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Why blind loyalty is a huge problem in women’s college sports

Why blind loyalty is a huge problem in women’s college sports
02 Jun
5:15

I don’t want to know the things I said.

The year was 2004, the place was the University of Colorado and the context was a football sex scandal that was tearing apart the Boulder campus. Young women, including a female place-kicker, had accused football players of rape, coaches of trafficking, the police department of conspiracy.

My allegiance to the Buffaloes — Buffs Are One, our saying went — came without hesitation, as most things do when you don’t give them enough thought, when you’re fully oblivious of any other considerations. By the time CU’s scandal rolled into town (seems most schools have one, doesn’t it?), I had been wearing black and gold every day for four years as a member of the women’s basketball team. I had spent thousands of afternoons sweating alongside teammates and friends, and evenings breaking bread at the training table.

When I say I don’t want to know the things I said, what I mean is I don’t want other people to know. The victim shaming (“Did you hear what she did the weekend before?”), the sickening excuses (“What Coach Barnett said was taken out of context!”), the unfettered defense of all things Colorado (“That’s not what this place is like”) — still spin in my mind. At first, the words are fuzzy, then horrifyingly crisp.

Even as I cringe at the memory, I remind myself the environment of college sports can cultivate this kind of blind loyalty. It’s something we’ve witnessed over the past year with Auburn softball.

At its best, being a Division I female student-athlete is enriching and empowering. (And my experience, for the most part, was.) At its worst, you find yourself coming of age inside an organization that has some cult-like qualities. Among them: minimal exposure to outside influence. On a college campus, the athletic department is a silo: Its product and messaging is integrated across campus, but little else is.

Most female athletes come through this experience unscathed. After all, college sports employs mostly good people. But when someone is hired who isn’t reputable, the structure and culture of an athletic department can leave young women vulnerable. Most female athletes are oblivious to how unprotected they are. And, more confusing than anything, despite a college career of building their confidence and physical strength, they can also struggle to stand up for themselves, and even shun suffering teammates.

In the case of Auburn, a Title IX complaint by a player on the softball team launched a five-month investigation that concluded former assistant softball coach Corey Myers engaged in unwanted sexual conduct. ESPN’s Tom Junod, who was embedded with the team when the scandal was unfolding, details the family and team dynamics that allowed Myers’ sexual misconduct to fester.

As athletes, we learn to put the team before ourselves, then use this logic almost regardless of circumstance. If we see someone, even a teammate, seemingly jeopardizing the whole, we tend to defend the team and program.

What’s the natural extension of the “team before individual” logic?

Athletic department before team.

So “keep it in-house” tends to become the athlete’s default mindset. First, it might be about small things — gossip, who’s injured, who’s starting. But then it likely becomes the modus operandi for all things, even — especially — behavior that most definitely should not be kept in-house, should not be defended. (Exhibit A: See me, above, about a Colorado scandal that resulted in the resignation of the school president and the head football coach.)

At most Division I schools, the athletic director designates the administrators who oversee each sport. For the most part, managing football or men’s basketball is usually more prestigious than, say, overseeing field hockey and women’s volleyball. In fact, in many cases, the person overseeing field hockey hopes to one day oversee men’s basketball. This is a symptom of a problem — that women’s sports aren’t as valued — as well as a problem in itself. The path toward a “better” assignment includes having your previous assignment result in minimal headaches for the athletic director.

And the job of the athletic director? To raise money and create successful football and men’s basketball programs.

So if a women’s team has a potentially abusive coach or an unhealthy environment, fewer eyes are around to notice the behavior. And the person charged with oversight is likely motivated to give the coaching staff every opportunity to handle the problem themselves.

Occasionally, an athletic department stumbles into an anomaly: a women’s program that makes money, that carries cache and prestige. Think Connecticut women’s basketball, UCLA softball, Penn State volleyball and, despite not being an NCAA title-winning juggernaut, Auburn softball. This kind of program is a unicorn. It’s even more rare than a successful football team. And its benefits are exotic. The value is not simply monetary; a halo effect exists. For one thing, everyone involved is allowed a kind of righteousness for successfully elevating female athletes.

As you can imagine, more eyes are on these unicorn women’s programs, but also, the stakes are higher. And so, as we’ve seen with football and men’s basketball programs time and again, any potential problems would be handled internally.

Do you see the conundrum? If a women’s program isn’t making money, or isn’t prestigious (and most aren’t), then problems rarely make their way up the chain of command. And when a program does have cache, a problem likely will go up the chain, but there’s more incentive to just hope it goes away.

Technically, we’re talking here about college sports, but it’s not difficult to see shades of this flawed thinking and behavior in the scandals that have rocked USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming.

The evolving structure of college sports does not favor female athletes. That’s not surprising considering college sports really isn’t built around the athlete at all — it’s built around the college coach, the boosters, the administrators.

But inside this structure is young people, just coming of age, trying to make sense of the world around them, their place in it.

And oddly enough, inside the vortex of college sports, it can become very easy to forget there’s an outside world at all.

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