COLLEGE ATHLETES IN recent years were about three times more likely than other students to be accused of sexual misconduct or domestic violence in complaints made at Power 5 conference schools, according to an analysis by Outside the Lines.
That finding is based upon data from Title IX complaints covering allegations of sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual exploitation, sexual coercion, stalking or retaliation collected from 32 Power 5 schools that provided records in response to requests for complaints against athletes over the past six years. Outside the Lines sought the data from all 65 Power 5 schools, but some officials did not provide information, and some that did provide information did not do so for all years.
The data provided show that, on average, about 6.3 percent of Title IX complaints against students — whether the complaint resulted in a formal investigation or not — included an athlete as the person accused of wrongdoing, officially called a “respondent” in the reports. Though that percentage equates to a minority of the overall number of complaints at Power 5 campuses made during the time period, athletes were named in such reports more often than might be expected considering they represent, on average, just 1.7 percent of total student enrollment at the universities.
Using the data to make school-to-school comparisons about which have the highest percentage of complaints or the highest number of complaints involving accused athletes should be done with caution because school officials did not always provide the exact data Outside the Lines requested. For example, one school might have insisted upon providing every complaint that had been filed with a Title IX office while another school might have insisted upon providing data only about cases that ended up in formal investigations.
It is, however, possible to determine an overall student-athlete-to-other-student comparison, because within each school, the data for athletes and students were subject to the same parameters. Outside the Lines consulted with two statisticians about its study methods.
W. Scott Lewis, co-founder of the Association of Title IX Administrators and partner with The NCHERM Group consultants, said it can be helpful to know whether a student involved in a Title IX complaint is an athlete, a member of the Greek system, ROTC or any other affiliation so school officials can detect patterns and take next steps.
“You’re supposed to — when you’re dealing with a student — understand the context of that student’s experience,” Lewis said, “regardless of the action they’ve been accused of.”
Kansas State University did not have an existing report about complaints against athletes but compiled the data for Outside the Lines anyway.
“If we don’t know this, we should know this,” said Jeff Morris, vice president of communications and marketing at Kansas State. Given the high-profile, national stories about campus sexual assault issues tied to athletes, he said, “We should all be paying attention.”
STARTING IN MARCH, Outside the Lines filed public records requests with all 53 public Power 5 schools and followed up with informal inquiries. Outside the Lines also requested data from the 12 private Power 5 schools that are not subject to open records laws; Baylor was the only private school that provided information.
A few schools declined Outside the Lines’ requests, stating that releasing records would violate student privacy, although each Outside the Lines request explicitly stated that names and identifying information could be excluded.
Some of the schools that didn’t provide numbers of complaints against athletes did at least provide the number of complaints against all students. Outside the Lines included those in its database because the information would be of public interest, even though those schools were not factored into the overall data analysis. However, some schools didn’t even have that level of detail on complaints.
The University of Virginia sought to charge Outside the Lines $33,902 to pull complaints in order to calculate just those that had named students; that estimate did not include records involving athletes, which the university refused to provide, citing privacy concerns. Outside the Lines declined to pay for the records but did pay clerical expenses for data from some schools.
An official at Virginia consulted with archrival Virginia Tech University prior to sending Outside the Lines its estimate, according to emails obtained by Outside the Lines. Virginia Tech officials confirmed to Virginia officials that they had received the same request but were planning to deny the request for athlete data. “I honestly do not feel it’s the best use of our extremely limited resources to try to pull this data for a story,” one Virginia Tech Title IX official wrote.
Understaffed Title IX offices is a common concern among Title IX officials: Outsides the Lines surveyed Title IX administrators at schools of all sizes and divisions, and of the 99 respondents, 75 percent said they did not have enough staff.
“I want the information as much as anybody else. I think we could learn from it. I think we could prevent things with it,” said Brett Sokolow, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators. “It would be amazing if Title IX offices had the capacity to get out there and say, ‘We’re having a problem with the tennis team, and we can see that in our data. Let’s make sure we direct more of our education policy training efforts to them to see if we can shore that up.’ That’s very rare.”
Dan Schorr, a Title IX consultant who aided Michigan State with Title IX investigations, said schools should, at the very least, know how many athletes are in complaints overall.
