This week, IndyStar broke news that Indiana University has implemented a new policy “disqualifying its programs from adding any athlete with a history of sexual or domestic violence.”
Headlines across the internet presented this as a strong, clear statement from the university, a bold step that will help rid the pervasive enablement that often exists between sports and abusers.
“I think this will be an important policy to help protect members of the Indiana University community,” Indiana Athletic Director Fred Glass told IndyStar.
And while it is a positive step, the reality is a bit more complicated than that.
“I think it’s important that Indiana shows even symbolically that they understand this is an issue,” Jessica Luther, the author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, told ThinkProgress. “But in practice this policy is very narrow.”
Despite what the headlines indicate, the policy doesn’t wholly prevent “incoming freshmen and transfers with sexual or domestic violence issues” from playing at Indiana, nor does it altogether “ban athletes with a history of sexual or domestic violence.”
Indiana’s new policy bans “any prospective student-athlete — whether a transfer student, incoming freshman, or other status — who has been convicted of or pleaded guilty or no contest to a felony involving sexual violence … or has been found responsible for sexual violence by a formal institutional disciplinary action at any previous collegiate or secondary school.” (For the purpose of this policy, sexual violence is defined as “dating violence, domestic violence, rape, sexual assault or sexual violence as defined by the Indiana University policy on sexual misconduct.”)
Because felony convictions for sexual violence are so rare, there is not an epidemic right now of schools overlooking those convictions in order to let athletes play, so officially banning those players from a program is merely a case of semantics.
According to RAINN, only seven out of every 1,000 rapists ever receive a felony conviction. Domestic violence is an extremely underreported crime, and even the victims who do report can be hesitant to go through with a complicated legal process and seek a legal conviction for a variety of reasons. Indiana is setting particularly a high bar by requiring a felony conviction or plea — in many cases, a defendant will plea down to a misdemeanor.
In fact, Joe Mixon, the former Oklahoma running back who was caught on video in 2014 punching a girl and breaking bones in her face, took a misdemeanor plea. He was suspended from Oklahoma for one season, and is now a highly sought-after, albeit controversial, NFL draft prospect.
But the second part of Indiana’s policy is similar to the one that the Southeastern Conference (SEC) implemented in 2015, which banned its schools from accepting transfer athletes who have been dismissed from other programs due to “sexual assault, domestic violence, or other forms of sexual violence.”
It’s significant that the policy goes beyond the criminal justice system, which so often fails victims of sexual violence. However, relying on the disciplinary measures of other programs isn’t a cure-all, either, because many schools still mishandle sexual assault and domestic violence complaints. Too often institutions will ignore and work to bury allegations of violence in order to keep a star player on the field, or overlook past allegations against a player from another school in order to land a top recruit.
That doesn’t mean that Indiana’s new policy should be completely dismissed, however. In addition to banning athletes who have been formally disciplined for sexual violence, the new policy states that any related appeals will be heard by officials outside the athletics department, which is a definite step in the right direction. Indiana is also maintaining its existing policy of suspending athletes accused of sexual violence from competition until the matter is resolved.
“People want very black and white lines, and Indiana has painted a line that says if you cross this, then you are very bad or dangerous and we need to get you off of our campus,” Luther said.
Overall, it’s great that the school is taking proactive steps — but it’s dangerous to present those steps as a catch-all solution to something this complex.
CORRECTION: This piece initially did not include the full information about the policy and characterized it much more narrowly. It has been updated to reflect the full scope of the policy throughout. We regret the error.