Colleges Walk a Fine Line When Athletes Are Accused of Sexual Assault

Gainesville Sun/Landov

The U. of Florida announced this week its suspension of Treon Harris, a freshman quarterback, from the Gators football team, pending an investigation of another student's accusations against him.
October 09, 2014

When a star athlete is accused of sexual assault, teams of handlers typically swoop in to contain what can rapidly escalate into a public-relations crisis for a university.

Given the intense focus on campus sexual violence, the playbook today is more likely to call for swift suspensions and public disclosures than sweeping the matter under the rug.

But as both the University of Florida and the University of Kentucky responded this week to accusations against freshman football players, they walked a fine line, immediately and publicly denouncing sexual assault while stressing that they would be fair to the players who had been accused but not convicted of any crime.

Mindful that their handling of such incidents could make or break their reputations, at least in the short term, universities are moving more swiftly to avoid the appearance of a coverup and to show that they take the matter seriously, several experts who advise colleges say.

On Monday the University of Florida announced that Treon Harris, a freshman quarterback, had been suspended indefinitely from the Gators football team pending an investigation of accusations that he had sexually assaulted a female student in an on-campus residence hall. The statement, released one day after the alleged incident, included an assertion by J. Bernard Machen, the university’s president, that the institution has "no tolerance for sexual assault on this campus."

Then, on Tuesday, the University of Kentucky suspended a freshman defensive end, Lloyd Tubman, indefinitely from all football activities after he was charged with first-degree rape. A woman who said she was Mr. Tubman’s former girlfriend told the police the alleged incident happened in an on-campus residence hall last Thursday.

Mr. Tubman, who has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charge, could also be disciplined under the student code of conduct, university officials said.

Kentucky’s head football coach, Mark Stoops, released a statement on Tuesday saying that those affiliated with the team were "working extremely hard to develop quality young men on and off the field." In a news conference later that day, he told reporters, "We just feel for all parties involved, and we’ll let the legal process go through its course."

‘A Risk Either Way’

While Florida and Kentucky took swift action to publicly disclose the actions they had taken against the accused players, that hasn’t always been the case when universities’ reputations are at stake.

"American institutions are hard-wired to keep bad news contained and, as a result, have a hard time engaging outside experts to come audit their procedures and practices and investigate allegations of serious misconduct," said Dan Beebe, a former commissioner of the Big 12 Conference and now a consultant to athletics departments.

When deciding whether to immediately suspend an accused player, "There’s going to be a risk either way," said Mr. Beebe. "Society says you’re innocent until proven guilty," but if a preliminary investigation shows a reasonable likelihood the incident occurred, colleges should suspend the player until the matter is resolved, he said.

While there’s always a risk that a quick, public response could sully the reputation of a student who turns out to be falsely accused, failing to take action would be worse, said Gene A. Marsh, a retired law professor at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and former chair of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I Committee on Infractions.

"An athlete has a right to a fair process, but any athlete who chooses to be in this kind of high-profile world has to accept the scrutiny that comes with it," said Mr. Marsh, who has helped colleges, including Pennsylvania State University, weather major scandals and has assisted coaches who have been accused of NCAA violations.

2 Responses in Florida

Some commentators have contrasted the University of Florida’s speedy disclosure of the accusations against Mr. Harris with Florida State University’s response two years ago after its star quarterback, Jameis Winston, was accused of sexual assault. Mr. Winston, who remained on the team and was never charged with a crime, went on to win a Heisman Trophy and to lead FSU to a national championship last season.

A Florida State spokeswoman released a statement this week saying it would be "irresponsible" to draw parallels between cases with different facts and circumstances.

"Factors such as the immediate identification of suspects and how complainants come forward within the university process make a significant difference in how both the criminal-justice system and a university respond to a situation," the statement said. Mr. Winston has contended that he had consensual sex with the alleged victim, who told the authorities she was intoxicated, and the local prosecutor’s office concluded last year that it didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute.

Florida State has disputed the findings of a New York Times investigation that concluded that both the university and the local police dropped the ball on the investigation.

The climate surrounding sexual-assault allegations has also heated up considerably since 2012. Universities that might have waited for a preliminary investigation to take its course are more likely to immediately suspend a player suspected of abuse today.

"People don’t need to be reminded how incredibly intense the scrutiny of athletes is today, and that how you handle these matters reflects the ethic of the place—at least, that’s how most people read it," Mr. Marsh said. "These matters used to go through one or two news cycles and disappear, but now they never go away. It’s important that you handle the matter exactly the way you would for any student, and that there’s no special treatment for athletes."

The explosion of social media has made it harder, and more important, for university officials to protect students’ privacy and make unbiased decisions, said Teresa Valerio Parrot, a crisis consultant who worked at the University of Colorado system in the early 2000s, when football players there faced accusations of sexual assault.

"The reality is that institutions are working hard to implement processes that are fair for all students, which includes both the accused and the accuser," she said in an email.

"It’s far easier to judge an institution’s response after the fact and nitpick their actions," she said, "than it is to make real-time decisions as details and facts arise."