April 27, 2017
NPR published an article by Amy Held this past Saturday entitled “Indiana University Bars Applicants With Sexual Violence History From Competition.” In this piece, Held details Indiana University’s new policy, designed by Athletic Director Fred Glass, which prohibits perpetrators of sexual violence from competing in athletics at Indiana and requires coaches to perform thorough background checks on prospective student athletes at Indiana U. The policy is primarily an attempt to prevent students who might be sexually violent from ever enrolling at Indiana University in the first place.
Prominent student athletes, specifically those who are male and at Division I ‘Big Ten’ universities, have often been exempt from codes of conduct to which other students are expected to adhere. Time and time again, stories surface about academic leniency and, most frequently, sexual violence scandals that the school had buried or forgiven in order to secure the advantage that the athlete offers the sports team. Division I schools promote a strong sports culture that enhances the identity of the institution and has several spillover benefits, including revenue, campus spirit and institutional pride that comes from winning and ranking well.
Every few months it seems that a story bubbles up about an athlete who sexually assaulted a student who had her claims silenced, was not taken seriously despite evidence or was threatened by members of the campus community. Even more shocking than the atrocities committed is the willingness of the institution to forgive crimes of sexual violence in order to secure their own interests. This kind of news sprouts up so often that it begins to feel run-of-the-mill, which is obviously heinous. But not everybody wants to allow high-profile student athletes to remain untouchable.
Members of campus communities, journalists and civilians protest each of these individual incidents, but institutional reforms to prevent and punish this kind of behavior do not always follow. While there have been improvements within specific universities and conferences, Glass’s new plan for Indiana is a particularly bold step in the right direction, not just a formal apology to quell complaints of unfairness.
The IndyStar published a full copy of the new policy in their article concerning its passage, which was approved by Indiana’s Faculty Athletics Committee on April 12th. The policy is short but full of new requirements as opposed to flowery language about ‘reaffirming commitments.’ The gist of the policy is exactly as Held describes it in her NPR piece. Upon reading the actual policy, the part that stands out to me the most is its focus on prevention. The policy is heavily geared toward a more serious vetting of recruits which aims to prevent potential sexual offenders from attending or competing at Indiana University in the first place. These new methods of prevention include more stringent, mandatory background checks, which involve interviewing the student along with their close friends and family, conducting an internet search and specifically asking about previous arrests and accusations (IndyStar). This demonstrates a concrete new commitment to preventing sexual violence at IU before somebody gets hurt, because even if justice is served to the perpetrator, a sexual assault cannot be undone. That seems to be the underlying tone of this policy: prevention, as opposed to apologies later.
This new policy really does seem effective to me. It creates a new standard of preventing potential assaulters from entering campus ahead of time which implies that, to Indiana University, preventing an assault is more important than securing a star player, and I really believe that this is the key concept for dismantling the superpower that student athletes have where they are not held accountable for their actions. Of course, tackling the societal circumstances that make room for so many sexual assaults is a larger issue than policy. But policy change is certainly in that scope. Universities need to take a stronger stand in prioritizing student safety over sports pride or revenue and, by ensuring that prospective student athletes aren’t predisposed to sexual violence, that is what Indiana’s University’s new policy is designed to do.
Critics of this policy will say, and probably already have said, that it is going to prevent talented and qualified athletes from attending Indiana and bringing it to glory. But the claim that this policy is overkill and will end up detracting from Indiana’s athletic esteem is a re-articulation of the skewed values that allow athletes to get away with things that they should not in the first place. It is the same distorted priorities that prompt institutions to pardon student athletes who commit atrocities. These criticisms are a large part of why this new policy is so important. It is an institutional stand against the prioritization of sports over the safety and sanctity of the institution.
One of the most important aspects of the passage of this policy is the fact that it may set a precedent for other Big Ten schools to make similar positive reforms. Perhaps it will pressure other schools to feel that if they do not amend their policies, they are lagging behind in a movement to realign priorities and ensure student safety is placed above benefits of untouchable student athletes.
While other universities should absolutely look to Indiana’s new policy as a step in the right direction, we also must acknowledge that background checks and prevention measures are just that—a single step. There is still much progress to be made in the effort to hold current student athletes accountable for their actions, specifically for acts of sexual violence that these students commit after they are already a star player on a Big Ten team. Policy makers must pair prevention measures with a continued dedication to ensuring that athletes take responsibility for their actions on and off the field.