Universities should take a more aggressive approach to address “toxic masculinity” on campus, particularly in their athletic programs, according to a New Jersey-based sports psychologist.
“People want to pretend that they’re doing something about it,” said Mitch Abrams, a psychologist who specializes in anger management and violence in sports. “(But) what’s been done, in my opinion, is the equivalence of putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”
Noting that sexual violence perpetrated by athletes is sadly common on college campuses, Abrams said many schools are using outdated or ineffective models to teach violence-prevention to athletes.
“The problems of sexual assault, sexual violence and sexual abuse are ubiquitous,” he said.
The University of Arizona, currently defending itself against lawsuits that claim the school’s athletic department failed to protect students from violence and sexual harassment, is taking Abrams’ warnings to heart.
Starting this week, an attorney who specializes in gender discrimination law will lead a comprehensive review of the university’s processes and policies and also examine how the UA coordinates with supporting agencies such as law enforcement and health care.
“There is no place for sexual misconduct and discrimination at the University of Arizona and we’re working to ensure that a positive and supportive culture reaches across the entire university,” UA president Robert C. Robbins wrote in an email to the Arizona Daily Star.
“I’m committed to investing in the people and resources needed to place our prevention, support and response measures among the very best in the country. Our students, employees and the university community deserve no less.”
But Abrams noted that bystander intervention training, such as Arizona’s Step UP! program, is ineffective and difficult to implement. Step UP! teaches students how to be proactive in helping others in situations involving alcohol, dating violence, gambling, hazing and depression.
“If these programs work, then why isn’t the problem ameliorating?” Abrams said. “Bystander intervention as a primary approach is deliberate indifference.”
The UA has hired San Francisco-based attorney Natasha Baker, who trains campus administrators about Title IX compliance and campus investigations, to guide a review of its processes and policies.
In his email to the Star, Robbins said that while the university “cannot guarantee that the incidents will not happen,” he is committed to making it a “top priority for us to do all we can within our roles as educators and employers to prevent them.”
Robbins’ email emphasized that the university is no different from colleges and universities across the country that are also “wrestling with reports of sexual assault, relationship violence, sexual harassment and discrimination.”
The UA has more than a dozen offices that provide education, counseling, health care, investigative and other support services related to Title IX, a federal law that protects students from gender discrimination.
While the quantity of those services demonstrates the school’s commitment to students, they will be better served by “gathering our existing resources in a more coordinated and enhanced fashion,” Robbins wrote.
The university, which has over 34,000 students on its Tucson campus, is defending itself in two federal lawsuits and one local civil lawsuit, all of which claim the school failed to protect students.
In 2015, assistant track coach Craig Carter was arrested after reportedly threatening an athlete with a box cutter while his other hand was wrapped around her throat.
After the incident, Carter sent dozens of text messages and emails to the woman, threatening her and her family members, Pima County Superior Court documents say. The woman is suing the UA in Pima County Superior Court for not protecting her. Carter and the student-athlete were engaged in a sexual relationship that the coach says was consensual.
In 2016, running back Orlando Bradford was arrested and charged in connection with choking two ex-girlfriends. A third woman told campus police that Bradford had choked her, but hasn’t filed a claim or sued. Bradford is serving five years in prison.
The two victims have sued the UA in federal court and one of the suits has since been amended to include allegations of gang rapes by football players. No details were provided in the claim, and it’s unclear if anyone has been charged.
Legal troubles involving coaches and athletes extend beyond the suits against the university.
Football coach Rich Rodriguez was fired Jan. 2, the same day a sexual harassment and hostile workplace claim against him became public. The notice of claim, filed by Rodriguez’s former assistant, says the coach fostered an environment where Title IX “did not exist.”
In 2016, the university issued UA basketball player Elliott Pitts a one-year suspension for sexual misconduct related to the alleged sexual assault of a fellow student.
Arizona officials learned the limitations of “bystander intervention” first-hand in the Bradford case.
Tucson police reports show that four of Bradford’s roommates — all UA football players — routinely witnessed him abuse women, but failed to intervene on all but one occasion. All four teammates, and Bradford, had been trained in the Step UP! program.
Rather than teach bystander intervention, Abrams said, schools must increase accountability among their athletes.
Some athletes and coaches “believe they have different types of rules,” he said. “When we hold coaches and athletes up like that, we can’t be surprised when they take liberties.”
Toxic masculinity plays a key role in violence against women, in that low self-esteem in men causes them to use physical power to regain control, Abrams said.
“These people can change, but they need treatment,” Abrams said, adding that schools often expel players when they recognize a problem, rather than offering help. “If we don’t treat people, we aren’t reducing the number of victims.”
He said that when schools learn athletes or coaches are violent toward women, many cover it up or kick them out — often depending on how valuable the player or coach is to their program.
When UA officials learned of the situation involving Carter, they quickly took action and fired him, even banning him from campus. Carter coached a sport that receives little national attention and doesn’t generate revenue.
Bradford, a potential starter for one of the UA’s two showcase programs, seemingly received more slack. Police reports show school officials were made aware of his violent tendencies nearly a year before his dismissal.
Abrams said sweeping changes are necessary to fix the problem. Without trying to understand how perpetrators think, it’s impossible to reduce the incidents of violence by athletes.
“It’s pennywise and pound foolish. Schools are prioritizing things to save their reputations but not addressing the long-term solution,” Abrams said.
“I think people would rather pretend they’re doing something about it rather than saying, ‘I really don’t know and I need to bring in people who do.’”
Admitting and addressing the problem is smart fiscally as well as morally, Abrams said.
“Risk management is cheaper than damage control,” he said.
Caitlin Schmidt is a 2018 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of her story published in the Arizona Daily Star, as part of her journalism project for the fellowship. The full version is available here. Caitlin welcomes readers’ comments.