In November 2013, an announcement by the State Attorney of Florida’s Second Judicial Court added yet another stain to Florida State University’s historically tarnished football program. Jameis Winston, the prolific quarterback who led the Seminoles to a BCS National Championship title (and became the youngest college player to win the coveted Heisman Trophy in the process) was implicated in a sexual assault case that had originally been filed with the Tallahassee Police Department (TSP) nearly a year earlier.
Though the survivor, Erica Kinsman, alleged that Winston had forcibly raped her in his off-campus apartment, the TSP, the FSU administration, and the Tallahassee community at large rallied around the young quarterback, working in tandem to discredit Kinsman’s allegations and clear Winston’s name. Though each group’s methods varied, their collective agenda was clear: protect the star quarterback generating millions of dollars for the university by dismissing the case as quickly and discreetly as possible. Following a halfhearted inquiry, the department’s lead prosecutor concluded that he lacked sufficient evidence to charge Winston with rape, and a single disciplinary hearing held at the university soon after also cleared the quarterback of any wrongdoing.
Winston went on to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the first pick of the 2015 NFL Draft, taking a starting salary of over $6 million in his first season as a professional athlete, not counting the dozen or so endorsement deals he signed upon leaving college. Kinsman received hate mail, deeply degrading messages online, and even death threats in the immediate aftermath of her accusation. She dropped out of FSU in 2013.
Winston’s case brings into alarming focus that which college administrations and athletic departments have resolutely refused to acknowledge: acts of sexual violence perpetrated by college athletes are not (nor should they be) viewed as isolated cases resulting from a few bad apples. Rather, they are the product of a culture that extols, shelters, and protects those students blessed with physical gifts to the point where they believe they can act with total impunity, even in the case of sexual assault.
While they are regarded with awe and treated as heroes on many college campuses, student-athletes tend to operate in narrow circles at their respective schools. Their friendships, classes, extracurricular involvement and social lives all revolve around the sport they practice. This is especially true of larger Division I institutions, where student-athletes take courses specially tailored to their heavy training regimens and travel schedule. The result of this customized, highly secluded college experience is a profound estrangement from the rest of the student body that can all too easily incite feelings of entitlement and superiority among athletes. While many smaller colleges like Wesleyan work hard to bridge the gulf between student-athletes and other students on campus, major divisions between the two groups persist; the “loud” and “quiet” sides of Usdan cafe are ample proof of that.
Feelings of superiority among college athletes also arise from their close relationships with members of the athletic department and other important school administrators. Due to their heavy reliance on athletic funding, universities have a vested interest in preventing instances of athlete misconduct from reaching the public and the U.S. legal system, thereby threatening the eligibility of the athlete in question. This assurance that college administrations will strive to protect their athletes at all costs, particularly talented male athletes, coupled with the feelings of superiority that result from holding positions of power on campus, go a long way in explaining the link between male college athletes and sexual assault.
If administrative negligence and a heightened sense of self-importance provide some means of understanding why male athletes represent 19 percent of all sexual assault perpetrators on American college campuses (while comprising just 3 percent of the total college population), then the culture surrounding male collegiate sports teams also merits examination. From their first ever peewee practice, athletes are taught that group cohesion, trust between teammates, and solidarity in victory and defeat constitute the foundation of every successful sports team. In college, loyalty between teammates extends well beyond the field of play into other areas of campus life.
The fierce allegiance among teammates takes on a distinctly sinister note, however, when one member of the group commits an act of sexual violence. Faced with the choice of reporting a teammate accused of sexual violence or standing by the accused in solidarity, male college athletes disproportionately choose the latter course of action. This “all for one and one for all” mentality, ingrained in athletes since childhood, results in a dangerous team culture where defending one’s teammates is prioritized over ensuring the physical and emotional safety of the student body.
Less than two weeks ago, the American public elected a man charged with multiple sex crimes into the highest office in the land. Donald Trump owes his new seat in the Oval Office to a culture that privileges the rich, white and powerful to such an extent that they are rarely held accountable for their transgressions. Trump’s presidency should serve as a powerful wake-up call for college administrations and their athletic departments. By working to strip athletes of their celebrity status on many college campuses, universities can begin dismantling a culture that breeds perpetrators of sexual violence.