On Wednesday Nov. 19, a widely circulated Rolling Stone article told the story of a University of Virginia student’s brutal gang rape in a fraternity house. On Wednesday Nov. 19, the NBA suspended the Hornet’s Jeff Taylor for 24 games after he pleaded guilty to hitting and shoving a woman in a hotel hallway.
Unrelated? Superficially, yes, but the similarities between these cases, and others like them, reveal a hard, glaring truth about the functioning of our society: protecting business is more important than protecting people.
Yes, these cases serve as terrible reminders of the violence against women that plagues our culture, but the sad fact is that incidents like these are perpetrated everyday against women in all walks of life – that’s nothing new. But, side-by-side comparison of these issues reveal another sinister aspect altogether.
Sexual assault is not just a UVA problem, or even a college campus problem in general – it’s a problem in broader society. And domestic violence is not just an NBA issue, or only a professional sports issue, but something that persists at every level in our world. But what makes sexual assault on college campuses and domestic abuse in pro sports so problematic is the way they are handled by the supervising institutions.
The Ray Rice case is a stark example. As is now well known, in February Rice punched his wife in an elevator in Atlantic City, leaving her unconscious. A recap of the NFL’s handling of the case: after Rice was indicted and entered a pretrial intervention program to avoid jail time, the league suspended him for two games on July 24. Just three weeks later, the league suspended Cowboys’ Orlando Scandrick for four games for failing a drug test. Only after public outcry over the soft stance did NFL commissioner Roger Goodell implement a new domestic violence policy that would result in a minimum six-game suspension for domestic violence charges, although this new policy didn’t retroactively apply to Rice. Then, in September, during the first week of the NFL season, TMZ published the video from inside the elevator showing the beating. Faced with the graphic images, the Ravens cut Rice from the team after vehemently defending his character for months, and the NFL suspended him indefinitely. After filing an appeal, Rice’s suspension was overturned on Nov. 28 and he is now a free agent, eligible to sign with a team.
In the 2012 incident at UVA described by Rolling Stone, seven members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity gang-raped a college freshman. The victim’s friends, fearful of the social backlash, discouraged her from reporting the assault. When she finally did approach the administration at the end of her freshman year, Dean Nicole Eramo, head of UVA’s Sexual Misconduct Board, did not encourage her to go to the police and offered her the option to file a complaint with the board. Meanwhile, as she decided how to proceed, the University did not issue any warning to the UVA community of the alleged gang rape in an on-campus fraternity house. In one of several other cases described in the article, a three-time sexual offender was suspended for only one year by the UVA Sexual Misconduct board.
According to the article, since 1998, 183 UVA students have been expelled for honor-code violations such as stealing or plagiarizing. Not a single student has ever been expelled for sexual assault. In the NFL, players are regularly suspended for marijuana use (the policy on drug use mandates fines and suspension of up to 10 games for repeat offenders). Just this season Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns missed 10 games — shortened from 16 games — for testing positive for marijuana, while the Jaguars’ Greg Hardy continued to train and compete in games even after he was found guilty of assaulting his ex-girlfriend.
After the Rolling Stone article was published, UVA President Theresa Sullivan suspended all fraternity activities until January 9. After the Hornet’s Jeff Taylor pleaded guilty, he was suspended for 24 games by the NBA. These suspensions are the epitome of arbitrary and reflect not a desire to change the system in a meaningful way, but to appear as if something is being done.
The disturbing trend of these institutions dispensing punishments and arbitrary suspensions that do not fit the crime is only of many similarities in the way universities and professional sport leagues like such as the NFL and NBA handle their dirty laundry.
After the NFL received harsh criticism for its mishandling of Ray Rice’s case, Goodell hired former FBI director Robert Mueller to conduct an independent investigation — independently — into the league’s handling of the affair. Goodell either didn’t understand the meaning of independent or, more likely, didn’t care. Mueller’s firm’s close ties with the NFL, which include a former WilmerHale firm attorney now serving as in-house counsel for the league, resulted in an investigation that was conflicted from start. The investigation is still on-going with no announced timetable for its completion.
After the Rolling Stone article came out, UVA rector George Martin announced that Mark Filip, a partner with the Kirkland and Ellis firm, would lead the review of the university’s handling of sexual assault. The rector’s statement noted that Filip is a former prosecutor, federal judge and deputy attorney general of the United States, but failed to mention that he is also a brother in Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity accused in the Rolling Stone article. Palm, meet face.
On Nov. 21, Filip was removed from the investigation by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who said “This situation is too serious to allow anything to undermine confidence in the objectivity and independence of this review.”
