Women in sports administration remain relatively scarce. Liz Taylor is the rare woman who actually teaches the discipline. The former Division III volleyball athlete, Division I assistant coach, University of Tennessee Ph.D. candidate and current Temple University assistant professor has focused her research on a wide range of topics — from alcohol use among student-athletes to that population's history of sexual violence to the advancement of women in the historically male-dominated collegiate athletics realm. For better and worse, Taylor has personally experienced much of it. AB senior editor Paul Steinbach asked Taylor to share her experiences with the darker aspects of student-athlete wellbeing.
What has motivated you to pursue athletics-focused research?
I think there are number of reasons that I really got down this path, and one of them is my experience as a student-athlete and then also a graduate-assistant coach. Making my way from Division III to Division I mid-major to Division I Power Five, I got a little bit of a taste at each level. You know the NCAA really prides itself on — and a huge part of their mission is — student-athlete wellbeing, and I think they missed the mark on a lot of that. They missed the bar in a number of areas, and so some of those — alcohol use or misuse among student-athletes, the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions, and sexual violence in sports — are what I have been looking at with my research. It's a combination of my experiences at each of the different levels and then just thinking more holistically about what it means to be a student-athlete and if athletic departments are really looking out for the wellbeing of the student side of student-athlete and looking at student-athletes as people first.
Does research exist to suggest Division III athletes engage in less behavioral misconduct than Division I athletes?
It's interesting, with my thesis we did look at differences between Division I and Division III, and we found differences in their drinking behavior patterns. This makes sense, I guess, from my experience as a student-athlete and as a coach in terms of how much time you give to your sport during a particular time of the year, but what we found is that Division III student-athletes kept a pretty steady consumption pattern throughout the year, whereas Division I student-athletes reported drinking heaviest outside of the season. So, there weren't necessarily differences in the amount of alcohol that they were consuming, but there were differences in their patterns of consumption. In regard to sexual violence, I don't know that there is any literature out there looking at it. I would venture to guess that what we know just based on headlines suggests that there are more instances at the Division I level, but I would argue that that's because we just hear about those instances more. If you look at the lists that are put out — it's been a while since I've seen it circulated — of all the colleges and universities that are under Title IX investigation, my guess is that you wouldn't see a huge difference between Division I, II or III in terms of institutions that are under review.
We often get the sense that athletes don't engage in these behaviors any more than non-athlete students, but we hear about their cases more because of their status. Is there truth to that?
Yes and no. I would say that we absolutely hear about it more. There isn't a ton of research, because as you likely know, it's really hard to get student-athletes to participate in research. It's really hard to get a hold of them because they're a very protected group of students on college campuses. But the research does suggest that student-athletes are over-represented as both the perpetrator and victim of sexual violence.
Is there a reason why an athlete might use or abuse alcohol more than a non-athlete?
There's a whole area of research, and I never knew about this when I was a student-athlete — I came across it because my Master's advisor was a health psychologist. The way that we kind of meshed my interest in sports with her interest in alcohol was looking at student-athletes and their drinking patterns. But there's a huge line of research about what motivates individuals to drink, and so there are a number of reasons why student-athletes are motivated to drink. Coping is a huge motive for student-athletes. Coping with injury. Coping with competition loss. And on a related note, it could be just the opposite — celebratory drinking. If you win a game or competition, you're motivated to drink. We see a lot of social pressures with student-athletes, so social conformity motives are another big reason that student-athletes might drink. If all of your teammates are celebrating by drinking, you feel pressure to drink. And we do know that male student-athletes consume on average more alcohol than female student-athletes, and that matches the general student body population. And then they have found patterns that are different across sport, as well. Research shows that team sport athletes report higher levels of risky drinking than individual sport athletes, except swimming and diving. Research across the board consistently shows that athletes who participate in the sport of swimming and diving report the highest levels.
Interesting. Why do you think that is?
