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NCAA navigates difficult territory with sexual assault policy

March 30, 2018

In October 2016, not long after a sexual assault scandal at Baylor University swept out the football coach, athletic director and president of the university, the NCAA convened a commission to combat campus sexual violence.

The commission crafted a policy focused on educating athletes and coaches and ensuring athletic departments were following school policies regarding the handling of sexual assault allegations. The commission's proposal was adopted by the NCAA board of governors last year .

Since then, Michigan State University has become embroiled in a horrific scandal involving a former athletic department doctor, Larry Nassar, who has been convicted of molesting dozens of girls and women, including many Spartans athletes.

NCAA leaders see the association as an agent of culture change, trying to curb a problem that goes beyond athletics. Others want the Indianapolis-based NCAA to take a more active role, putting rules in place that would ban individual offenders from competing in college athletics and sanction schools that fail to weed out potential predators. That is highly unlikely.

"This is a systemic issue in society and certainly on campuses regardless of whether it's student-athletes or not," NCAA President Mark Emmert said Thursday at the Alamodome, site of Saturday's Final Four. "On that score, the NCAA and the Board of Governors in particular have been more engaged than any other higher education entity. In fact, we're providing leadership to the rest of higher ed right now on trying to figure out how to deal with these issues in advance and prevent them, rather than just always coming in after the fact and imposing some kind of punishment or solutions afterwards."

Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor and activist who speaks to college sports teams all over the country, is part of the NCAA's commission to combat campus sexual assault. Tracy was encouraged by the passing of the commission's recommendations by NCAA Board of Governors in August . But she is pushing for an NCAA ban on athletes who commit sexual violence.

"I don't feel like anyone should be banned from their education," Tracy said. "But I do think that playing sports is absolutely a privilege and not a right. It's a privilege to be an NCAA athlete. To be a scholarship athlete."

Tracy said because of the prestige that goes with being an athlete, especially in high-profile sports such as football and basketball, they have more influence on campus.

"And so we have a duty and a responsibility to make sure we're driving conversations that effect attitudes and beliefs and how we view these issues correctly," she said. "And we're not. We're basically saying if you can run fast enough and throw a ball and make enough money for a school or a sports program then you can do whatever you want. You can break a woman's face. You can stomp her. You can rape her. You can do whatever you want as long as you're a good enough athlete. And that's wrong.

"And so I also talk to them about, you know, what about attaching eligibility to behavior. You attach it to grades. Why can't we say sexual assault is not OK. Domestic violence is not OK."

For the NCAA, stepping into the area of what it refers to as individual accountability is complicated territory.

"You quickly recognize that there are other entities that hold individuals accountable for criminal acts per se or even for violations of Title IX on specific campuses when investigations are completed," NCAA chief legal officer Don Remy said. "And so as we have looked at this we have looked at our role as composed of all of higher education. And how can we in college athletics be part of the higher education dialogue to change the culture. And how can we make sure that student-athletes are treated the same as students who are on campus who don't compete in athletics. Not to create any preferential treatment for student-athletes or to create a negative environment for student-athletes, but to have student-athletes be able to matriculate through their time on campus like other students who aren't competing in athletics."

Kathy Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, said at the heart of the problem is athletes are often given preferential treatment and protection by athletic programs, boosters and even local enforcement when they are accused of crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence. Redmond called the sexual violence policy the NCAA passed last year a "check-the-box" measure.

"But when it comes down to it, the individual players know that the system will work for them," she said.

Redmond said the NCAA should use a proposal crafted by the Drake Group , a watchdog for college sports, to guide policy on sexual violence committed by athletes.

Tracy would like the NCAA to adopt a policy similar to the one Indiana University implemented last year, which bans its teams from accepting any athletes with a documented history of sexual or domestic violence. IU's policy was inspired by a similar one implemented by the Southeastern Conference regarding transfers.

Though Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said: "We didn't implement it to be like a trailblazer or pulling people toward this policy."

Laws differ from state to state, down to definitions of sexual assault. A one-size fits all NCAA policy that bans athletes with past transgressions would be difficult to craft and possibly vulnerable to legal challenges.

"What is that a life sentence?" said Cleveland-based attorney Susan Stone, who represented Ma'Lik Richmond, the Youngstown State football player convicted of rape in juvenile court when he was in high school.

Campus backlash prompted Youngstown State to ban Richmond from playing last season. He sued the school, which had no policy like Indiana's. The school settled and lifted the ban.

"There needs to be some thought before you ostracize students," Stone said.

Tracy said she is not just looking to punish wrongdoers.

"We're not just failing survivors, but we're also failing these young men, too," she said. "Especially with our athletes the way we place entitlement on them from a young age. The way we set them up for failure by protecting them from everything. All this stuff that we do with our athletes, we're not helping them."

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