by Stephanie Krehbiel, Executive Director
Exposing the Abusive Underbelly of College Athletic Departments
Last week, ESPN’s Outside the Lines did an investigative story on the culture of secrecy and self-protection around sexual abuse in the Michigan State University athletic department. While the story’s impetus was the heinous serial sexual abuse committed by physician Larry Nassar, much of it on the Michigan State campus, ESPN’s reporters found a widespread pattern of concealing sexual violence in the MSU athletic department. Among the many discoveries they made, one was the degree to which the athletic department contained and managed reports of sexual violence, without accountability from the rest of the university.
The insularity and secrecy that ESPN found at MSU is more common than we’d like to think. At Into Account, we work with athletes from departments at small, religious liberal arts schools who tell us versions of the same story: secrecy, insularity, and complaints of serious abuse being handled, or simply minimized and ignored, by unqualified athletic department personnel.
Public conversations about sexual assault and college athletics tend to focus on student athletes as perpetrators. What the Nassar trial has made apparent, however, is that abuse is systemic in athletic departments. When student athletes perpetrate abuse, it’s a symptom of a wider university and athletic culture. To address the problem in full, we also have to turn our attention to abuse as it is perpetrated and enabled by coaches, trainers, team doctors, and administrators.
Size Matters: But Not in the Way You Might Think
At large universities, athletics are big business, full of mass pageantry and ritualized playgrounds for the wealthy. (A fragile big business, though; most “Power Five” conference athletic departments are just breaking even, or operating at a loss.) At many small liberal arts colleges, however, athletic departments have a more direct relationship with the lifeblood of their colleges: they function as recruitment machines, and without them, some colleges wouldn’t have high enough enrollment numbers to stay open.
Predominantly white liberal arts schools also tend to treat athletic departments as their best hope for recruiting students of color, which makes athletes of color particularly vulnerable to experiencing college as a place where they’re treated like commodified bodies rather than like real students.
At its worst, this model creates small college athletic departments that operate as miniature fiefdoms, with little exchange or accountability between their personnel and the rest of the college’s faculty, staff, and administration. When that happens at a college in which athletes comprise 25 to 50 percent of the student body, an astonishing level of recruiting is in the hands of underpaid coaching staff, who all too often know little about the rest of the college. This is the perfect model to foment a coaching style that treats athletes’ academic commitments with indifference or hostility.
Faculty, for their part, are frustrated when athletics affect academic performance, particular when they can see academic potential in the students in question. Professors get annoyed by the recruiting power given to coaches.
Caught in the middle of all of this are student athletes. More than anyone else in this system, they bear the brunt of the unsettled codependency between academics and sports. In every role that I’ve occupied in higher education–fellow student, teaching assistant, instructor, and now, independent victims’ advocate–I’ve watched student athletes struggle with impossible choices. Piss off the professor who can fail you, or piss off the coach who can bench you? (Both, of course, can abuse you.)
Telling Athletes to “Toughen Up” Doesn’t Cut It
I’ve heard resistance to this analysis, in the form of paternalistic platitudes that help justify the existing system: We can’t coddle them. They’re just afraid to work hard. Learning how to make hard choices is part of growing up.
Those arguments are almost always based in some combination of unexamined privilege and ignorance. Of course, there are plenty of student athletes who aren’t particularly interested in being in college, and they are ill-served by a system that maintains the charade that they’re there to be students. But many college athletes are also good students, or want to be good students. Their ability to stay in school is often predicated on athletic scholarships that they risk if they don’t acquiesce to every demand of their coaches. They aren’t afraid of work.
What breaks my heart, as an advocate, is seeing how many student athletes are chronically stressed and exhausted by the competing pressures that are placed on them, to the point that it compromises their mental and physical health. That exhaustion can happen even when everyone they are encountering in the system is well-intentioned and on their side.
But so often, it’s worse than that, because this whole context I’ve just described is a draw for abusive individuals, and they often find their way into positions that put them in authority over young athletes. All of these factors are part of the context for the systemic abuse problems in small college athletic departments.
Let’s pause here, though. College athletic departments didn’t invent these problems wholesale. There are cultural factors underlying organized sports that perpetuate abuse, and it helps to understand what they are.
Athletic Departments Normalize Masculine Authority
Women coaches of men’s teams are rare to nonexistent; men coaching women is an established norm. (In 2016, U.S. News and World Report reported that women hold fewer than 23 percent of coaching positions in NCAA sports.) Masculine authority over women is entrenched, and resistance to that authority can be heavily penalized.
In a description of her team’s relationship with their sexually and emotionally abusive coach, one woman athlete describes this dynamic (quoted with permission from a human resources report, submitted and disregarded at a small, Mennonite college):
In the moment, it is hard to recognize the abuse that is occurring and even harder to realize there is a way out. In so many ways my experience with coaching abuse paralleled women’s experiences of domestic violence…Just as an abusive relationship, we were in denial that it was happening. We developed this denial and learned helplessness out of immense fear, pressure, intimidation and manipulation. We were fearful of losing our scholarships or losing the respect of other teammates. We were pressured to succeed and keep a positive representation of our program and school. But most of all we were intimidated and manipulated to keep silent.
