By Jessica Luther
The Austin-American Statesman broke the news on Thursday that University of Texas wide receivers Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander have been charged with second-degree felony sexual assault. Both players have been arrested and suspended indefinitely from the team. The accuser's version of events, as stated in the police report and reported by the Statesman, charges that both men sexually assaulted her on the night of June 21. (Her description of the events is graphic.)
Charlie Strong, UT's new head football coach, released the following statement:
We've been monitoring and addressing the situation with Kendall [Sanders] and Montrel [Meander] since it was brought to our attention. It's been made clear to everyone on our team that treating women with respect is one of our core values, and I'm extremely disappointed that two young men in our program have been accused of not doing that. With the recent charges against them, they have been suspended indefinitely from our football team and will no longer participate in any team functions.
Strong's statement is a bold one, in part because he made one at all. More significantly, he took a hard line on violence against women. This doesn't usually happen.
Bowling Green running back William Houston is currently sitting in an Ohio jail cell, held on bond for attempted rape. University officials have said only that they'll "conduct an investigation," and "Houston could face disciplinary action." There has been no statement from the coach, nor any indication of Houston's status with the team.
The University of Miami dismissed linebackers Alex Figueroa and Jawand Blue from the team earlier this month, when they were both charged with sexual battery and then arrested earlier this month -- but that case was completely cut and dried. The two players reportedly had already confessed to the police.
Two weeks ago, Walt Bogdanich at The New York Times broke a story about how football players at Hobart and William Smith Colleges were never disciplined for sexually assaulting a student. The story scrutinized the unversity's failure to investigate and deal with sexual assault cases, especially those involving football players, yet some responded by asking, "Why not go to the police and let them handle it instead?"
It is true that universities are often financially invested in major sports, so officials have some motivation to absolve players and move on as if nothing happened. The issue is so deep-rooted that Sen. Claire McCaskill's report on sexual assaults on college campuses, released earlier this month, found that "approximately 20 percent of the largest public institutions and 15 percent of the largest private schools allow their athletic departments to oversee cases involving student athletes."
Yet handing these cases over to the criminal justice system is not an answer either. As Bogdanich showed in his damning piece on the Jameis Winston rape investigation, police routinely fail victims too. Only three percent of rapists actually end up in jail, and prisons in this country are their own horror when it comes to sexual assault.
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Strong was hired in early January, becoming the first black man to ever coach a men's team at UT. He takes over a program that was worth $139 million in 2013, which is "almost 20 percent more than any other team in the country," according to Forbes. It's also the last football program to win a national championship with an all-white team, in 1969. (The team integrated in 1970 and won another national title.) The university has only ever had three black head coaches in its 131-year history, with Strong being the third. He has spoken about how his skin color and racism stopped him from even getting interviews for coaching jobs. When UT hired Strong, one of the university's biggest boosters called it a "kick in the face," while The Dallas Morning News describing Strong as "not a hip-hop coach." Shirts quickly appeared on Etsy with Strong's face and the words "Black is the new Brown," a reference to Strong's beloved predecessor Mack Brown.
Some black Austin residents have told me that Strong's hiring was pragmatic, to balance the recruiting battle for black players with rival Texas A&M, whose head coach is also black. Strong is dealing with a team of players he did not recruit, and many believe that Brown's mistakes in evaluating those recruits led to his departure. Only a year before Brown's departure, two other UT players were suspended from the team while under investigation for sexual assault; they were reinstated when charges were not filed. Even so, many also believe that if Strong fails to produce a winning season with Brown's flawed group of players, he may be shown the door before he has a chance to rebuild the program.
Given the uphill battle Strong is facing to keep his job, it's no small thing for him to suspend a wide receiver who started seven games last season. Schools such as Bowling Green show that this kind of statement is not a given. Bogdanich's reporting and Sen. McCaskill's report show that athletic departments are good at squashing these cases and moving on quickly. We desperately need coaches who are willing to help end violence against women, but talk of accountability from athletic departments has been rare.
Strong's swift and pointed response to the arrest of Sanders and Meander is a small step, and without follow through, possibly a meaningless one. He must remain steadfast, and he must do it publicly. He is the head of the most lucrative team in college football. This will not be the last case of sexual assault to be brought against college football players. Hopefully, Strong's statement will set a new standard for how coaches react to them.
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Jessica Luther is a writer and journalist who lives in Austin, Texas. Her writing on sports have 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.