“If everyone in the community knows a certain sports team is involved in a certain number of complaints, there might be an outcry and a demand for reform,” said Schorr, who is now managing director with the consulting firm Ankura. “If people aren’t aware of that, that’s not going to happen.”
The U.S. Department of Education did not respond to requests for an interview with its assistant secretary for civil rights, Kenneth Marcus, or to questions from Outside the Lines for this story. The office is planning to release new rules for how schools should handle allegations of sexual assault, with an emphasis on giving accused students more due process in investigations.
Several rules in draft form were leaked to media this year and relate to which sexual assault and violence incidents should be counted and who should be required to report them. The changes could have significant impact on the Title IX caseload totals. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights re-emphasized sexual violence as a matter of equity and access under Title IX. Schools have been required to have a Title IX coordinator on campus and set up a procedure to address filed complaints.
Another key finding from the data obtained by Outside the Lines: Awareness and use of Title IX offices has increased dramatically in the past six years, with many coordinators and industry experts citing high-profile athlete cases as a driving force. Reports of sexual misconduct against students overall are up — about four times as many in 2017 as in 2012 among the schools that provided data for those years. The OCR, which investigates complaints about how all types of schools respond to Title IX sexual violence reports, had 130 complaints in 2014. As of this fall, it had about 400 open cases, according to the department’s website.
Without those athlete cases making headlines, the campus sexual assault awareness campaign “would be largely nonexistent,” said Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education from 2013 to 2017, and current chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
“The capturing of the hearts and minds of the American public is what has moved this issue,” she said. “The response of student communities to sexual violence among athletes has been really important.”
While there were some variations in the Outside the Lines data about how schools categorized violations and complaints, and which university office handled those complaints, the numbers generally included accusations of sexual assault and abuse, domestic or dating violence, sexual exploitation, sexual coercion, stalking and — where available — retaliation for reporting such incidents.
A spokesman for Ohio State, which had 37 complaints from 2012 to 2017 involving athletes, noted that the university has the most athletes of any Power 5 athletic department and that members of the dance and cheer teams are designated as athletes within the athletic department. A campaign launched in 2015 to raise awareness of sexual assault has “resulted in more survivors coming forward in subsequent years,” he said.
Michigan State, which remains under federal investigation for its handling of Title IX complaints, provided data on athletes for 2016-17 and 2017-18 only. It had 26 complaints made against athletes. A Michigan State spokeswoman told Outside the Lines that officials did not know how many total complaints against Spartan athletes there were prior to 2016; the officials declined to review existing Title IX complaints to find the answer.
At West Virginia, athletes made up about 1.8 percent of the student body but represented about 13 percent of Title IX complaints filed there over six years. WVU’s executive director for student conduct, Carrie Showalter, said the school’s system allows officials to track and detect patterns in certain groups, but she wasn’t aware of that discrepancy involving athletes until contacted by Outside the Lines.
“I do think it’s something that would cause us to look into things a little bit further to see if there’s anything else as a university we need to be doing,” she said.
The idea that athletes are overrepresented in college sexual assault cases is not new. A 1995 study in the Journal of Sport & Social Issues found that male athletes made up 3.8 percent of the male student body but were responsible for 5.5 percent of reported sexual assaults. That report also included data from judicial affairs departments at 10 schools, which showed athletes represented 19 percent of the perpetrators reported for sexual assault but made up only 3.3 percent of the male population.
KNOWING THAT THE data show athletes are overrepresented in Title IX complaints at these schools is one thing; the reason why that might be occurring is unknown and debated among Title IX experts.
Lhamon said too many colleges and universities “turn away” from information that might show cultural problems within athletics, yet “the unfortunate reality today, still, is that we have a hypersexualized culture associated with elite athletes.”
Sokolow, the Title IX administrators association leader, said of the roughly 400 external investigations his group completes each year, at least half involve allegations against athletes.
“A lot of it may have to do with the aggressive kind of training and inclination that programs place on athletes to exert aggressive behavior. If that flows over into their sexual lives, you’re going to see more complaints coming out of that,” Sokolow said. “When students of any kind, athletes or not, tend to have a lot of consensual sexual opportunities, it becomes more difficult for them to separate out what non-consent looks like, because everything for them tends to seem consensual. And I think if you did studies, you’d see that student-athletes probably have more sex than students who are not athletes, in many cases.”
