior, which is not new, must stop.

Turning to the larger issues, start with this. The dataset used in the Study is incomplete.  That is because the Study relies on data reported to a federal database: the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). Many incidents of sexual assault are not, as we know, actually reported. That observation does not diminish the reported data but it sends up a red flag for me because the Study, then, is not observing or measuring the full spectrum of what is occurring on campuses.  Moreover, the Study is measuring partying based on football games and there can be many other reasons to party.  Those “other” partying triggers are not measured.  Think of it this way:  I see the Study as only a chapter in a book, not the whole book.

I also think that the Study will benefit from Peer Review, which it has not received yet.  I worry that the Study at various points conflates causation with correlation.  Spikes in sexual assaults related to other events on campus are not compared, and we do not know whether the rates determined in this Study are “high” if we don’t have comparisons. In other words, the spike in sexual assault is high compared to X.  What is X?  What happens during Rush Week?  What happens when a college basketball team is in the Final Four?  What occurs during pre-graduation week and first year Orientation?

Stacked

What the Study does show is that our campus culture is in need of repair. We have created – I assume not by design – a culture in which abuse (mostly of women) is too common. Look at what happened at St. Paul’s School as but one example of how a prestigious high school turned a blind eye to senior male students’ “salute” as part of the institutional tradition.  To change culture, you need to begin by acknowledging change is needed.  That’s just the first step.  I would hope the Study, correctly interpreted, could help do that.

How did we get into this mess?  There are no easy answers and certainly not ones that will come from a single study. Consider this: we have high school and college coaches and teachers and professors who cross the proverbial morality line with some regularity.  We need to worry about how we are our messaging to students.  Young people can smell hypocrisy from miles away. Cheating, sexual assault, drunkenness, and arrests – these are all visible to young people. Consider these examples, which have captured considerable public attention: Steve Sarkasian; David Ivey, Tyrone Mushatt. Then there is an Academic Advisor at Notre Dame who is alleged to have demanded that players have sex with her daughter.  You can’t make this stuff up.

We are not helping our students by not discussing – honestly – when and where violence is appropriate. We permit violence in war; we permit a kind of circumscribed violence (with referees) on a football field or a boxing ring or a hockey rink.  But, we can’t permit domestic violence or relationships of any kind that are grounded in the physical harm of another person. (Neither is psychic harm acceptable.)  Add to that the fact that we do not discuss with any regularity or consistency, as the above cited New York Times article note, what is consent.  It is not a simple issue.  

We also do not address whether sleeping with a comatose student, one who is so drunk she/he does not know who you are, is “good” sex.  Sleeping with a corpse-like person is hardly a reciprocal relationship.  I sense from my own experience as a former college president that we share way more with students about what not to do and relatively little about how to develop healthy relationships – whether those are romantic relationships, friendships or mentorships.

Sexual Assault (via MotherJones.com)

There is another issue that deserves attention that is not addressed in the Study and was not within its scope.  With the rise in sexual assault reporting post-football partying, was there a concomitant rise in convictions or sanctions for the students charged with violating the law or prescribed campus norms. What happened to the accused students?  Were they dismissed from the institutions?  Were they suspended?  Were they put into court-order programs?  Does it matter what race or gender they were in terms of punishment meted out, revealing some pattern of discrimination?  That latter point would hardly shock me.  

We know from other data that sanctioning for sexual assault on campus has been underutilized, and I suspect deeply inconsistent within a campus and among campuses. The Study data are a pathway into further investigation of this issue.  And, for me, all of this raises the question of whether how a sexual assault occurred impacts the punishment.  For instance, if the incidents occurred following a major football game upset, would the punishment be lessened?  Can you hear a wee “yipes” coming from me?

Despite the limitations of the Study and the false perception that it establishes an unholy trinity, we cannot hit the pause button in our effort to change campus culture and reflect on what contributes to sexual assault on campuses. Even without answers to the posited questions and concerns, we can have heightened awareness and some well thought through interventions and programs as we bide our time for more definitive results from the Study and other added studies into the way campus culture affects student behavior – negatively and perhaps in other situations, positively.



About Karen Gross
Karen Gross is the former President of Southern Vermont College, an NCAA DIII institution fielding 13 teams. She was the president of the college's Athletic Conference, the NECC. She also served on the NCAA DIII Presidents' Advisory Council. A lawyer by training, she represented an NFL quarterback (decades ago) and is a serious professional and college sports fan. She currently is senior counsel to a crisis management firm in DC where she specializes in education. A Red Sox fan, she knows a lot about losing and winning. Her son, now a professor, is a former NCAA Division I athlete.

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