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PORTLAND, Ore. - Every morning for the past four years, rower Olivia Sanchez has risen at 5 a.m. to join her teammates on the water at the University of Portland.
Like most college students, she awoke groggy, stressed about school and desperate to hit the snooze button one more time. But she forgot all that each time she arrived at the docks, she told USA TODAY, because "it was empowering to start the day surrounded by a rich community of strong women."
For Sanchez, a senior just two weeks from graduation, the rowing team has been one of the highlights of her college career. She's proud to wear the label student-athlete.
Or at least she was proud. Because after what happened Sunday night, Sanchez is questioning her campus and community.
Every spring, the University of Portland's athletics department hosts an end-of-year celebration, organized by the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) and emceed by an athlete. Coaches, teams and administrators attend; the event is closed to the media. Sanchez, who also works for the UP student paper, The Beacon, attended as an athlete. She walked out as a furious, passionate advocate.
Minutes after the event started, Sanchez said, men's tennis player Goutham Sundaram took the stage and introduced himself as emcee. What followed is disgusting and, in all honesty, maybe not that surprising given campus culture across America and the rape culture that is a major concern in the world at large.
Sundaram told attendees he was going to "make this stage (his) locker room," then explained that his goal the last four years had nothing to do with academic or athletic achievement. Rather, he came to The Bluff to get white women to sleep with brown men (Sundaram is Indian). "Go Brown and turn your frown upside down," he cracked.
You'd think that at this point one of the adults in the room -- like maybe university President Rev. Mark Poorman, seated in the front row -- would have rushed the stage, grabbed the mic out of Sundaram's hands and profusely apologized. Instead, Poorman stayed glued to his seat, along with most of the other "adults" in attendance.
Sanchez walked out of the event, along with a handful of others, including men's basketball coach and former NBA star Terry Porter. Sanchez had no intention of writing about, or covering, the Wally Awards. But like so many other young people across the country who now recognize the power of their own voices, she knew she had to speak up. So she walked home in the rain, sat at her kitchen table in a sopping wet dress and wrote an op-ed for The Beacon.
The backlash was swift. The Wally Awards were the talk of campus Monday morning, Sanchez told USA TODAY, and she felt a wave of outrage from her fellow students. How could anyone allow this to happen?
The response from UP's administration has been pathetic. UP waited until Monday at 10:34 p.m. to post a statement on its Facebook page, acknowledging that the comments were "shocking and offensive," adding that UP removed Sundaram from the tennis roster. This punishment rings pretty hollow, though, considering the Pilots have one match left. Banning Sundaram from graduation festivities would be a better course of action.
Tuesday evening, Poorman finally issued a real statement, which published on The Beacon's website. Poorman wrote, "As president, I was in a unique position to stop the proceedings, and I should have done more."
But from where I'm sitting, this is too little, too late. This was a national story for two full days before anyone in a position of power bothered to respond.
Monday morning, about 25 minutes after Sanchez's column posted, athletes and coaches received an email from Karen Peters, a Pilots assistant athletics director and UP's Senior Woman Administrator. It included an "apology" from Sundaram.
"I would like to address what happened at the Wally's last night," Sundaram wrote in the email, which Sanchez shared with USA TODAY. "I want to apologize for taking away from the focus of the night. The night is meant to celebrate the excellence of student athletes and I would like to apologize if I made any people uncomfortable."
The words "sexist," "racist" and "misogynistic" seem to be missing -- a point Sanchez made clear in her response to Peters.
"Are we seriously supposed to accept that as an apology?" Sanchez wrote back. "Goutham Sundaram did not even apologize for the violent, misogynistic speech and the disgusting rape culture which he is perpetuating.
"Last night was the first time I have ever been ashamed to be a Pilot."
Sanchez did hear directly from Sundaram. Monday, just before noon, he emailed Sanchez and told her, "I'm sorry about how you felt last night." He's sorry about how she felt -- not about what he did, but about her response to it. How thoughtful.
"Goutham Sundaram is simply a reflection of a bigger cultural issues at UP," said Brenda Tracy, one of the most outspoken sexual assault awareness advocates. "What is going on on that campus that he felt comfortable getting on stage and saying those things? Who is enabling that?"
As of right now, it's the university president, and plenty of people who work for him who are enabling it. What's worse -- or impressive, depending on how you look at it -- is that it's Sanchez, who is just 22, who sees the bigger picture.
"This is not about him apologizing to me, or anything that happened between us," said Sanchez, who has not met Sundaram. "UP's response to this is far more important than my personal experience. The thing is, I don't think they would have taken action if I hadn't published that op-ed. And that's frightening to me."
It's Misogyny 1, Portland Pilots 0 right now. If leaders on that campus truly want change, maybe they should look to the brave young woman who had the courage to stand up and speak out before any of the adults did.
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