Stories of sexual abuse and assault continually emerge from the world of college athletics. Heinous acts committed by people in positions of authority, such as Larry Nasser, Jerry Sandusky, and Richard Strauss, have come to light in recent years. In the news, we see countless examples of sexual assault by individual athletes at schools across the country. The consequences for offenders vary greatly because of cover-ups, lax investigations, and special treatment for athletes. Part of the problem is that the people who have a responsibility to report allegations of sexual assault, such as coaches, often fail to do so. Unfortunately, a forthcoming policy change is likely to make the situation worse.
On May 6, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released a new set of regulations regarding sexual assault under Title IX, the law governing gender discrimination at federally-funded institutions. The revised guidelines are set to go into effect August 14. As a scholar who has been writing about Title IX for over a decade, I explain how the proposed changes regarding mandatory reporting are likely to affect the culture of college sports and campus communities more broadly. This analysis is based on what we know from past incidents of and research on sexual assault and harassment committed by coaches, student-athletes, and other athletic department personnel.
Under Title IX guidelines, school employees with a duty to report allegations of sexual assault, domestic violence, and similar crimes are known as “responsible employees,” a concept similar to that of a mandatory reporter of child abuse and negligence. Current regulations designate nearly all university employees, with the exception of counseling professionals and ministry, responsible employees. The new regulations, however, will allow schools to significantly reduce the number of mandatory reporters on campus by excluding coaches, athletics directors, and other athletics personnel, as well as faculty and some staff. This change is dangerous and philosophically inconsistent with the concept of a mandatory reporter. Rather than narrowing the scope of those responsible, regulations should expand the circle of people around a victim who are able to recognize or report abuse. Additionally, these changes contradict student services and conduct policies which aim to reinforce the message that all community members play a role in supporting victims of sexual assault and building safer campuses.
First, the obvious issue with the new guidelines is that having fewer “responsible employees” will likely lead to fewer reports. Student are already wary of reporting sexual assaults, as they are typically underreported on and off campuses. Given that many athletics personnel, who are currently deemed responsible employees, have failed to report sexual assault allegations in the past, it is unlikely the situation will improve under the new guidelines.
We have ample evidence of the horrific consequences that occur when coaches do not report abuse. For example, countless victims could have been spared the abuse of Larry Nasser if the coaches who were first told about his assaults on athletes at Michigan State had actually reported it. A similar case exists with Richard Strauss at Ohio State, which recently announced an initial settlement with 350 former members of the OSU community because of his abuse.
Collecting data about campus sexual assault is notoriously difficult. However, a substantial portion of sexual assault currently goes unreported. This is important, because campus rapists can be repeat offenders. An early study found that 60 percent of campus rapists committed more than one rape, while a 2015 study reported a more modest 25 percent. Regardless, cases of sexual assault could have been prevented if responsible employees had done their duty by reporting sexual assault allegations. For example, consider the case of Erica Kinsman, who found out during her ordeal that she was not Jameis Winston’s only victim at Florida State. Or consider any number of the women suing Baylor University where, it has been revealed, covering up assault committed by football players was systemic.
Given the above examples, in which perpetrators often went years without being punished, or were never punished at all, an observer may wonder why the new, less-strict Title IX reporting changes really matter. First, in order to create a climate of shared responsibility toward maintaining student health and safety on campus, it is symbolically important to include athletics personnel in the list of employees responsible for reporting abuse. Second, these changes are being implemented at a time when schools are finally—nearly 10 years after the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter that clarified schools’ responsibilities regarding sexual assault—settling into best practices, including rolling out training to all personnel. At this point, we have not had time to see the effects of better, more concerted institutional efforts at addressing campus sexual violence. Finally, we have not effectively assessed the deterring effect of lawsuits with large payouts or settlements. Although individuals such as Winston and Head Coach Jimbo Fisher were not personally held responsible, Florida State as an institution was—in addition to millions of dollars to fight the lawsuit brought by Kinsman, the school eventually paid out nearly a million dollars in a settlement to her and her lawyers. In other cases, such as at Baylor, individuals have experienced some level of accountability, as the head football coach, Art Briles, was fired (although with a healthy severance package) and has yet to coach again at the college level. At the very least, lawsuits have led to public reviews and revisions of Title IX policies and procedures on campuses, which results in more protections for victims.
The proposed changes to sexual assault reporting responsibilities reinforces an unfortunate norm that absolves coaches from responsibility to the university at large. Instead of viewing coaches as contributing members of an educational community, the new policy changes further position them as people hired to recruit athletes and get wins.
Exempting more people from reporting sexual assault is not the way to make campuses safer. Studies and investigations show that athletes commit sexual violence at a greater rate than their non-athlete peers. Coaches (including assistant coaches and other team personnel) are likely to be the people who hear about these crimes. With the forthcoming policy changes, the Department of Education is giving coaches latitude to handle sexual assault reports however they choose, rather than reporting them to the proper authorities. The people protected by these rule changes are those who are not going to be held responsible for sexual assault and those that can now legally ignore those crimes.
In a final point, it is important to note that schools will not necessarily be required to remove coaches from the list of mandatory reporters, and pending lawsuits against DeVos and the DOE means that the rules themselves, along with the date of enactment, are uncertain. In other words, schools can (and should) continue to designate coaches and other athletics staff as mandatory reporters. Ultimately, doing so can serve as an important step in creating an environment in which everyone on campus has a stake in ensuring not just that sexual assault offenders are punished, but that sexual assaults are prevented in the first place.
Kristine Newhall is an assistant professor of Kinesiology at SUNY Cortland where she teaches courses in sports ethics and sport and sexuality. Her research interests focus broadly on the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender in contemporary and 20th century sports and fitness cultures. Current projects include athletes’ coming out narratives; the history of women’s sports spaces; applications of Title IX; sexual violence and intercollegiate athletes; and trans policies and representations.