Male athletes in big-time college programs are responsible for a significantly higher percentage of reported sexual assaults than other students, according to the first national study on the subject.
While athletes constitute 3.3 percent of the total male student population, they were involved in 19 percent of the sexual assaults reported to judicial-affairs offices at colleges, according to a Massachusetts-based study released yesterday at a sports-sociology conference in Georgia.
Sex crimes involving athletes are less often reported to campus police, suggesting that women are particularly reluctant to accuse athletes of wrongdoing unless they can do it quietly and efficiently, as the more private, campus judicial-affairs system allows.
The authors of the study are Todd Crosset and Mark McDonald, professors in sports management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Jeffrey Benedict, a graduate student at Northeastern University.
Without getting into the causes behind the relationship between athletes and sexual assault, the report provides evidence of a problem consistently discounted by coaches and administrators.
"Obviously what it warrants is the question: Is sports contributing to the incidence of rapes and sexual assaults?" Benedict said. "In some cases it's probably coincidence. But in many cases it may be that being a player in a big-time program makes it more difficult to determine what's criminal and what isn't."
The authors leave to future researchers the question of whether the culture of contact sports creates attitudes that foster sexual crimes against women.
But in the report, first released to the New York Times and later to The Seattle Times, the authors do provide the best indication yet that athletes are disproportionately involved in sexual assaults. They also dismiss previous journalistic accounts that attributed one-third of all campus rapes to athletes.
In an effort to sort out perception from fact, they obtained reports from NCAA Division I colleges from all geographic locations. Of those, 20 colleges submitted police reports from the 1992-93 school year, and 10 shared judicial-office reports over a three-year period, from 1991 to '93.
The researchers targeted perennial "top 20" football and basketball schools but also included reports from colleges with less-prominent teams. To gain their cooperation, the colleges were granted anonymity.
Benedict declined to say whether Washington or Washington State - both with highly ranked football teams at the time - participated in the survey. Officials contacted at both schools were unaware of the study.
Andrea Parrot, a Cornell human-services professor who has studied rape and male athletes, criticized the methodology of the study, which was not done on a random sample and reflected only the rates of reported sexual assaults. Because an estimated 9 of 10 rapes nationwide go unreported, "They're looking at the tip of the iceberg so it's hard to know if it's a skewed sample."
Judicial-affairs offices handled 69 cases of sexual assault, 13 involving athletes. Campus police cited 38 cases, two involving athletes.
Universities were allowed to draw their own definitions of sexual assault, which, depending on the school, included rape, attempted rape, unwanted touching of intimate parts of another person, or the use of threats of intimidation to gain an advantage in nonconsensual sexual contact.
But combined with other studies that look at individual campuses, enough evidence exists now of a problem that coaches and administrators should seriously address the issue, Parrot said.
"Although athletes may not be prone to this behavior at higher rates, they may be," she said. "Revenue-producing athletes in general are trained in aggression and they need to be trained in proper use of that aggression - to keep it on the field and not bring it into the bedroom."
Athletes in the revenue-producing sports of football and basketball were responsible for two-thirds of the sexual assaults attributed to athletes, based on judicial-affair reports. They make up 30 percent of all athletes.
But, the authors warn, "even here, reports were not uniform from school to school - suggesting that the social environment of programs may vary significantly and have a substantial impact on the rate of sexual assault." Rates often jumped after coaching changes, indicating that coaches may have a strong influence on player attitudes, the authors wrote.
Although campus police records also showed that athletes were involved in sexual assaults at a higher rate than other male students, the authors concluded that the difference was not "statistically significant" on that basis.
Police records, however, are the least accurate gauge of sexual assault on campuses, Benedict said. As in any criminal matter, victims must file formal charges against the accused perpetrator and submit to a public, sometimes lengthy legal process.
Victims showed a preference for going through the campus judicial-affairs office, which cannot impose jail time but can offer relief to the victim by such measures as removing the alleged perpetrator from the same class or residence hall. The office also handles matters behind closed doors.
With campus police, Benedict said, "Often you'll see one rape reported for a campus of 50,000 people. One rape. That's not a knock on police, but judicial affairs is a much different process for the victim. It offers victims what they need - separation and action."
Although the authors studied only college sports, Benedict senses that the association between male athletes and sexual assault extends beyond the NCAA.
"Does this study say participation in college sports causes this? Clearly, no. We're not saying that," he said. "We just think that at some point there is an association between sports and sexual assault. A lot of people have been afraid to say that.
"My impression is, the higher you go as an athlete, and if you reach the pros, the opportunity for these incidents increases. It's more difficult for athletes to deal with it all because the farther you go up, the more entitlements there are. And one of those entitlements is women."