Sports and the campus climate for women: ‘It’s on us’ men

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The reported expulsion of a former Yale men’s basketball captain for alleged sexual misconduct that he disputes — and the team’s apology as teammates balance personal loyalty with support for “a healthy, safe and respectful campus climate”— can raise awareness at universities and beyond.

As the father of both a daughter and a son, I can imagine what the parent of a sexual assault victim — and the parent of an accused perpetrator — might feel, though my own children are still young.

I am a feminist. My mother was an early director of women’s studies at UConn. Years later I volunteered on the board of Domestic Violence Services of Greater New Haven. As an undergraduate and later as a local resident, I’ve attended campus “take back the night” rallies to protest sexual assault, as well as national marches for women’s lives, in D.C.

As a young adult in New York, I once faced a test between my values and ostensible temptation. After an evening during which my date consumed excessive alcohol, she invited me back to her apartment — and into her bed. But from my perspective, she was too drunk to consent, and her stupor was a turnoff. We slept chastely through the night and never dated again.

One can only speculate about whether alcohol was involved in the Yale case, or whether there were differing interpretations or memories of consent. A campus standard of a preponderance of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Regardless, predatory behavior has no place on campus or off it. Men and women alike should stand with survivors of assault.

In the language of a nationwide campaign, “It’s on Us” — men — to respect women and their wishes about how far to go, or not. “Affirmative consent”  — pursuing a clear answer of only “yes means yes” — is the emerging expectation for sexual conduct (involving all gender combinations) on campus, even if criminal law standards differ. Actual implementation of this expectation can be complicated. Due process is also essential.

Connecticut is considering expanding “affirmative consent” beyond such institutions as Yale, Trinity, and UConn, to be the threshold for investigations at all public and private colleges and universities in the state. California’s and New York’s state systems have already adopted this standard on their campuses.

There are efforts around the country, such as Coaching Boys into Men, to cultivate healthy and respectful attitudes toward girls and women. Related are measures to prevent bullying and hazing. “Positive coaching” is a movement that coaches including Yale’s James Jones (whose basketball camp my son attended) have embraced.

Though never acquainted with the former captain whose apparent expulsion has been the subject of controversy, I have met several other Yale basketball players in recent years. Those individuals have made positive impressions and have been among the counselors not only at the basketball camp my son attended (and will again), but also at a broader sports camp in which my daughter participated. Particular players who have been recognized for off-court accomplishments include 2013 captain Sam Martin, now enrolled at Stanford Law School; 2015 graduate/Rhodes Scholar Matt Townsend; and 2015 graduate Javier Duren, who co-founded Team Sober with Bridgeport’s Brandon Sherrod.

From my own era as a Yale student a quarter-century ago, I have come to know former basketball players who are people of distinction, including educator/social entrepreneur Earl Martin Phalen and Travis McCready, CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. Numerous participants in UConn’s men’s and women’s programs over the years, from stars like Emeka Okafor and Maya Moore to role players like R.J. Evans and John Gwynn, are also people of character and accomplishment.

In short, stereotypes about athletes are just that — stereotypes. Student athletes deserve, like anyone else, to be assessed as individuals.

Whatever the Yale basketball team’s fortunes in the NCAA tournament, something beyond school spirit and athletic success can be achieved. The team’s apology is constructive, and at an educational institution, “learning and growing from these recent incidents” (as the team’s statement anticipates) should be welcomed. Go Yale (and UConn).

Josiah H. Brown, as a volunteer, is a youth basketball coach and a former president of Domestic Violence Services of Greater New Haven. He lives in New Haven. 

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