By Jessica Luther
In early May, news broke that three University of Oregon basketball players were not going to be charged for allegedly kidnapping and raping a fellow Oregon student, but the players also were "not currently participating in any team activities." This case quickly became national news, because it fits into two other ongoing, national discussions: the failure of universities to deal adequately with sexual assault cases, and their tendency to ignore or downplay the misconduct of their student athletes.
Sexual assault cases on campus naturally garner more media attention when athletes are involved. That increased exposure, in turn, raises a whole other set of issues in a case like this: race. When a major university like Oregon has an overall student population of 24,548, and only 468 of them are black (1.9 percent), what does it mean when three black men's faces suddenly become synonymous with "sexual assault" on campus?
In the Eugene Police Department report of the alleged crime on March 9, the victim names Dominic Artis, Damyean Dotson and Brandon Austin as the perpetrators. She says they each sexually assaulted her in the bathroom of another player's home before taking her to Artis and Dotson's apartment, where they continued to assault her. In the report, she says, "I think I just gave up. I let them do whatever they wanted. I just wanted it to be over and to go to sleep." They eventually stopped when they saw she was crying.
The police report cites recorded phone conversations the woman had with Artis and Dotson, in which both men deny knowing she did not want to have sex until she began crying. According to the report, Artis admitted he felt like he did something wrong and that "he felt bad about the situation," while Dotson "told her he was sorry, and said what he did was very inappropriate." Austin, who transferred to Oregon from Providence College after his alleged involvement in a sexual assault case there, did not speak to the police or the victim after the incident. In the end, the chief deputy district attorney said that "given the state of evidence, the crimes cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt," so no charges will be brought against the three. The absence of charges does not mean the absence of a crime, however. The university, for its part, appears to have done little to nothing.
This case seems to matter more on this campus than others, because it involves a basketball team that just recently played well in the NCAA tournament. This team is beloved, but it's also seen its share of problems, as reported in The Oregonian: "Of the 16 players on Oregon's roster following its season-ending NCAA tournament loss to Wisconsin on March 22, four remain in good standing." One student told a local news station she felt this case was important, in particular, because "a lot of abuse goes unnoticed, especially when the male, or the perpetrator involved, has a higher standing in the university."
The rub here is that sexual assault cases involving student athletes often end up being high-profile cases and black men on campuses are greatly overrepresented on athletic teams. According to the 2013 report, "Black Male Student-Athletes And Racial Inequalities In NCAA Division I College Sports," "Between 2007 and 2010, black men were 2.8 percent of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students, but 57.1 percent of football teams and 64.3 percent of basketball teams." The report states that, at Oregon, black men make up 1.1 percent of the overall UO undergraduate population but account for 54.5 percent of football and basketball team members. Louis Moore, assistant professor of history at Grand Valley State University, says that unfortunately these disproportionate numbers mean that "the face of rape and criminality" in sports is often "going to be the black male" (though, of course, not exclusively). Additionally, the lack of black men on campuses, Moore argues, feeds into the idea that they are outliers in the community. "So there is this sense that they don't belong, that they never belonged," Moore said, "and when the crime happens, it becomes, 'See, I told you so.'"
Black men are also greatly overrepresented in our prison system. According to the NAACP, "African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites." In Oregon, there are 14,657 inmates currently in the department of corrections population. Even though Oregon has a black population of only 1.8 percent, 9.3 percent of its prison inmates are black. All these statistical disparities mean that when cases of sexual assault with black athletes as perpetrators become major media stories, the image of black men as criminals plays into the popularity of that story.
Carol Stabile, director of the university's Center for the Study of Women in Society, has been involved in the protests surrounding this case. She says because "there are so few students and faculty of color" on UO's campus, "it is very hard to have a conversation [about race] on this campus under normal circumstances. It is even more difficult in the context of this particular case, where at rallies there are survivors who are really angry and in tears, and they are saying things like, 'Expel the rapists.' That's a problem."
The university and media's immediate interest in this case, Stabile notes, gives activists a sliver of space to voice their concerns -- the kind of opening that may not come again for quite a while. "We've been working on the ground for years," she says. "This case came along; we did not choose this case. We've been living with this issue for so long. There's so much frustration that the university will only pay attention when something like this happens."
In other words, if athletes weren't involved, none of us would be talking about UO right now. Sports make it a story. "I wrote a letter to [Oregon president Michael] Gottfredson in December 2012," Stabile recalls, "and I listed a whole bunch of cases that I'd heard about that I was really concerned about. And I said, 'If you don't want what happened at Penn State and Amherst and Wesleyan to happen here, you need to get ahead of the problem now.' And he said to me in an email, 'Thank you very much for your concern.' And that was the end of that."
In the two weeks since the initial story broke, the three players were officially dismissed from the team. "They will not be playing basketball at Oregon again," Gottfredson announced at a May 9 press conference. There have also been two different Title IX civil rights complaints filed against the university, one on behalf of the players themselves and the other for the administration's failure "to notify the campus community or include in a police log an allegation of sexual assault involving three basketball players." Gottfredson also has said the school will investigate recruitment as part of a panel on how the university prevents and responds to sexual assault. The UO Senate, not leaving it up to the administration alone to review the situation, has decided to create its own task force.
For Stabile and other activists at Oregon, the next step is to move beyond this singular case and make more concrete progress. "If we can start talking about the necessary steps we can take to make this campus safer, for when young women come here next fall…what are the things that might prevent things like this from happening next year?" Activists are also mindful, however, of the racial issues raised by campus reaction to the case, and on May 11, the UO Coalition To End Sexual Violence released a statement specifically to address that. They noted, "This case does not reflect the typical demographics of race and sexual assault, and we need to be scrupulous in bringing all perpetrators to justice, regardless of their race, class or sexual identity." Stabile seconds this and notes succinctly, "You can make that argument without discrediting the survivors."
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Jessica Luther is a writer and journalist who lives in Austin, Texas. Her writing on sports has appeared at the Guardian, the Atlantic, Salon, Think Progress, RH Reality Check and in The Texas Observer. Her site and podcast about sports and culture is Power Forward.