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.