HOOVER, Ala. – There is the shallow, easy, minimum response: We’re against sexual violence against women. It’s absurd that college football programs even need to make that clear, but in these dark days, they do.
Just this summer: Baylor was rocked by a report that multiple football players committed sexual assaults and victims were either ignored or intimidated to protect the program’s winning percentage; Tennessee settled a Title IX lawsuit for $2.48 million with eight women who accused the school of mishandling sexual assault cases, especially involving athletes; and one of four former Vanderbilt football players charged with raping an unconscious woman in a dorm three years ago was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
That paragraph is too long, and it is hardly a full accounting of college football players treating women badly and believing (often correctly) that their status as star athletes would be a literal get-out-of-jail-free card. So yes, the very least administrators, coaches and players must do now is say they will not stand for such behavior.
But any real change will take more than that lip service, and so it was encouraging last week at SEC Media Days to hear a little more – to learn that action is being taken and to detect some genuine disgust in the discussion of what has become the story of this offseason.
“It’s a horrible thing, sexual assault,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Things that have gone on, it’s horrific. All our daughters are scared to death of it. It hit home for me because I’ve got my own kids, my own daughter.”
There, in that simple sentence, is the empathy that every man ought to apply to his treatment of women and reaction to offenders: What if she was someone I loved?
Smart has shared that sentiment with his team and scheduled quarterly speakers on the uncomfortable but important subject.
“We’ve had a lot of coaching,” Bulldogs lineman Brandon Kublanow said. “We’ve had the police chief come in. We’ve had lawyers come talk to us. It’s been a big emphasis in the offseason – I think for every team in the country. It’s something that light has been shed on the past couple of months (and) everyone wants to make sure they’re doing the right thing.”
Vanderbilt has taken steps to correct its campus culture, creating Project Safe Center, which aims to prevent sexual misconduct at the school and support student victims when it occurs. Representatives of that organization have spoken recently to the Commodores football team.
“On what it means to have good consent – and just do the right thing,” standout linebacker Oren Burks said. “That’s the thing at the end of the day. I think it’s just holding each other accountable, having that conversation in the locker room, where it’s not OK to disrespect women.
“What if it was your mother or your sister? You would treat them completely different.”
There it is, again, that little sentence with such enormous implications. And versions of it kept coming out of players and coaches’ and players’ mouths last week in Hoover – along with phrases like “see something, say something” and “active bystander” that indicate education is happening.
LSU recently announced that in the coming months, every athlete, coach and athletic support staff member will be required to undergo sexual harassment sensitivity and awareness training. In announcing it, school president F. King Alexander said only two schools in the country were providing that kind of department-wide education.
“They’re doing it in a reactive mode due to problems they’ve had,” Alexander said. “We’re implementing this in a proactive mode.”
To that point, plaintiffs in the UT lawsuit have said they’re satisfied with the progress the school has made toward improved sexual assault education and response. Volunteers coach Butch Jones started the 4th-and-1 program, a series of speakers every Wednesday in the offseason, to address serious off-the-field issues, including sexual assault and domestic violence.
“I understand the severity of it,” Jones said. “It’s for us to continue to educate our players and make it a focal point, because it is an issue and something that we take very seriously. … And I don’t ever look at it as being over. I think it’s constant education.”
That, of course, is just one piece of it. Response is as important, if not more so, and Jones’ handling of accusations against his players in the past has been called into question.
And while not sexual in nature, Mississippi State’s one-game suspension of a 5-star freshman caught on video punching a woman in the face has drawn widespread criticism this summer. In other words, there is much work still to be done.
“(Athletes) have to have a values base in which they understand the serious consequences of their behavior,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told SEC Country last week. “These aren’t laughing matters – it’s not funny – and there is more attention, and they will be held accountable when they cross those lines.
“There are lessons that we see develop over time, whether it’s around this issue or other issues that we’ve seen over the last decade, about power run amok. We can’t lose sight of individuals who might be the next player to get us to the (next) level. We can’t. There’s too much valuable happening with thousands of people doing it the right way.”
Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis wants to be one of those. He said Gators coach Jim McElwain and the staff have tried to cultivate both “the ideal athlete” and “wonderful men as well,” harping especially on the treatment of women in recent months.
“Each and every day I wake up, get out of my bed and go to work, I have a special opportunity right here,” Davis said. “But my mom, my grandma, my grandpa, my dad, my teachers, my coaches – everybody that played a part in getting me to this university – if I were to go out and jeopardize all the work and time they invested in me, that’s extremely, extremely selfish.”
It doesn’t take much to say rape is bad, and that’s the least college football programs should be saying (shouting!) these days, but it was encouraging to hear last week how much more SEC football players and coaches had to say on the subject.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.