Football is a violent game.
Anyone who watches it, who loves it, will tell you that.
It’s a game about perseverance, about hard blows and ferocious tackles, about indomitable will and raw masculinity honed into 60 minutes of adrenaline-fueled aggression. The violence is disciplined into first downs and legal hits, but at its core, football taps into a love of physical competition.
Fans cheer for it on the gridiron. In the confines of the white lines painted on the grass of a football field, the violence is understandable, enjoyable. But what happens when that violence follows our stars off the field?
The game of football is riddled with accusations of domestic and sexual violence. And as more cases come to the surface, the question remains — what can be done?
The name of the game
Although male athletes only make up 3.3 percent of the student body of an average college campus, a study by the National Coalition Against Violent Student Athletes found that they account for 19 percent of the sexual assaults on their campuses.
Additionally, the study found that one in every three reported campus sexual assaults was committed by a student-athlete. Over 300 cases of sexual assault committed by student-athletes have been filed in the Nexis — a comprehensive database for public records and legal information — in the last two decades alone.
The issue of sexual assault in athletics is at its peak when applied to
football. Last year, both sexual and domestic violence in football dominated the headlines throughout the college and NFL seasons.
USC was in the spotlight in August 2016 after former linebacker Osa Masina was charged with rape in Utah and California. Although Masina and former teammate Don Hill were both removed from the football team immediately following their arrest, and were later expelled by USC, the incident was thrown into a pile of other NCAA football indiscretions headlined by Joe Mixon’s return to Oklahoma’s starting lineup and the Baylor football sexual assault scandal.
The past few seasons of college football have opened the eyes of fans, coaches and players to the underlying issue of violence in the sport. And at USC, Masina’s case in particular forced the administration to review the ways the school tackles the issue when dealing with an athlete.
Although USC athletes are often treated differently than other students, discipline for sexual misconduct is applied in the exact same way regardless of a student’s athletic status, according to Vice President for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry. This is meant to provide all students with a level playing field, where no athlete is protected by their on-field contributions to the school.
“It is the student code of conduct, not the student-athlete code of conduct,” Carry said. “The University has one code of conduct, and it is for all students. We follow the procedure to the letter for any member of the community. Our procedures are indifferent to what you participate in as a member of the University community.”
A spokesperson for USC Athletics said that the athletics department defers to student affairs in handling student conduct issues regarding student-athletes.
“This assures that student-athletes are treated like all students and do not receive special treatment because of their athletic standing,” the spokesperson said in an email to the Daily Trojan.
This situation is not unfamiliar for USC Athletics — in the last three decades, the school has seen four separate sexual assault charges or accusations, including one involving former quarterback Mark Sanchez in 2006. Only Masina’s case resulted in an expulsion, although former tight end Bryce Dixon was banned from the football team despite being allowed to re-enroll at USC. Two of the accused former players are now NFL athletes.
Violence off the field is not an issue that is unique to USC, and it continues all the way into the NFL. In 2015, Vice reported that 44 active NFL players charged with or accused of sexual or domestic violence in their careers as college and professional athletes were still playing in the NFL. Three were starting quarterbacks. On average, each brought in a yearly salary of more than $2 million.
Some of these men were acquitted by juries. Others were acquitted in the eyes of fans and owners who value on-the-field performance over off-the-field disciplinary issues. It’s a debate that tears at front offices throughout the league — what should teams do when facing a question between a talented future and an allegedly violent past?
The answer is typically the same. In a business like football, aptitude trumps anything else.
Second chance universities
But what happens when a player is dismissed?
In the NFL, the Kansas City Chiefs rode the success of wide receiver Tyreek Hill all the way to an AFC West championship, less than three years after he pinned his ex-girlfriend to the wall with one hand around her throat, beating her face with his other fist. The incident occurred in his first season as a wide receiver at Oklahoma State University. Hill pled guilty to domestic abuse after defending himself as not guilty for half a year and in the meantime, he was kicked out of the university.
Now, he’s a starter for an NFL team, successful, beloved by fans after a breakout season in Kansas City. The question is obvious — how did a man who was kicked out of Oklahoma State for beating his pregnant girlfriend bloody end up back in the NFL?
When players are removed from their Division I programs, they often find a new home in a lower division or junior college program. These schools feed off of the talent of athletes with Division I talent who couldn’t cut it for myriad reasons — grades, attitudes or student conduct violations.
The vast majority of transfers to junior colleges or Division III programs are simply athletes who needed a second shot at college ball. They use a year or two in a less prestigious program to pull up their grades, rehab from an injury or earn new looks from other potential programs. This system helps many athletes find their footing in the competitive world of football — stars such as Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson got their start in these schools.
