Sexual harassment in athletics breaks the trust

Mary Lon Santovec

Colleges and universities have an obligation to act when they know, knew or should have known that sexual harassment has occurred,” said Dr. Paula Rudolph, Title IX and sexual harassment officer at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “Schools have to act affirmatively to respond to complaints, but at the same time, protect the privacy of the complainant.”

At the 2003 NCAA Title IX Seminar held in San Diego in April, Rudolph described an incident where a male professor seduced and then rejected a female student. When she had trouble eating, sleeping and studying, her parents sued the school and won, putting the school on notice.

“Whenever anybody is believed to be in a position to do something about sexual harassment, they [now] will do something about it,” she said.

An educational perspective

In an academic classroom, a student can be moved to another section, away from a lecherous TA. Even grad students can recruit a faculty member from another campus to sit on their thesis or dissertation committees.

But not in athletics. “You can’t do this with athletes on a team,” said Rudolph. “My toughest cases are these.”

When she came to UC-Santa Barbara in 1992, Rudolph was asked if there would be enough work to keep her busy. The first year alone, the year following the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, she handled 65 complaints. Since then she has resolved more than 650 complaints of sexual harassment at the school.

She approaches each incident as an educator. “My office philosophy is to help people change their behavior,” she explained, not to stigmatize or punish, but to get the harassment to stop and not recur. Her goal is to help the complainant become whole again and feel comfortable participating on the team or attending class. When people are distressed, it affects not only them but the entire educational environment.

“Confidentiality is the hardest issue for me,” admitted Rudolph. It’s difficult to get the complainant to talk about the incident or the harasser. She said 75% of complainants are terrified to confront their offenders.

Having a centralized office for complaints improves consistency across campus and ensures that all complaints receive consistent and fair treatment.

Athletes and harassment

The coach/athlete relationship is the most insidious violation that can occur in the athletic department because it breaks the psychological trust, she said.

Values in sports make it hard for complainants to come forward. Obedience to the coach is highly valued.

Complainants can be victimized and may be reluctant to say anything. Even after they do, it may take six months or more for their complaint to wind its way through the bureaucratic maze that’s reflective of many large schools’ administrations. During that time, the complaint can be trivialized. The athlete can be seen as a complainer to her peers and even to other coaches.

Values in sports make it hard for complainants to speak up, as Rudolph explained in a handout:

1. Loyalty is valued in family-like structures such as sports. Much like sexual abuse in the family, telling someone about it breaks the code of silence.

2. Media attention is focused on sports when things go badly or well. College athletes are public figures, getting far more media attention than people or events in physics or geography. This intense attention means ensuring confidentiality is difficult.

3. Sports is seen as a place of high morals and clean living. Harassment there is especially incongruous.

4. Exposing incidents of sexual harassment or abuse in sports can destroy personal, team or even national identities. More is at stake than a personal reputation.

5. Confidentiality is an issue. Of the few athletes who lodged complaints of sexual harassment, even fewer were satisfied with the outcome, according to a 1996 Canadian survey. This leads to the attitude of, “Why should I complain? Nothing ever gets done.” Often harassment ends quietly and discretely, such as an assistant coach agreeing to resign after confronted with complaints, once it is identified.

6. Retaliation by coaches can be easy and subtle. Reduced playing time and loss of status on the team are frequent methods of retaliation. An athletic department needs a retaliation clause in its sexual harassment policy, even if the campus policy lacks one.

7. Most females experience athletics in a male-defined and male-dominated way. Because sports is male-dominated and the number of female head coaches drops every year, female athletes are at a systematic disadvantage.

8. Physical and/or social isolation of the athlete is common in nearly all harassing situations. Athletes and coaches spend a lot of time together. But an athlete who files a harassment complaint against her coach can lose playing time, love or attention and even her scholarship.

A relationships between two members of the same team can affect the team’s chemistry, whether it’s temporary or permanent. A bad ending can lead to stalking.

9. Male coaches tend to use a gendered type of putdown and insult to female athletes, often as a form of motivation. The line between motivating and harassing may become unclear. If the teasing is due to sexual orientation, it can be construed as sexual harassment.

Types of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as “unwelcome behavior of a sexual or romantic nature that makes someone feel uncomfortable, threatened or anxious in their work, learning or sports environment.” It can be:

* Quid pro quo

* Hostile and intimidating environment, including unwanted touching, stalking, verbal, physical, written or visual activities

* Preferential treatment/favoritism

* Third-party complaints, when the team is jeopardized by a consensual relationship that can sexualize the climate by romantic or sexual behavior

* Contra-power harassment, in which students harass coaches, faculty and staff. E-mail can make harassment anonymous and almost impossible to trace from a public access place

* Other harassment: during recruiting visits, by trainers and other staff, academic advisors or tutors

Handling a complaint

When an athlete complains that a coach is sexually harassing her, handling the problem requires a delicate touch. Rudolph offered these tips:

* Take the report seriously. You don’t know whether the complaint has merit until you’ve investigated. Meantime, provide assurance that the complaint is being taken seriously and will receive a prompt response.

* Listen and sympathize, but don’t judge. Listen to the individual and sympathize with her. But don’t make any judgment or commitment on the allegations or how the investigation will be conducted. Assure the individual that the school takes sexual harassment seriously and will not tolerate it.

* Don’t delay. If your job doesn’t include processing sexual harassment complaints, tell her whose job it is. Offer to help her contact that person. If she isn’t immediately available, tell the athlete you will follow through immediately. Then do it.

Delays of even a few days can slow investigations and signal the athlete that the school is not taking the complaint or problem seriously, which could affect a lawsuit.

* Respond to concerns. If the athlete is fearful about retaliation or further harassment, assure her that the school will do everything in its power to ensure confidentiality. But don’t make promises the school can’t keep.

If it’s your job to process or investigate complaints, answer any questions the athlete may have about the complaint process that will not jeopardize the investigation. If you’re not the point person, assure the athlete that the appropriate administrator will answer her questions.

* Document everything. Write a detailed summary of the interview. Include your observations of the athlete’s demeanor: Was she fearful, angry, in tears or calm? Relay it to the administrator in charge of the investigation.

* Follow up on the complaint. Check with the athlete the next day to see that she is getting help.

* Avoid using dangerous words, including:

“It’s just teasing … no big deal.”

“He puts his arms around everyone.”

“It’s a matter of hormones. We can’t control that.”

“If we had to discipline every student who used bad language, we’d never get anything done.”

“Oh well, boys will be boys.”

“You must have wanted it or you’d have told him no.”

“It’s just a prank that got out of hand.”

“I know he didn’t mean anything like that.”

“We’ve never had a complaint, so we don’t have a problem.”

“It’s just a joke. Lighten up.”

“You need to learn to handle these things.”

Contact her at (805) 893-2546;

COPYRIGHT 2003 Women in Higher Education

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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