Schools and coaches can make the problem worse when they promote sex and sexual behavior among athletes, said Justin Lawrence, a Title IX administrator who conducts sexual assault awareness training at various colleges, including Texas Tech University, which had the lowest percentage of complaints against athletes in the Outside the Lines analysis.
Lawrence cited as examples the recent University of Louisville scandal in which basketball staffers provided access to strippers for recruits and the use of attractive female students as hosts to accompany recruits on official visits — a practice that made headlines at Tennessee and Baylor.
But it starts with coaches tolerating something far subtler, Lawrence said.
“People in the locker room talking about what they did with who or how this person looks. You know the locker room talk, ‘Boys will be boys,'” Lawrence said. “That’s where the rape culture starts. The very foundation of it. So we have to stop that.”
John Clune, a Colorado attorney who has represented women in several high-profile Title IX lawsuits, including some involving athletes, said he sees a higher rate of gang rape and videotape of sex abuse allegations against athletes than nonathletes. He cited a lawsuit he filed against Baylor that alleged a gang rape was part of a bonding activity for recruits.
“There’s something different about the group mentality within these athletic teams that we don’t really see in nonathlete cases, or at least not anywhere near the same frequency,” Clune said.
A September article in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, “Sexual Assault on College Campuses: What Sport Psychology Practitioners Need to Know,” combined years of past research on sexual assault and college athletes and details higher alcohol use among athletes and that “male student-athletes are historically overrepresented as offenders.” The article states that some studies of violent behavior and athletes supported a link between sports and sexual aggression, but there were others that did not.
The article also cited a 2017 study — published in a journal called Violence Against Women — that covered sexual coercion practices among undergraduate athletes showing that they were “77 percent more likely to engage in sexual coercion than non-athletes,” and that athletes reported less positive attitudes toward women and greater acceptance of rape myths, with one example being that “women make false allegations of sexual assault to target innocent men.”
But Paul V. Cannarella, an attorney in South Carolina, said that is exactly what happened this year with his client, a soccer player at Coker College, a private school in Hartsville. The athlete was arrested and charged with rape and kidnapping, but the charges were dropped when the woman who had accused him admitted to making it up, according to a May 6, 2018, story in The State newspaper. The woman was arrested and charged with filing a false police report. A Title IX investigation also found no merit to her claims, Cannarella said.
“Nice-looking athletes tend to attract more women. … They’re just attracted to the big man on campus,” he said. “They consensually involve themselves with that athlete. And then if they feel rejected after anything that goes on between the two of them, and they get angry about it, they have a tendency to misrepresent what happened between the two of them.”
Since 2011, of 256 lawsuits brought by accused students against their universities alleging unfair treatment, about 20 percent of the claims have been made by athletes, said Samantha Harris, a vice president with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an advocacy group promoting greater due process in Title IX investigations.
“There may be a perception out there that this might be a problem of student-athletes because these cases have been in the news,” she said. “But I don’t think that is generally reflected in the greater prevalence of sexual assault.”
Schorr, who said he has consulted with dozens of universities, said that although students overall are becoming more comfortable coming forward, he said the process is still daunting for those “who dare accuse the star athlete of impropriety.”
He said women can face hostility from the school and community, and that “there is definitely preferential treatment institutionally.” Schorr said that the investigative process actually tends to favor athletes who are “not always being held as accountable as a nonstudent-athlete would be.”
Even though the Outside the Lines data show complaints against athletes are rising, information from police reports and interviews with alleged victims who have spoken to Outside the Lines indicate that there are still women who decline to report athletes for fear of retaliation and publicity.
FIRE’s Harris said “very few” students accused in Title IX complaints are getting due process — student-athletes or other students — but she did not know why athletes would be more likely to be accused in a complaint.
Of the 45 Division I and Division II Title IX administrators who responded to the Outside the Lines survey, about 69 percent said they felt that athletes were neither more nor less likely to be accused in a complaint, 18 percent said they were less likely, and 13 percent said they thought they were more likely.
Professor Vicki Michaelis and journalism students Wilson Alexander, Brittney Butler, John Durham, Jed May, Connor Richter, Kelsey Russo, Mason Wittner at the University of Georgia assisted Outside the Lines in requesting records for this story. ESPN consulted with Analysis & Inference Inc.’s senior statistician and president William Fairley and senior statistician William Huber on the methodology used in the analysis of the Outside the Lines data.