Early on, University of Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen didn’t just want her staff to discuss the topic of sexual misconduct with athletes. She wanted to find the strongest approach to address the issue and how to prevent it.
Taking such measures comes as the rest of America grapples with sexual misconduct, domestic abuse and sexual harassment. It began with the #MeToo movement in October and has since led to revelations that have impacted institutions from Congress to Hollywood.
“These are cultural issues that are deeply seeded into who people are as human beings,” Cohen said recently. “I think in our environment.... we have to be an example of that and to show people what’s right and recognize this is the reality of this thing: Bad stuff is going to happen. It happens everywhere actually. In my opinion, the most important thing is, you have to manage it correctly.
“You have to address it. You have to take action. You have to educate. You have to make sure you have more systems in place to not have it happen again.”
Cohen said UW has programming throughout all of its student-athlete groups, which contains 650 athletes in 22 different sports. She said the athletic department has a program for its incoming freshman in addition to each team having a seminar around sexual misconduct and other issues like hazing.
She said the department brought in Alexis Jones – an activist and the founder of ‘I AM THAT GIRL’, a group that provides leadership and personal development to female high school and college students across the nation – to talk with the football team.
Cohen said UW hired Jones to develop to a curriculum across all of the men’s teams to create awareness about how to treat women while emphasizing subjects like sexual assault and harassment.
“Then she had a light-bulb moment and it’s hit me too as a mother of sons in working a lot with men,” said Cohen, who has two boys. “We need to focus more on manhood and we really need to put resources into educating men on what being a real man really looks like.”
Last March, the school invited rape survivor Brenda Tracy to speak with the football team. Tracy was gang-raped in 1998 by four men. Two of those men were Oregon State football players.
Huskies men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins had a district attorney from the King County prosecutor’s office give a 90-minute presentation with the team about sexual misconduct.
Hopkins said he does not remember ever having these talks when he played basketball in the early 1990s at Syracuse.
“At the end of the day in college athletics, it’s all about education,” Hopkins said. “It’s educating these kids on the do’s and the don’t’s, the right’s and the wrong’s. ... All these different issues, they’re so real.”
Even before recent national events, college athletics was already under a microscope. The NCAA, as of August 2017, made it mandatory for collegiate administrators, coaches and student-athletes to undergo annual sexual violence prevention education.
Many programs over the last decade have been embroiled in scandals. The Baylor football team was investigated by the NCAA for a wide-ranging sexual abuse scandal that saw more than a dozen women file lawsuits claiming the school mishandled or ignored rape claims for years.
Another recent example is Michigan State. More than 150 women, including former MSU gymnasts, Olympic rowing and gymnastics athletes, said they were sexually abused by former physician Larry Nassar. The 54-year-old Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison.
Nassar’s case led to several revelations regarding how sexual assault cases were handled by the school such as those involving MSU’s men’s basketball and football teams.
Cohen said understanding due process is one of the biggest misconceptions the public has as it relates to on-going investigations involving student-athletes.
“I think the key is to understand that —and we’ve learned this based on the Michigan State situation — that the athletic department is not supposed to be the investigator,” she said. “Because the more we get involve and investigate, the more clouded the investigation could be. It puts everybody at risk. ... If you’re too involved it can be perceived that you’re trying to influence the investigation.
“That is not a best practice. We don’t do that here.”
Created as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX is a federal statute designed to protect people from gender discrimination throughout educational programs or other activities receiving federal financial aid.
Title IX, per state law and UW’s policy, prohibits discrimination based on “sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender, gender expression, pregnant or parenting status, and LGBTQ identity,” according to the school’s Title IX department’s web page.
Cohen said the Obama administration “did a really good job” of setting more clarity around what the Title IX process should look like on college campuses.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said last fall she plans to repeal the Obama-era Title IX protections because it “failed too many students.”
Each school has a Title IX office that handles those investigations. Cohen said athletic departments do not investigate those matters but are required to report what they know to those Title IX offices.
“This is not nearly as cut and dry as we think it is,” Cohen said. “We think because we hear, we read things and think, ‘It’s a no-brainer. This is how it should have been handled.’ I can tell you being on the other end that I’ve had to deal with some pretty difficult situations here. It’s never as easy as you think it is.”
Cohen said as the Title IX office investigates, the athletic department must decide how it needs to handle whether or not a student-athlete plays during an on-going case.
She said it can take up to three months if its a university investigation and not a criminal case where someone is not being charged.
In those cases, Cohen said the athletic department will typically suspend “more often than not” during an on-going investigation.
“But what if the investigation comes back, which it has on occasion, and the student isn’t found guilty of that?” she asked. “What if you’re a student-athlete? That was a high-profile student athlete that was draftable and you keep him out for three months and he wasn’t charged with anything? Or wasn’t found guilty by (the university)?
“I want to share that because that’s a big part of the story that doesn’t get told.”
Cohen said there are policies written in UW’s student-athlete handbook that state the athletic department has the right to suspend them whether the investigation is criminal or one that’s on-campus.
“We have that and we do that when it happens,” Cohen said. “Unfortunately, it happens.”
Ryan S. Clark: @ryan_s_clark