…Our experiences in athletics subconsciously teach us how we should relate to male authority. Consequently, this silence causes us to accept abusive male power and privilege not only on the soccer field, but also in our future workplaces, churches, dating relationships and marriages.
As a profession, coaching is similar to medicine and the ministry in the draw that it holds for abusive and predatory individuals. This is not a reason for treating all coaches with automatic suspicion, but it is certainly an argument for exercising great care in the hiring of coaching staff and in the subsequent evaluation of their work.
(And none of this is to say that women coaches can’t be abusive, even sexually abusive. It happens, and when it does, it can be devastating in ways that are particular to woman-perpetrated abuse in a male-dominated context. In athletics, as in most arenas of society, male perpetrators are far more common.)
The Physicality of Sports Provides Ample Opportunities for Grooming and Violation
Coaches have to have conversations with athletes about their bodies. Even within the boundaries of completely appropriate, non-creepy coaching behavior, there’s a level of physicality and access that many people don’t grant to anyone but intimate partners. An athlete’s body is their instrument: hips, legs, butt, chest, all of it. A coach or trainer who doesn’t respect or care about boundaries, or who actively seeks to exploit the situation, can do some truly awful things with that. Abuse usually starts with boundary testing: an exploratory touch here, an ambiguous but potentially sexual comment there, an “accidental” intimate touch that starts happening too often to be accidental.
Given that some level of physical contact is normalized and sometimes even necessary in such relationships, student athletes are particularly susceptible to second-guessing themselves when something feels wrong.
Misogyny Is Part of the Established Language of Athletic Motivation and Pain Tolerance
Athletes don’t want to be labeled as “soft,” and softness is coded as feminine. The ever-encroaching threat, the thing many athletes are taunted with, is the shame of femininity. Masculinity is forever in crisis. There’s never enough manliness to go around, it seems. Misogynist language around physical pain and endurance creates a strong incentive to play through injury-related pain. It is, of course, the height of masculine arrogance to suggest that there’s something inherently female about a low pain tolerance, but when has stupidity ever been an impediment to patriarchy?
Shaming players into playing through injury is, in fact, abuse, and it’s abuse with frequently life-altering consequences. When that shaming comes in the form of misogynist insults, the effects of that abuse extend to everyone within earshot.
Athletes who are men are consistently disciplined with the suggestion that they’re acting like women. Athletes who are women are never going to get it right, when it comes to gender expression; they’re punished for masculinity and femininity. Athletes who are nonbinary or trans are dealing with a rigidly gendered system that subjects them to violence regardless of how they embody their gender.
None of this is an accident. Historically speaking, organized sports in Europe and North America came about in large part because of a widespread fear, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries especially, that boys who spent too much time around women would become dangerously feminine, which might in turn lead to them having sex with each other. I certainly don’t want to believe that organized athletics have to perpetuate misogyny and homophobia, but there’s no arguing with the historical roots of the gendered violence in the current system.
Athletics Reflect and Perpetuate the Structural Racism of Society
And like so many settings in which this is the case, organized sports also provide the raw material for narratives about the triumphs of interracial cooperation. White people use those narratives to fight back against anti-racist critique, particularly when they have something to lose by taking the critique seriously. As the past year of Black-led NFL protests has vividly demonstrated, the worst animosity generated by anti-racist resistance tends to be directed towards athletes of color themselves. That’s as true in collegiate sports as it is in professional athletics.
From the Power Five conferences to liberal arts colleges, college athletics is indisputably a system that relies on the bodies of student athletes of color for capital, whether it comes in the form of expensive tickets sales and sponsorships or enrollment and diversity numbers. Those student athletes are then subordinates in a system that entrusts their well-being to mostly white coaches and administrators. If they voice critique of the system, or their treatment within it, at some point they will almost certainly be labelled as ungrateful. If there is one thing that white consumers of college sports enjoy seeing in student athletes of color, it’s gratitude. That expectation of gratitude is an abuser’s dream setup.
Athletics Demand Players Keep Problems In-House
Athletics have a culturally-enshrined (and again, male-dominated, white-dominated) hierarchy that is usually more familiar to student athletes than the bureaucratic accountability structures of a college or university. Most college athletes already have years of experience in sports subcultures, whether through school, club sports, or both. Athletes absorb the implicit and often explicit message that the best approach to problems related to their athletic lives is to work within the rules of that hierarchy, and that looking for help outside of the athletic department’s seemingly self-contained structure is a betrayal. Title IX has ensured that women have access to organized sports, and yet, ironically, athletes often aren’t aware that Title IX also protects them from gender-based violence and discrimination on the field.
Toppling the Sacred Cow – Survivors Take On Athletics
I don’t think this system is going to last, and the reason I don’t think it’s going to last is that more and more, student athletes themselves are pulling off the veil. They’re finding each other. They’re finding advocacy networks and organizations like ours. They’re organizing. I wish student athletes didn’t have to be activists just to protect themselves, but I’m inspired by what I see in the athletes we work with.
Don’t think of that incredible scene in a Lansing courtroom this month, that fierce parade of athletes and survivors speaking their truth to a predatory doctor and a negligent university, as an aberration. Think of it as a harbinger. There will be more to come.