Action Project

Changing the playbook: Coaches must bear burden of sexual assault prevention education, advocates say

Programs like Coaching Boys into Men push athletic department leaders to fight sexual violence

Athletes involved in groups like We're Better Than That are working to create a safe campus climate.

Image By: Katie Scheidt

In December 2016, when 10 members of the Minnesota football team were indefinitely suspended in connection to an alleged gang rape following the team’s season-opener, it took less than 48 hours for the rest of the team to announce a boycott of all football activities, including the Holiday Bowl.

It wasn’t until two days later, amid intense public pressure and with the release of a damning, 80-page report of the university’s investigation, that the team ultimately backed down from its boycott.

The Golden Gophers would play in the Holiday Bowl, to the delight of their fans, but the damage was done. The message was sent. The players had chosen to side with their teammates at the risk of normalizing sexual violence.

The Minnesota football case was a microcosm of many of the issues surrounding athletics and sexual violence. Most profoundly evident in both the disturbing reports of the incident and in the boycott itself was the potential danger of that close-knit, familial bond among teammates. Jessica Luther, author of “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape,” says that when that team mentality goes unsupervised, it can have horrifying consequences.

“[It’s] an incredibly close-knit group of men, which is good for those spaces to exist,” Luther said. “At the same time, we often see particular issues that come out of them when they remain unchecked … something like 40 percent [of cases studied in her book] involve multiple perpetrators, which is a super high percentage for gang rape.”

It isn’t just a familial bond between teammates that leads athletes to sexual violence, though. A 2016 study by Jennifer McGovern and Patrick Murray found that student-athletes scored lower on a test of understanding sexual consent than the general college population. While the results were not statistically significant, the difference was there, across all demographic divisions.

Luther said that the bulk of the blame for that lack of knowledge should land squarely on the shoulders of coaches and administrators in the athletic departments. According to her, the college athletics system is set up to encourage turning a blind eye to sexual violence in favor of on-field performance.

“For a lot of people, we don't trust the people in charge to do the right work, we don’t trust them to do the preventative education,” Luther said. “The system itself, the way it's set up, doesn't encourage that. It encourages you to exploit these players for what they can do for you on the field, which in turn is good for your job security and good for your pocket book.”

In an effort to combat this lack of education, FUTURES Without Violence, a 35-year old organization dedicated to preventing violence against women and girls, crafted the Coaching Boys into Men program in 2001. CBIM provides coaches with a “playbook” on how to talk about sexual assault and empowers them to use their influence to teach their athletes about healthy relationships and effective bystander behavior.

The impact that the program had was swift and noticeable. In a 2012 study, Elizabeth Miller found a statistically significant increase among athletes that received CBIM in both knowledge of abusive behaviors and intentions to intervene. In schools where the program was implemented, Miller saw a decrease in the number of incidents of violence compared to schools that did not receive the program.

“We've realized that coaches have such an incredible impact and influence on young men's lives,” Yesenia Gorbea, a senior program specialist with FUTURES, said. “That’s the number one protective factor in terms of the effectiveness of the program.”

Through the program’s playbook, CBIM has harnessed the team mentality that often leads to violence and flipped the script, pushing student-athletes to teach one another and intervene when they see dangerous behavior.

“Another protective factor that is really critical is the team in and of itself, being similar to a family system,” Gorbea said. “They’re more likely to intervene because they are going through this experience together. So leveraging the power of a team is also really critical.”

Gorbea added that giving student-athletes the tools to educate each other is crucial to spreading awareness and mitigating sexual violence. That’s what makes groups like We’re Better Than That, a student organization at UW-Madison that seeks to bring men—including those in athletics—into the conversation about sexual violence, so important.

We’re Better Than That hosts workshops and coordinates with other student-athlete organizations to give athletes a space for healthy discourse on prevention and awareness of sexual violence. Grace Wold, Vice President of We’re Better Than That and member of the UW swim and dive team, said that the athlete-to-athlete discussion they provide can be remarkably effective.

“The fact that other athletes are hosting these workshops and being in front and talking with them, it makes it more relatable,” Wold said. “I think it’s really powerful.”

She added that student-athletes carry a lot of social capital that they can use to educate other non-athletes on campus.

“Especially on this campus, [athletes] are empowered leaders,” Wold said. “They’re people who care about their fellow Badgers and they want to make changes on campus towards that difference.”

Luther echoed all the same sentiments about the influence that players can have at a school like UW.

“They have a certain status on campus that other students just don’t have,” she said. “Those guys have literally the most recognizable faces on campus, more so than almost anyone, and so students listen to them, care about what they have to say.”

But while she acknowledges the potential for change from within the student-athlete community, Luther firmly believes that to make a lasting improvement in the athletic social sphere, change has to come from the people at the top.

“If we are paying attention and we are trying to respond, it often falls very much on them, the accountability of that single individual,” she said. “And not that that's not important, but I think it is important to always be asking about who at the top of the chain is making bad choices.”

With the constant cycling of athletes in and out of the system year-to-year, it’s too dangerous to rely on individual student-athletes to create a paradigm shift in the culture of college athletics. To make an active change in the culture of sexual violence, coaches, athletic directors and other administrators have to take up the mantle.

“If we're ever gonna fix this, it's not gonna be about one individual case,” Luther said.

“If we're going to do the preventative work, it’s going to come from the people who don’t leave every four years.”

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