It is really interesting, and my husband is actually a college swim coach, and he and I have talked a lot about this. He tweeted something I guess I knew but never thought of, that when you're practicing swimming, you're very alone. A lot of people relate it to cross country, but when you're out on a training run with your cross country teammates, you can talk with them. You can be social with them while you're participating. But when you're engaging in a swim practice, you really can't, because you're under water for a good portion of the time that you're there. Your time out of the pool with your teammates is some of the only time that you have to converse with them. There might be a heavier culture of engaging outside of the pool, and what that looks like for seemingly a lot of swimmers and divers is socializing over alcohol or around alcohol.
Have alcohol consumption patterns among college students changed over time? Are today's young adults more health conscious?
I haven't seen anything that would suggest that. I haven't been as up to date on this research, but from what I saw maybe five or six years ago when I was more well-versed is that the patterns have stayed pretty consistent throughout history. We have seen an increase in the amount of research conducted on this population, which I think leads to new discoveries in different styles of drinking. As something kind of related to what you mentioned, there's this whole new phenomenon called "drunkorexia," and the idea is that students will limit their food intake or their caloric intake so they can consume more calories or a higher percentage of their calories through alcohol. And drinking that way, maybe they're still only consuming 2,000 calories per day, but X number of them are from alcohol as opposed to food. We are seeing that the consumption patterns and the way that they are using and misusing alcohol might be shifting a little bit.
To me, that sounds worse — to sacrifice the nutrition end versus drinking heavily but still adhering to a structured training table approach.
Yeah. Absolutely. It's definitely less healthy — for sure. And going back to my interest in student-athlete wellbeing and kind of reflecting on my experience as a student-athlete and my experience when I was coaching at Miami of Ohio, student-athletes are typically told to not consume alcohol or they're discouraged from consuming alcohol, but it kind of stops there. And what I have really discovered through the research is that it is extremely detrimental to student-athlete performance. And things like binge drinking and alcohol abuse leads to increased injury, it leads to increased anxiety and depression. And speaking specifically about Division I athletes, who show that they drink more heavily out of season, if you think about what happens out of season, you might not be participating in competition, but you're doing a lot of lifting, a lot of conditioning, a lot of things that are meant to build your foundation. And what the exercise science research shows on alcohol consumption is that if you drink to the point of intoxication one time, that sets you back two weeks in your training. I talked to some student-athletes who were hockey players, and hockey has a pretty notorious drinking culture, and they were saying they were drinking upwards of 15 to 20 drinks per night. So thinking about how much alcohol that is and how likely that is to set them back in their training, in addition to all the other potential negative consequences I mentioned — increased injury, anxiety, depression. Nobody ever said that kind of stuff to me. It was just frowned upon. We were discouraged to do it, but there was never the talk about the correlation between our on- or off-court performance.
Are you seeing athletic departments improve their alcohol education?
Yeah, and I think maybe more so at the Division I level, with the increased number of strength and conditioning coaches, and support staff such as nutritionists, dietitians and athletic trainers. At the Division III level it's just so hard because the coach is expected to really do everything, so I think the education is harder. But the science at the Division I level, with the increased emphasis on nutrition and healthy diet and strength and conditioning, I do think you see more education.
What motived you to study sexual assault among student-athlete populations?
It was a personal experience. When I was at the University of Tennessee, they give their Ph.D. students opportunities to teach courses by themselves, which is an incredible opportunity. And I was teaching an undergraduate sports management class, and I was sexually harassed by a student.
Just a student in the class. He wasn't actually a student-athlete, but I really had no idea what to do. So I went to my advisor — he's a straight white man — and he said to me, "No one's ever sexually harassed me before, so I'm not really sure what you should do, but I think you should maybe try to turn it into a research project." So, I started interviewing other female faculty on their experiences in the classroom and found that it was a really common experience — that the women who I was speaking with had been harassed by their colleagues, they had been harassed by students in the class, they had been harassed by students outside of the class in their office. This kind of got me thinking about education on sexual violence within the sport management curriculum. It kind of spiraled into this idea that if our students in the class are seeing their faculty be harassed or bullied by other students, it kind of creates a culture of acceptance, and then they go into the workplace. Some sport management research of athletics organizations shows us that there's sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment of women who work in sports organizations. They see it in the classroom, they go to the athletic department or the professional team or whatever type of sport organization they're working in, and they see the sexism, the sexual harassment, and they just kind of go with it, because that's what they're used to. And so that's what I did my dissertation on — whether or not we educate students on topics like sexual harassment, sexual assault in the internship setting, in the classroom, and I found out that we didn't. I think part of the reason we continue to see instances like LSU, like Penn State, like Michigan State, USA Gymnastics, Baylor, is a lack of education, a lack of understanding of how to handle these situations and how to recognize that what's happening is problematic, that it is actually sexual harassment or sexual violence and then what to do, who to report to. Specifically thinking about the LSU case, the athletic director was telling his employees that they shouldn't report the instances to the Title IX coordinator, that they should report it to someone who works in the athletic department — a senior associate athletic director — and that's not what the university policy dictated. Just an overall lack of training allowed for these instances to go on, and in my mind that all stems from something that we could start talking about when students are in the classroom.
