NCAA Remains Quiet as Athlete Sexual Assault Cases Continue

With close to $1 billion in profit, college football organization has no clear plans to battle sexual assault

By week four of NCAA football, five players, including UNC linebacker Allen Artis, have been accused of sexual assault Credit: Grant Halverson/Getty

College football has only been back in season for less than a month and already the number of alleged sexual assaults committed by football players outweighs the number of weeks played this season. The latest crop of seemingly inevitable assaults this time come from UNC Chapel Hill, where linebacker Allen Artis was suspended over a rape allegation the university appears to have suppressed, and the University of Minnesota, where four Gophers football players were suspended for allegedly raping a woman. Five alleged rapists uncovered in just two weeks of regular season football, and how many words has the NCAA spoken on the topic? Zero.

When USC football players Osa Masina and Don Hill were accused of raping a 19-year old woman this summer – Masina more than once - the pair of reserve players received a light slap on the wrist: they're sitting out of two games they likely wouldn't have seen any minutes in to begin with, while still being allowed to attend classes and practice as if they hadn't taken turns allegedly raping a drugged, unconscious woman while videotaping her assault on Snapchat and sending it to her ex-boyfriend – a football player at Pac-12 rival Arizona State University.

Yet when USC alumni Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo were found to have accepted gifts and cash from agents, rendering their amateur status forfeit, the NCAA wasted no time in handing down one of its harshest penalties to date: having multiple championship wins from 2004 and 2005 vacated, a two-year ban on bowl game appearances, and 30 rescinded scholarships.

When then Cal basketball coach Todd Bozeman was found to have paid $30,000 to the parents of a player so they could travel to games, he was also under investigation for sexual harassment of a female Cal student, one he was subsequently ordered to stay away from. The NCAA vacated the entirety of the Bears' 1994-95 basketball season wins, and much of the 1995-96 season as well. Yet their reasoning for going hard in the paint had nothing to do with the fact that the coach of a D1 school was sexually harassing women; it was because Bozeman waited until only a week prior to his NCAA hearing to admit that he had made payments to the player's family.

The only time the NCAA involved itself in sanctioning an athletic program for sexual assault related charges was when the rampant child sexual abuse under the hands of Jerry Sandusky came to light at Penn State. At the time, NCAA president Mark Emmert announced five years of probation, a four-year post-season ban, a loss of 40 athletic scholarships, and a vacating of all 112 wins and titles from 1998 to 2012. Yet despite telling Penn State's board that sanctions were not able to be appealed, the NCAA quietly rolled back the majority of them over the next two years. Scholarships returned to their normal 85 per year by 2013; just a year later, the NCAA rescinded the school's post-season bans and reinstated former coaches Joe Paterno and Tom Bradley's winning records. The legacy of the men who allowed 10 children to be repeatedly sexually abused only hung in the balance for just under two years. The school will celebrate Paterno's football legacy this weekend. 

So what is the cost of sexually assaulting a woman or a child? In the NCAA, a hell of a lot less than the revenue a college sports team can generate in a season.

The hot potato of responsibility in handling sexual assault has long been one the NCAA has been more than happy to pass off, first to college athletic programs, and later, to colleges themselves. Even under pressure to act from Congress in the wake of the Jameis Winston-Florida State University sexual assault debacle, the NCAA did what it does best: punted the responsibility onto schools, via a tepid series of resolutions encouraging member athletic programs to "comply with campus authorities" and step away from controlling or interfering with sexual violence investigations. Nary a word was said by the NCAA about what penalties would be imposed if schools failed to meet those flimsy standards; nor was any irony of a college ostensibly putting its students' safety ahead of award-winning, revenue-creating athletic programs addressed.

And why would they? College sports are nearly a $1 billion business. Throw in the fact that a consortium of presidents, chancellors, and volunteers from member schools governs its board – Emmert's entire reasoning for the NCAA’s inability to adjudicate – and you have yourself a hootenanny of self-preservation at all costs. 

It's one thing to be in the business of yourself; it's by no means admirable, but if we’re looking at sports institutions writ large, there's little honor among thieves. But the NCAA isn't just washing their hands of a problem with toothless handbooks and empty promises to do better. The NCAA isn't just in the business of ignoring rape; it's in the business of facilitating it too. How else do you explain the organization taking no umbrage with athletic boosters and college athletic departments furnishing accused athletes with lists of friendly lawyers, many who offer their services to major D1 athletes on a pro bono basis? What else – other than being fully aware that sexual violence is codified into college athletics, and deciding that the costs don't outweigh the millions of dollars of benefits – can explain why the NCAA allows students accused or convicted of sexual violence to transfer to other NCAA schools and continue playing sports?

While Emmert and the NCAA enjoy hiding behind the skirts of antitrust law as a shield preventing them from involving themselves in off-field conduct, the legal protections are flimsy at best; if Derrick Rose can cost Kentucky a year’s worth of wins for having someone take his SATs for him (presumably off the field, though given the NCAA’s opaque sanction process, who’s to really say), the NCAA can surely find a way to penalize athletic programs with infractions of sexual violence.

For Penn State - a school that by all means should still be under sanctions by the NCAA – to trot out a celebration for late coach Joe Paterno just a few years after his involvement in the Sandusky rapes isn't just bold, it's proof that the fish rots from the head. But hey, there's no narrative the NCAA loves more than the comeback story. Even if the thing you're coming back from is the systemic abuse of adolescents.

While it's no surprise that the NCAA is an exploitative system, and one that lets its shit roll up the hill, given the disturbing number of sexual violence incidents in pro leagues as well, consider this: The NCAA took in $989 million dollars in 2014, and is projected to have earned over $1 billion last season. All of that profit and no big dollar initiative to battle sexual assault or any plans on how to stop it. There's just a lot of silence.