But a small percentage of these athletes are overcoming past violence to get ahead. For instance, Lane College accepted a transfer last August despite his dismissal from Vanderbilt University due to five charges of aggravated rape. Another player charged in the same case transferred to Alcorn State University, a Division I school that already fields a registered sex offender.
This is how Hill found his way back to a university even after his expulsion. He was picked up by the University of West Alabama, then by the Chiefs in the fifth round of the draft. Many teams dropped Hill from their draft boards even after he ran an impressive 4.24-second 40-yard dash.
But teams such as the Chiefs, who were grasping for any opportunity to kick-start their offense, were willing to ignore past crimes in order to bring in new talent. The team’s front office did its best to address the issue, with head coach Andy Reid issuing statements about Hill’s improvement.
“This country gives you a second chance, if you handle yourself the right way,” Reid said following a Chiefs practice in an interview.
But despite Reid’s sureness, the discomfort of handling the issue was clear. Even more uncomfortable was the decision fans were forced to make every Sunday — whether or not to cheer for a former domestic abuser.
“It always gets into those fine lines of second chances,” NBC commentator Cris Collinsworth said during Kansas City’s game against Denver last season. “Maybe you don’t deserve a second chance sometimes.”
Masina awaits pending litigation for the charges in Utah, the charges in Los Angeles having been dropped in March. If he is cleared, Masina, like Hill, could be picked up by a smaller school and funneled back into the NFL.
It’s not an easy path to follow. But history has proven that even when athletes commit crimes and receive punishments in full, a future in the NFL is still in the cards. The result is a system in which athletes circumvent punishments through raw talent and a faith in second chances.
This can’t last forever.
Across the country, college and professional programs are beginning to catch on. The University of Indiana recently enacted a policy that bans its athletics programs from recruiting or adding any new players with histories of domestic or sexual violence. And the NFL refused to invite star athletes like Joe Mixon, who was suspended for a season after breaking a female student’s jaw in his freshman year.
But the solution involves more than simply preventing athletes with a history of violence from reentering the system. The NCAA developed a nationwide training program called Step UP!, which aims to teach administrators, coaches and athletes how to approach issues ranging from drug addiction to domestic violence and sexual assault.
Through the program, former Arizona and NFL wide receiver Syndric Steptoe has used his knowledge as a former athlete to advocate for preventing assaults. In order to truly solve the issue of violence in athletics, Steptoe believes that the culture of male-dominant sports must change as a whole.
The main problem, he said, is the treatment that comes with an athlete’s stardom.
Steptoe watched this culture unfold in his own life, and it started young — high school coaches scouted youth leagues, mentoring prospects from a young age. Those same coaches built plays and programs around their stars when they reached high school. They also rearranged players’ class schedule, wrote passes to get them out of class early to travel to games and talked to teachers to smooth over failed midterms or papers.
When a star reaches a college like USC, Steptoe said, the bubble surrounding them has only widened. From personalized meal plans to one-on-one tutoring sessions, universities do their best to cater to the physical and mental needs of their stars in order to maintain their academic eligibility and overall well-being. But at the same time, Steptoe believes that this level of attention can serve to feed the egos and ignore the missteps of a school’s biggest stars.
“There’s this idea of what it means to be a star, what it means to be a man,” Steptoe said. “We have to change the little things, the little ways that we’re talking to our boys. When we’re looking at the sport, we have to look at how we’re raising kids in it and start at the very beginning of it.”
According to Step UP! founder Becky Bell, this is where the emphasis of preventative education must begin. Her program teaches that attitudes surrounding sexual assault are often communicated in day-to-day conversations. For athletes, this means that violence prevention must come from coaches, trainers and fellow teammates.
“A lot of this is breaking down the stigma and the culture that has been built up for so long surrounding athletics,” Bell said. “We need, as a whole, to be having honest conversations about these topics and to be encouraging our students and our athletes to be having the same honest conversations. It’s as small as correcting an inappropriate comment in the locker room, but those little details [can] be the start of finding a bigger solution.”
Bell is quick to emphasize that there isn’t a single solution for ending sexual assault in athletics. But the path toward finding an answer involves these steps — putting pressure on athletes to correct behavior on a daily basis while implementing no-tolerance policies at the administrative level.
The future of sexual assault prevention in athletics is young and still uncertain, Bell says. However, she believes that college programs and NFL front offices now have the tools, the information and the resources to begin fighting back against this issue.
For now, the ball is in their hands.