It must all start with a definition of harassment. How do students know they're witnessing it?
That's, I think, one of the major cruxes of the issue and kind of where I always start in the discussion of my research. There is not one single definition, and what I think is sexual harassment might be different than what you perceive is sexual harassment. When I teach the intercollegiate athletics administration course at Temple, we look at the word-for-word law of Title IX and what that says, and you can do it with other laws, but again a lot of times it's a very gray area. And that's why it's such a contested area, because there is no one single definition. Then when you start drawing in things like, not just sexual harassment, but sexual assault, incivility, bullying and sexism, it gets even more confusing.
What happened in your case?
It started with an email from a student inviting me to a fraternity party. I kind of laughed off the email. I was still young. I look young. That's what everyone tells me. I was kind of like, "This student is silly. It's not a big deal." I replied to the email and just said, "I don't socialize with students outside of the classroom. Let's please keep it professional." And then a few weeks later that same student catcall whistled at me when I walked into the classroom. That's something that has happened to me on a run, but never in a situation where I had to see the person and face them. I just ignored it. I hoped that no one else in the class had heard it. But the next week, a couple of male students stayed after the class, and they were like, "We just want you to know what so-and-so is saying about you during class, and before and after class, and just the comments that he's making about the clothes that you wear and your appearance." Again, I just kind of hoped that if I didn't say anything the situation would stop. And then a few weeks later, a female student came up to me after class and expressed that she was really uncomfortable about the comments that were being made by this student about me and other female students in the class. A sport management classroom is extremely male dominated, so it wouldn't be uncommon for me to have a class of 25 students and 22 of them be men and three of them be women. It's typically a situation where the female students already feel very much in the minority. They feel uncomfortable sometimes sharing their experiences. They feel nervous to answer a question or volunteer. It was kind of at that point when I realized that I just completely mishandled the situation, because it wasn't just me who was feeling uncomfortable. It was the students in the class who were also feeling it.
What happened to the student causing this discomfort?
I took the situation to my advisor, who was a faculty member in the department, and we kind of sat down and mapped out what we wanted to happen. I offered up reporting this and potentially kicking the student out of our major and getting him kicked out of school, but what I was hoping for more so was using it as a learning opportunity for this student. My guess is that no one ever in the past told him that what he was doing was wrong and the comments he was making were inappropriate. My advisor sat down with another faculty member who is a lawyer — he taught all the sport law classes — and they just kind of mapped out what was problematic about the behavior and why it needed to change, especially before he got into the workplace, because it could lead to him getting fired. Again, I think no one had ever told him that catcall whistling at someone is inappropriate or the things that he was saying were actually sexual harassment and could lead to bigger issues if he didn't change his behavior.
Was he receptive?
Not at all. No. Sadly.
Did he finish at Tennessee?
I actually don't know. I was just thinking about this the other day. He actually enrolled in my class the next semester — a different class. My first year, I taught a sports governance class. The next year, I taught an intercollegiate athletics class. And I don't know if he didn't look at who the instructor of the course was, or what, because he showed up on the first day and left halfway through the class and dropped. I think his idea was just to avoid me and the situation for the time being. And I guess on a good note, I never heard anything about him after that. That was my first year there, and I was there for four years. To my knowledge, he never did anything like that again or didn't cause problems in his classes for the rest of his time there.
Are schools doing a better job of education on sexual violence?
