Schools must be stricter with athletes on sexual assault

It is no secret that colleges are a hotbed for sexual misconduct: According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, it is in fact one of the most prevalent crimes on campus.

It’s also not a secret that student-athletes are often the perpetrators. The Benedict Crosset study revealed that one in three sexual assaults are committed by athletes, with conviction rates disproportionately low in comparison to general perpetrators. And it only takes a glance at news headlines to fully realize the ubiquity of the issue. Schools all across the nation have had recent scandals involving the
cover-up of athletes’ sexual violence. Pac-12 athletes such as Stanford’s Brock Turner and USC’s own Osa Masina and Don Hill have been in the national spotlight for sexual misconduct. With this in mind, universities must hold their athletes accountable for their actions on and off the playing field. They should also carefully investigate athletes and potential recruits’ criminal record and take necessary steps to ensure prevention of sexual misconduct on campus.

The most recent scandal that brought headlines was at Oregon State University. It was revealed that Luke Heimlich, a star player on OSU’s baseball team, is a registered sex offender convicted of molesting a 6-year-old family member when he was 15. Horrifyingly enough, the university has not yet stated whether they were aware of Heimlich’s offense when he was recruited. Meanwhile the athletic director and baseball coach have remained silent. OSU claims that it “follows the U.S. Department of Education’s recommendation that universities not allow criminal history to affect disproportionately a student’s access to higher education.” This defense sounds reasonable until one takes into account that Heimlich isn’t only a student; he is an athlete who enjoys special privileges due to his status as a star player, which reaps enormous profit for Oregon State. In such cases, universities must reexamine their pledge to higher education instead of shielding their athletic reputation with a lack of transparency.

The aforementioned Benedict Crosset study found that male student-athletes are disproportionately responsible for on-campus sexual assault. While they make up a mere 3.3 percent of the average college campus, they are found to be responsible for 19 percent of reported sexual assault across the U.S. However, the National Collegiate Athletic Association currently does not require recruiters to investigate their athletes. Federal law only demands that some sex offenses be disclosed to universities, while crimes committed out-of-state or while underage (as often would be the case for high school students being recruited) could go undetected entirely.

Just as recruiters investigate other potential issues with the athletes they recruit, such as a history of drug abuse or learning disabilities, they also must research criminal background and any sexual misconduct related to the student. As studies show that these student-athletes are disproportionately responsible for sexual misconduct, a thorough vetting process is the essential first step to prevent any potential crime once the athlete is on campus.

Although students who have committed crimes in the past should be allowed to reassimilate themselves into society and not face discrimination in the admissions or recruitment process, university officials must acknowledge these risks and be transparent about their findings, especially if a case like Oregon State University’s rises up. For a well-known public figure like Oregon State’s Heimlich, the school would ideally step up and admit his past failures, while pledging support to sexual assault prevention initiatives. Of course, universities must be willing to be transparent in these cases, despite having their reputations on the line.

According to USC Student Affairs, university athletes are disciplined according to the student code of conduct; that is, they face the same consequences (or lack thereof) as any other student who committed the same infraction. While this is meant to guarantee that student-athletes are treated equally alongside the rest of the student population, it disregards the privilege of playing on a highly publicized Division I sports team. These institutional privileges granted by the school often get them out of trouble, instead of facing revocation in violating the code of conduct. At USC, for example, Osa Masina only received a one-game suspension initially in the midst of an ongoing sexual assault investigation. Although Masina was eventually removed from both the football team and USC campus, this announcement came weeks after the announcement of the investigation.

Since student-athletes hold an elevated status on campus with privileges beyond those of the general student population, they too must be held to a higher standard and scrutiny under the athletic directors and university officials in regards to sexual misconduct and crime.