Historically, a scholar’s word was considered better than that of a “townsman.” Along with scholarly status comes a protective cloak or veil that often affords college intellectuals–the future leaders and professionals of America–impunity from the law and leniency from public officials. In the past, status and respect derived solely from monetary wealth aided law breakers in escaping criminal sanctions for their offenses. Today, a small minority of college students– athletes–are also afforded leniency when they commit criminal violations because of the “star” status derived from being an athlete. This essay provides a historical overview of universities and campus crime, discusses the relevance of the status of athletes, identifies the prevalence of campus violence perpetrated by student-athletes, and explains why some athletes commit crime.
Violence on college campus is not a new phenomenon. Likewise, the sense of “us versus them” and the lack of response by the criminal justice system when scholars commit criminal offenses are well entrenched in our society.
The problem with the criminal justice system not intruding when campus crimes occur dates back to the first university institutions in Europe. Although crime was present in these institutions of higher learning, they remained separated from the rest of society in several ways. In fact, such campuses were originally referred to as sanctuaries. This idea of a campus as a sanctuary had its roots in the violence that was related to the “town versus gown” relationship.
Medieval universities, which were known as studia generalia, were institutions characterized by regional significance that drew pupils from beyond their own region. These universities were often at the center of the balance of power between the church and the state. The power of education and its relation to economic and political power were certainly recognized.
Such universities found their origin in the guilds of professors and students who collaborated to protect their rights from those church authorities within their institutions who tried to control their studies and affairs. In fact, the word university stems from the Latin universitas, which means “consolidation.” Prior to the close of the 12th century, the masters in several universities created guilds of medicine, law, theology, and liberal arts because they were vexed at the control exerted by the chancellors who had been given authority over them. The masters wanted control over their own affairs, and they also wanted to issue teaching licenses. They turned to anyone who would help them in their pursuit of autonomy.
During this century, townspeople were often angry at the sense of arrogance students demonstrated because of their privileged status. From this tension, violence ensued. The violence reached its peak at Oxford University on Saint Scholastica’s Day in 1354. For three days, the townspeople and the students battled. The university was destroyed and several people died, including two chaplains.
In response to such violent eruptions, the monarchs granted the universities special legal rights and autonomy–including the right of students and faculty to be tried in university courts for any alleged offenses. Thus the tradition of special treatment for college students in courts of law and the criminal justice system dates back to at least the 13th century in Paris and the 14th century at Oxford.
Until recent decades, legal requirements imposed on colleges and universities were virtually absent. Consequently, many universities saw themselves as removed from, and perhaps above, the world of law and lawyers. The tradition of non-intervention by the judicial system and the government can still be seen in the response to campus crime. Student behavior that would have labeled a criminal offense if it happened outside of the university is instead handled from within the walls of academia, generally by the dean of students, who may sanction quick fixes as he or she sees fit. This approach eliminates the criminal stigma for perpetrators, but the outcome may not be well received by victims. Moreover, offenders may not be deterred from reoffending if their behavior is treated so lightly.
Today, status protects a lot of people. On college campuses, the “star” status protects many student-athletes from punitive sanctions when they break the law. Rather than student rebellion and violent demonstrations, which were the more common forms of violence throughout most of academic history, sexual violence is the main issue on college campuses today.
In 2006, Duke University’s lacrosse team came to the media’s attention after a woman leveled charges of kidnapping and rape at two members of the team. Prior to the scandal, news reports revealed, 15 of the players had court records, generally involving charges of drunken and disorderly conduct.
Although all charges in the Duke case were eventually dropped, sexual assault by athletes remains all too common. One study concluded that while athletes constitute 3.3% of the college population, they perpetrate 19% of all sexual assaults on campus. A study by Dr. Mary P. Koss concluded that male athletes were involved in roughly one-third of all sexual assaults committed on college campuses. This number has held stead, according to the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. According to a 2005 study, athletes account for less than 2% of the total college student population–but that 2% represents 23% of all sexual assault assailants and perpetrates 14% of the attempted sexual assaults on campuses.
The Benedict-Crosset study was one of the largest and most important on this same topic. It addressed sexual assault at 30 NCAA Division 1 universities in the 1990s. The authors concluded that male student-athletes are responsible for a higher proportion of sexual assaults on Division 1 campuses compared to the rest of the male population.
In the early 2000s, many allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior and rape were made against rugby players at San Diego State; against football players at Penn State, the Naval Academy, the Coast Guard Academy, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Colorado; and against basketball players at the University of South Dakota. According to the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention, gang rapes committed on campuses are most often perpetrated by men who belong to intensive male peer groups who demonstrate rape-supportive behavior and attitudes. One analysis of alleged gang rapes concluded that in 22 of 24 documented cases, the perpetrators were members of either an athletic team or a fraternity. Researchers contend that when such crimes are committed by athletes, society fails to label the act a crime and does not impose harsh sanctions. In fact, many boosters come to the defense of the team they so love. They may deny that a gang rape occurred, instead calling it group sex.
Athletes perpetrate other forms of crime or violence as well. In February 2010, after the starting quarterback at Oregon, Jeremiah Masoli, was accused of stealing laptops, running back LaMichael James was arrested for domestic violence. The athlete faced misdemeanor charges of strangulation, menacing, and assault. James was also arrested in 2008 for disorderly conduct and third-degree battery, but those charges were dismissed. Leniency afforded by status is clearly evident in this case.
The attitude that they are above the law may help explain what prompts athletes to offend. These attitudes may arise because of the special treatment they have been given, often beginning in high school. Additionally, the message sent out to young men in general about being tough, assertive, and aggressive can be detrimental and translate into violence. The “jock culture” and the traditional macho culture in American society have several similarities regarding their underlying values: a sense of entitlement and impunity, bullying, dominance, narcissism, aggression, winning, and being a sexual athlete. These values often lead to violence, rape-supportive attitudes, the devaluation of women, and an us versus them: attitude. From this perspective, anyone who is not a star athlete is flawed and separate from the “heroes.”
Sometimes college coaches seem to condone their athletes’ violent behavior. For example, the former basketball coach at the University of Maryland, Lefty Driesell, condoned such violence when he called a woman and asked her to drop the rape charges she had brought against one of his athletes. Statements such as the one made by coach Bobby Knight in a 1988 interview–“I think if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it”–also send a terrible message to young men in America.
Critics contend that athletes are over-represented as perpetrators not because they actually commit more offenses, but because it is easy to accuse them. They are often very recognizable in their communities. Some note that while athletes are more likely to be accused of sexual offenses, they are not necessarily more likely to be convicted of these crimes. That could mean there is no truth to the charge. Some blame the “groupie” culture that often surrounds high-profile athletes for the frequent charges made against these individuals, asserting that women may throw themselves at these men and then file complaints so as to gain fame or money from out-of-court settlements.
- Benedict, J. (1998). Athletes and acquaintance rape. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Benedict, J. (1999). Public heroes, private felons: Athletes and crimes against women. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
- Finley, L., & Finley, P. (2006). The sport industry’s war on athletes. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- National Coalition Against Violent Athletes: http://www.ncava.org/
- Tarper, J., & Taylor, A. (2006, April 18). Is jock culture a training ground for crime? ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=1857059&page=1