I think based on the research that I've done and just the sheer number of instances of sexual violence committed by student-athletes, coaches and administrators that we're hearing about, I would say that suggests no, that they haven't really made progress on the education side of it. And what I mean by my research is I spoke with 20 sport management faculty from across the country. I talked to men and women. I talked with folks whose research interests were in gender equity, Title IX, and folks who had research interests completely outside of that — things like marketing, finance. Faculty who taught classes such as sport law, where discussions of these topics would really fit into the class well, and people who taught outside classes, like I said marketing or finance, and I found that the perception for the faculty was that it was very challenging to include these topics into their classes, especially classes where it didn't fit into a nice neat box like Title IX fits into a sport law class. I think that there still is hesitation to include these types of topics into classes. I know that the NCAA does mandate that all student-athletes go through a training related to sexual violence. However, there are no further guidelines on what the education should include, who should put the education on. It only needs to be once. There are no recurring classes. I think sometimes when the NCAA does something, they do something just to provide a check box, and don't really think through the logistics of it. And that's kind of what I think they have right now with their education on sexual violence.
Not that it's perfect, and we have seen this at a number of different institutions, but following things like Title IX processes and procedures, and educating your staff and student-athletes on the proper reporting channels. That was one thing with the incident that I went through at the University of Tennessee. I at that time had no idea that that was something that I should potentially be reporting to the Title IX office, that that type of behavior from a student is problematic, especially when one of the other students in the class came to me and said that they were uncomfortable with it. So, educating everyone on the Title IX office in general and the reporting chains. And then doing things like properly investigating all claims of sexual violence. What happened at LSU and the reporting of these instances to someone in the athletic department really allowed the athletic department to decide whether or not they wanted to investigate these claims. In some instances, they did, and in some instances, they decided not to. What they were really doing was putting the money-generation and the winning of games over student-athlete safety and wellbeing. I think the opposite needs to be happening. They need to put the safety and wellbeing of their students and student-athletes over athletics and over the money that's generated from athletics. Those would be my top recommendations.
Is there a link between alcohol use and sexual misconduct?
I don't know that there is specific research on alcohol use and sexual assault among student-athletes, but in the general student body population — so not thinking about differences potentially between student-athletes and non-student-athletes — alcohol consumption is heavily linked to sexual violence with all students on a college campus. And more specifically to athletics, what we do know and what the research shows is that the number of instances of sexual violence actually increases on days when colleges and universities host football games. And this is not from the same study, but then you can also think about what happens with alcohol consumption patterns on days when colleges and universities host football games. There's no research that links alcohol and sexual violence within the student-athlete population, but I guess drawing conclusions from multiple studies, I would say that there is likely a connection.
Is there evidence that inclusivity is improving for women in sports?
This is an area that I may be more hesitantly optimistic than a lot of my colleagues, but I think the success of women in leadership roles — so like Becky Hammon, the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team, Sarah Fuller — it's really, really influential because representation matters. It's really critical that girls and young women see that they can succeed as coaches, administrators, athletes, so that they can believe and understand that they can do it. When Becky Hammon won the NBA Summer League, that was huge, because it was really a space that woman had never been successful in before. And when we saw Sarah Fuller get into an SEC game, though she wasn't the first ever woman in a college football game, it was kind of a new space with it being a Power Five game. So, I am really hesitantly optimistic. But, thinking about the research, what we really need to start seeing is changes in organizational culture. I'm thinking about examples like with the Washington Football Team, with the Mavs, with the Panthers — these organizational cultures that show things like sexism and sexual harassment and incivility. Those are the types of culture shifts that we need to see so that women can be accepted more on a wider scale than just these anecdotal examples that we've seen every now and then.
What does your own future look like?
I really do love being a professor. I get to talk about sports all day. I think I have probably one of the best jobs ever. But I did recently just get back into coaching. I'm an assistant coach at Swarthmore College, which is a Division III school just outside of Philly. This year, obviously, looked very different, because all fall championships were canceled at the Division III level, but I look forward to next fall. We have a really great freshman class this year, so I'm excited to see them as sophomores and see our upperclassmen come back and kind of put everything together and get to actually see them play.
This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Researcher examines student-athlete misconduct." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.