The classic phrase of coaches from Little League dads to Bill Belichick is “We have a target on our back.” Usually, this line is meant to both incite grandiose notions of stardom while also excusing a potential loss as the result of other teams specifically gunning for them. Recently, this sports cliché has taken on additional meaning in collegiate athlete settings; not only does the proverbial bullseye rest on individual teams, but it is now supposedly placed on men’s college sports as an institution. The notion of the target on the back has become reappropriated by schools, athletes, and coaches alike as an explanation for the link that has been drawn between sexual assaults (both allegations and convictions) and male collegiate athletes. I know of many coaches who have met their significant other through college athletics, and perhaps this leads to a shared idea that intra-team fraternizing will inevitably lead to long-term and healthy relationships. Alas, as both NARPs and athletes know, postgame celebrity and congratulatory drinking does not a lasting courtship make.
I am proud to be friends with many respectful, intelligent, and hugely talented athletes at the University. I was also one of two female members of the men’s varsity rowing team, which has allowed me significant insight and a distinct perspective into the complex inner workings of a varsity-level team. Additionally, my long-term boyfriend plays soccer at a different Little Three school, and his recounting of experiences offers an additional resource and ethos. I do not believe that sports are inherently bad, or make people so, and I remain somewhat skeptical that a so-called “male athletic culture” is solely responsible for the actions of all male athletes.
Although being a liberal arts institution, and a notably progressive one at that, does not by any means exempt us from harmful cultural attitudes toward women and sex, I recognize that our liberal bubble offers valuable protection from a relatively harsher global atmosphere. While most University students at least recognize that sexual assault in any form is horrible and indicative of underlying systemic issues, the current prevention strategies and post-trauma training continue to be discussed under the thick cover of euphemisms and a thin veil of discomfort.
A good coach is one that is invested in fitness and finesse and final scores; a great coach is one who cares about the game, the squad, but most importantly about the individuals that actually make up their team. At the very least, a college coach should be not only a leader, but also an observant and relevant presence, both on and off the field. Each year, both the head coach and student-athlete must sign the University’s Department of Physical Education and Athletics Athlete Contract Form, which states its mission as the following: “Along with the opportunity to participate in athletics it is the student’s responsibility to conduct oneself in a manner that supports the team’s goals and behave in a manner that will reflect well on your team, your coach and Wesleyan.” This contract details the promises of the athlete to refrain from violating policies relating to everything from alcohol and drugs to hazing to social media presentation.
Additionally, in signing this contract, the student-athlete waives the right to privacy with respect to their grades, agreeing to “allow my coach to have access to my academic records so he/she can accurately discuss my performance with me.” The publicity of a student’s college grades is an unsurprisingly contentious issue, and the most recent regulations outlined by The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) have purposefully and strictly denied guardians (tuition-paying or not) access to their child’s academic records. A concerned parent may wonder why their little Jimmy has racked up so many charges at “Forest City” while demonstrating zero interest or proof of Environmental Science engagement, but no amount of panicked calls to President Michael Roth himself will allow them to see his grades and courses. Yet, for a coach who wants to know whether a top scorer needs a little…tutoring…in Intro Econ, he can easily access current course grades.
In addition to their access to personal academic information, coaches are made aware of various other highly private issues such as medical conditions, family emergencies, or other significant personal issues that may require skipping practice. There is nothing inherently wrong with coaches seeing their players’ grades (athletes are often reminded that they are called student-athletes and not athlete-students for a reason) or being privy to other exclusive knowledge, and I mention it only to highlight the clear discrepancy in information availability.
A more morally comprehensive and socially respectable contract for student-athletes would explicitly grant permission for coaches to be alerted when an athlete has formally had a sexual misconduct charge filed against them. An alert would simply notify, without judgment or accusal, a relevant adult figures that someone under their jurisdiction may or may not have committed anything from online harassment to multiple-assailant rape.
Given awareness of this information, a coach may choose to look skeptically but silently at the accused student: A subsequent “family emergency” that is suddenly requiring them to miss practices may be viewed from a coach’s more informed perspective. Instead, the coach may take the opportunity to have a discussion with the team about issues relating to sex and relationships. Predictably, some coaches will take no conscious action at all, but their ears may unintentionally perk up and be more attuned to the hushed conversations occurring between drills or at the back of the bus. Informed coaches may be inspired to nominate and encourage team leaders who talk respectfully about their girlfriends and/or female friends in general and may discipline the guys who recall a win by discussing how they “raped Midd last year.” In the current college climate, the only thing worse than an over-controlling coach is a lazy one who believes that his players’ actions off the field are beyond their pay grade or goal-oriented expertise.
A foreseeable counterargument from the athletic community might inappropriately utilize anti-death penalty or anti-mandatory minimum rhetoric and discuss the repercussions that may arise from potentially false allegations. Unlike the death penalty or jail sentences—which, among other issues, are disproportionately applied to men and women of color—however, alerting a coach that a member of the team is the alleged perpetrator in an active investigation with the Title IX office offers little to none of the irreversibility factor implicit in jail time or lethal injection.
From a player/coach standpoint, the worst-case scenario potentially arising from this alert system would be that a falsely accused athlete suffers from increased speculation by a coach. In consideration of this demographic’s deserved reputation vis-à-vis sexual misconduct, a coach’s increased attention might be far from harmful. Roxane Gay, in her acclaimed book “Bad Feminist,” offers a wise perspective on the false accusation issue (or really lack thereof): “I give the victim the benefit of the doubt when it comes to allegations of rape and sexual abuse. I choose to err on that side of caution. This does not mean I am unsympathetic of the wrongly accused, but if there are sides to be chosen, I am on the side of the victim.”
Furthermore, even if every player on every sports team was falsely accused (an extreme and statistically improbable hypothetical), a greater focus on sexual crimes amongst coaches might act as a needed panoptic reminder for student-athletes. At worst, these hypothetical players might gain valuable insight into the investigation process and be further deterred from engaging in any sort of behavior that would again land them in the midst of a process designed to protect women from a violent culture that sports heroes have perpetuated and celebrated.
If coaches want to take pride in their team’s achievements, they need to step up to the plate and start taking responsibility for the other actions of those same valuable students. If they’re going to spend six days a week yelling about “crushing the back end” or “stealing third base” or “just because there’s a goalie doesn’t mean you can’t score,” then they also need to start speaking up a lot louder and a little less euphemistically about sexual responsibility.