It’s a symbolic statement that isn’t really addressing the problem.
Indiana University got a lot of positive press this week when the IndyStar broke news that the school implemented a new policy “disqualifying its programs from adding any athlete with a history of sexual or domestic violence.”
Headlines across the internet presented this as a strong, clear statement from the university, a bold step that will help rid the pervasive enablement that often exists between sports and abusers.
“I think this will be an important policy to help protect members of the Indiana University community,” Indiana Athletic Director Fred Glass told IndyStar.
But, as usual, the reality is much more complicated than that.
“That’s an inherently flawed way to do this, especially given the dynamics of domestic and sexual violence.”
“I think it’s important that Indiana shows even symbolically that they understand this is an issue,” Jessica Luther, the author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, told ThinkProgress. “But in practice this policy is very narrow.”
Despite what the headlines indicate, the policy doesn’t wholly prevent “incoming freshmen and transfers with sexual or domestic violence issues” from playing at Indiana, nor does it altogether “ban athletes with a history of sexual or domestic violence.”
In fact, the policy merely bans “any prospective student-athlete — whether a transfer student, incoming freshman, or other status — who has been convicted of or pleaded guilty or no contest to a felony involving sexual violence.” (For the purpose of this policy, sexual violence is defined as “dating violence, domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or sexual violence as defined by the Indiana University policy on sexual misconduct.”)
In other words: the athlete has to have been convicted of or plead guilty to a felony charge of sexual violence in order to be banned from Indiana. That excludes the vast majority of abusers.
According to RAINN, only seven out of every 1,000 rapists ever receive a felony conviction. Domestic violence is an extremely underreported crime, and even the victims who do report can be hesitant to go through with a complicated legal process and seek a legal conviction for a variety of reasons. Indiana is setting particularly a high bar by requiring a felony conviction or plea — in many cases, a defendant will plea down to a misdemeanor.
In fact, Joe Mixon, the former Oklahoma running back who was caught on video in 2014 punching a girl and breaking bones in her face, took a misdemeanor plea. He was suspended from Oklahoma for one season, and is now a highly sought-after, albeit controversial, NFL draft prospect.
Indiana’s policy has been compared to the one that the Southeastern Conference (SEC) implemented in 2015, which banned its schools from accepting transfer athletes who have been dismissed from other programs due to “sexual assault, domestic violence, or other forms of sexual violence.” But the SEC’s policy did not require a felony conviction or plea, which is a significant difference.
There is not an epidemic right now of schools overlooking felony convictions of domestic or sexual violence in order to let athletes play, so officially banning those players from a program is merely a case of semantics.
The real problems that college sports — and many other powerful institutions — need to address stem from systems that will ignore and work to bury allegations of violence in order to keep a star player on the field, or overlook past allegations against a player from another school in order to land a top recruit.
Knowing that the criminal justice system is incredibly flawed, particularly when it comes to domestic and sexual violence, and yet relying on its convictions as the absolute bottom line, is an inherent contradiction.
That doesn’t mean that Indiana’s new policy should be completely dismissed, however. Any appeals related to the policy will be heard by officials outside the athletics department, which is a definite step in the right direction. Indiana is also maintaining its existing policy of suspending athletes accused of sexual violence from competition until the matter is resolved.
Overall, it’s good that the school is trying to take proactive steps — but it’s dangerous to present that step as solution to something this complex.
“People want very black and white lines, and Indiana has painted a line that says if you cross this, then you are very bad or dangerous and we need to get you off of our campus,” Luther said.
“But in reality, so few people ever get to the point where they’re convicted, so once again we’re relying on the criminal justice system. That’s an inherently flawed way to do this, especially given the dynamics of domestic and sexual violence.”
Indiana’s new domestic and sexual violence policy for athletes isn’t as bold as it seems was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.