Universities often discourage, or at least fail to encourage, victims of sexual assault from bringing their accusations to the police, preferring instead to handle cases in front of disciplinary boards, such as the Sexual Misconduct Board, as is the case at UVA. In this way, universities can control everything from the hearing to the punishment, while claiming they are protecting the best interests of all their students. This strategy also grants them the possibility of shielding both the proceedings and the accused from public view under the guise of confidentiality. Because of this, few sexual assault complaints at universities result in criminal charges. In fact, according to national statistics, of the estimated 1 in 5 women who are sexually assaulted in college, less than 10 percent report it to the police.
Similarly, in the NFL and the NBA, few domestic abuse incidents result in charges being pressed or any significant legal punishment. As cases such as the recently reported incident involving domestic abuse by Miami Dolphins players, victims are often either incentivized or coerced into not pressing charges for fear of losing their family or personal financial security. In other cases, the accused buy the best legal representation money can buy, enter diversion programs, and avoid jail time. This recent article in USA Today provides more details on the NFL’s leniency in its handling of domestic abuse cases.
Standard disclaimer: many fraternity members and pro athletes are upstanding citizens and perfectly respectful of women. Further, the criminalization of fraternities and pro athletes can be partially fueled by the “bad news sells” media culture. However, to ignore the fact that a level of misogynistic culture does permeate at least some aspects of these all-male brotherhoods and teams would be irresponsible. In atmospheres where masculinity reigns supreme, it’s not all that surprising that they are associated, fairly or not, with the objectification of women.
These group identities, forged from collective work, pain and strength, are of value to their larger institutions, that is, until they threaten their reputations. Image is everything. UVA, the NBA, the NFL and other professional sports leagues and universities rely on their polished reputations to bring in revenue.
Fraternities are a huge draw for universities, especially UVA. Thirty percent of students are involved in Greek life, and it plays an even larger role in the social life of the university. It’s something that tour guides tout to prospective students as evidence of a thriving undergraduate community and an implicit promise of a wild social life. The university values this appeal. It’s not rocket science: More applicants, more prestige, more resources at the University’s disposal.
The NBA and the NFL count on their players to draw fans and viewers for what are by far the most popular sports in America. Tarnishing their carefully crafted images directly impacts these leagues, particularly as they increasingly reach out to women to grow their fan bases. According to the Rolling Stone article, when the victim asked why rape statistics about UVA were so hard to find, a UVA administrator told her that it was because no parent wants their child to go to the “rape school.” When the video of Ray Rice surfaced the Ravens offered jersey exchanges to fans at no cost. As the NFL gets a percentage of all revenue made from jersey sales, and an estimated 7,000 fans traded in their jerseys, the league no doubt took a short-term loss from this, as well as potentially from more significant long-term losses in ticket sales, advertisements and sponsorships due to the league’s damaged image.
How can we expect institutions to act in the name of justice if they are primarily acting to protect their revenue stream? The case of UVA is egregious, but not unique. According to S. Daniel Carter, a former director of public policy for the advocacy group Clery Center for Security on Campus quoted in the Rolling Stone article, UVA’s problems are likely not much worse than other schools; in fact, they could be the norm. In fact, there are 85 other universities under federal review for their handling of sexual assault under Title IX, and of those 85, 12 — including UVA — are under a more intense investigation due to concerns about “deep-rooted” issues at the university. The case of Ray Rice caused an exceptional outcry because of the graphic video footage, but that situation was also not extraordinary. We do not know for sure the frequency with which some pro athletes abuse women in their lives, because the leagues that profit from their athletic abilities are so adept at keeping these dirty little secrets hidden. All for what? To make an extra couple million dollars?
Fair and impartial action is impossible when the decision-makers are holding a gavel with one hand and calculating potential profit-loss with the other. Instead, we must use the instruments of justice already in place. The NFL and NBA and other sports leagues should not be taking away athletes’ playing time as punishment for domestic assault. These players should answer for their crimes in the court of law. The University of Virginia and other U.S. colleges should not be adjudicating felony sexual assault cases in front of disciplinary boards, they should be protecting their students. Those accused should stand trial as mandated by the constitution.
As long as these institutions continue to act as arbiters, justice will be forced to continue chalking one up in the loss column.
Time and again, we see examples of money trumping morality in our society. But when we see it in our universities, our beacons of education and enlightenment, and in our sports, the leagues that simultaneously distract us from the present and connect us to our past, it’s not just the sting of greedy hypocrisy we feel, it’s betrayal.
The same betrayal that’s undoubtedly felt all too sharply by the survivors of sexual assault and physical abuse when they see their perpetrators walk away with what amounts to a slap on the wrist.
Laura Wagner is a senior in the College.