Opinion: College Athletics Needs Image Overhaul

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Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)


For now it's nothing more than a lawsuit brought by a former female student against Baylor University. No court has yet ruled for or against either side.

But according to ESPN.com, the suit filed last Friday alleges that the Bears football program "fostered a culture in which alcohol and illegal drugs were provided to recruits, and that coaches encouraged female students in the Baylor Bruins hostess program to have sex with recruits and players."

Other than that, there's really nothing new concerning the already immensely soiled reputation of the world's largest Baptist university.

The question, however, is not so much what Baylor's done wrong as when is the rest of college athletics going to get this recruiting thing right? Or at least rated PG. We especially ask this as we stand on the eve of the South's great unofficial holiday (or sick day, depending on where you work): national college football signing day.

Even if you shrug your shoulders over the Bears laid bare, what about the University of Louisville grudgingly admitting that prostitutes did indeed spend at least a little time in their basketball dormitory? What, also, about the troubling story out of Kansas concerning a 16-year-old female who allegedly was raped inside the Jayhawks basketball dorm in December, though no KU players are currently linked to the investigation.

And all of this comes on the heels of one of the most disturbing, disgusting stories of all at Vanderbilt, where a player actually encouraged three of his teammates to participate in the rape of his girlfriend. Thankfully, that boyfriend and one teammate have been convicted of this heinous act and sentenced to at least 15 years each in prison. The other two former Commodores have pleaded not guilty and their cases are still pending.

But at some point, isn't it way past time for us to take a long, hard look at how we recruit these athletic wunderkinds to Big State U? Shouldn't everything about the recruiting process take a Clorox bath and have its guidelines rewritten by Disney?

At a time when -- according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center -- one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, shouldn't any behavior that can possibly add to those figures be strongly discouraged if not outright eliminated?

Beyond that, if the NSVRC is correct that more than 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault, shouldn't major college athletic departments -- which so many school chancellors, including the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Steven Angle, refer to as the "front porch" of the university -- make it a far higher priority to make their campuses as recognized for student safety as sports success?

"I've got two daughters," UTC athletic director David Blackburn said, "and one of them is a sophomore at UTC. As with most things, this isn't just a sports issue but a societal issue, a global issue. But (sexual assault) seems as if it's becoming much more prevalent in the athletic world."

How could it not be? We return to the accusations against Baylor. The hostesses. The alcohol and drugs. The charge in the complaint that a Baylor assistant coach allegedly asked a recruit from Dallas, "Do you like white women? Because we have a lot of them at Baylor, and they love football players."

Here's the real problem. Fifteen years ago some of us at this paper were told by a major college player that before his recruiting visit to a nationally known Southern football program he was asked whether he liked his women blonde, redhead or brunette.

As late as 2009, former UT coach Lane Kiffin was in trouble with the NCAA for his use of hostesses. Suffice it to say that the pictures some of those hostesses posted on social media didn't look like their chief job was to treat a recruit to a Coke and a box of popcorn from a Neyland Stadium concession stand, then hand him off to mama.

Sex sells. Too often. Especially to those too young to know how to handle it.

"We probably all need to really ramp up education," Blackburn said. "There should be basic fundamentals regarding respect for one another. There's a line that can't be crossed, be it mentally, emotionally or physically. And if it's crossed, that victim has to know he or she is in a completely safe environment to report an incident if something goes wrong."

Like many other good and thoughtful administrators, Blackburn is trying to stay ahead of the problem. Despite a razor-thin budget, the school now has senior associate athletic director Laura Herron oversee any and all Title IX issues.

Before school begins each fall semester, there are meetings with all athletes about sexual assault and coaches are encouraged to address the issue often.

"You need constant education," he said. "Even then, you wonder sometimes if we educate enough. No system's perfect, I guess, but it's not because we don't try."

Blackburn was once director of recruiting compliance at Tennessee. He was still a UT administrator when Kiffin had his NCAA issues over his attempt to take hostesses off campus to recruit.

"It's got to be totally rethought," the UTC AD said of the current recruiting model at far more schools than Baylor. "We've got to get it across to all our young people that bad things happen, things that ruin lives for both the accused and the victim, whenever you cross those lines. We've just got to do a much better job of respecting each other."

Shutting down the houses of ill repute that college football and men's basketball recruiting have too often become would be a perfect place to start.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at [email protected]

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January 31, 2017


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