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Keith Strudler: Searching For Answers In Sports

Perhaps the most instinctive human process is the need to know “why.” As thoughtful beings, we don’t simply accept our reality. We question it, often in vain. Whenever someone does something wrong, the first question we ask is why. Why did they do it, what made them act that way. It’s often a fool’s quest, since we frequently do things that lack reason. That’s the reality of life, which might best be summed as a series of mistakes, where each day we vow to make just a few less.

Such, in a roundabout way, is a consideration for the athletic departments at both Baylor and Stanford Universities, two private research institutions with estimable Division I sports programs. I won’t belabor the differences between the two schools, which do stand miles apart in physical geography and general political identities. Regardless, they have some clear similarities. They’ve got money, powerful allies, and take sports quite seriously. For all of Stanford’s academic cred, they’re also about to win their 22nd consecutive Division I Director’s Cup, given to the top performing athletic program in the country. Put into perspective, Stanford tied for 4th in the latest US News ranking of national universities. So say what you want about the University of Texas or Alabama or whoever. Stanford, one might suggest, is a jock school.

Which is at least part of the dialogue around the well-publicized criminal case of now former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, who until recently was an anonymous college freshman on the Palo Alto campus. That has certainly changed, and not simply because he’s no longer enrolled, nor is he a college swimmer. It’s because Turner was found guilty and sentenced for the rape of a 23 year old woman, who was unconscious during the attack that happened near a dumpster after attending a campus party. The case has received disproportionate attention in the past several days, and not simply because of the crime itself, because as we all know, sexual assaults happen with shocking regularity, even on elite American college campuses. It’s for two other reasons. First, because of the disturbingly light sentence the judge gave Turner – six months in prison, which could be three months for good behavior; and he has to register as a sex offender, which clearly could impact his future employment. Yet in totality, it’s far, far short of the expected punishment. And second, the decision was even more distasteful to most because of the judge’s proclamation that “a prison sentence will have a severe impact on him” and because of Turner’s father’s ill-conceived open letter calling his son’s punishment “a steep price for 20 minutes of action.” Lest he be reminded mass homicides have happened in this country in a matter of seconds. In other words, he simply doesn’t, or refuses to understand the damage his son caused to another human being.

A similar thought process seemed at place at Baylor University, where several high ranking employees have been fired because of cover-ups of sexual assault and domestic violence by football players – some who received far longer prison terms than six months. It seems the now former head coach Art Briles and recently removed college president Ken Starr, that Ken Starr, felt these particular crimes weren’t serious enough to dismantle what had become one of the nation’s top football teams. While the sport, university, and reasoning were different, in both the case of Stanford and Baylor athletics, sexual assault by star athletes was deemed relatively insignificant in comparison to a larger institutional machine – be it the pursuit of a football title or the continued destiny of a life of relative privilege. And I know someone could (and probably will) write a dissertation on the function of race in these two cases.

But the question here is how exactly did sports fit into it all of this? Perhaps the most used descriptor for Brock Turner, outside of Stanford, is swimmer. Same goes for Baylor and football. As if their athletic participation was the central component of their crimes. It’s not dissimilar to the rhetoric around the Duke Lacrosse assault accusations years ago, which were proven false, but centered around these young men’s affiliation as elite college athletes. Yet we don’t know anything else about Brock – was he a math major, did he play video games, and so on. The same goes for the convicted Baylor football players, and yes I understand the ongoing debate about institutionalized sports violence and a culture of sports entitlement.

But leaving aside the unforgivable handling of both cases, we must be careful not to indict the sport with the athlete. Elite athletics was certainly part of this story, but if we reduce these cases to simply athletes committing crimes against women, we’re shortchanging the issue. We shouldn’t blame sports for sexual assault, but rather should try to understand how they might privilege people and corrupt process. Brock Turner is a criminal who happened to swim. But what that doesn’t tell us, and what we really want to know, is why.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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