Baylor University, the University of Tennessee, Florida State University — the publicity these schools have received in the past couple of years is not the kind LSU is looking to replicate.
These schools and others have been rocked by allegations of sexual assaults involving star student athletes. In some cases, like the high-profile probe of Baylor University where at least three football players have been charged with sexual assault since 2014, administrators have been accused of turning a blind eye to warnings about players’ predatory behavior.
LSU athletics officials and administrators say they want to get out in front of this national issue and take preventative measures to ensure Louisiana’s flagship university is not next.
Beginning in coming months, every student athlete, coach and athletic support staff member will be required to undergo sexual harassment sensitivity and awareness training.
“There’s only two other schools doing this at the moment,” LSU President F. King Alexander said at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting where the initiative was announced. “They’re doing it in a reactive mode due to problems they’ve had. We’re implementing this in a proactive mode.”
LSU hired the Dan Beebe Group, led by the former commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, which is working with a handful of other powerhouse football schools to develop a curriculum to promote awareness about sexual harassment and assault among student athletes. LSU paid $30,000 for the contract.
“We’ve been actively educating student athletes and coaches for years,” said Eddie Nunez, deputy director of LSU athletics. “We understand what’s happening in the industry and in the world, and we want to be proactive to expand on training and education.”
Subject areas covered in the training will include prevention of harassment, physical abuse, sexual abuse misconduct and humans relations risk — which addresses how staff and administrators are expected to respond to concerns about students, Nunez said.
Every student athlete, male and female, will take the training. There are roughly 400 student athletes and 250 coaches and support staff at LSU. Initial training will be done by the consulting group, broken down by individual sports teams.
Training, Nunez said, will happen “at least a couple times” a year.
“Our hope is to be able to pursue this on an annual basis to continue to reinforce it,” he said.
The recommendation for the training came from another consultant, Carr Sports Consulting, hired by LSU to address myriad athletic programming issues including coaches’ salaries, gender equality issues under Title IX federal laws and staying competitive in terms of performance.
“The conduct of student athletes is being very much scrutinized, and there’s an accountability that flows with that,” said Bill Carr, president of the consulting firm and a former athletic director for the University of Florida. “I think it’s just the reality now that you want to make certain you’re on top of all the circumstances around your program.”
He said schools nationwide should be talking to student athletes about their behavior and to coaches and staff members about reporting processes that need to be followed and related concerns and grievances filed.
Sexual assault is certainly not limited to student athletes. In the Baylor case, a fraternity president was also charged with sexual assault. But a string of allegations stemming from student athletic programs have become familiar media fodder over the years.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating more than 150 schools for allegations of sexual violence.
Earlier this year, six women filed a federal lawsuit against Tennessee, alleging sexual assault by student athletes and mishandling of their cases by the university.
This year, Florida State paid out almost $1 million to a student who said she was raped by Jameis Winston, the Heisman Award-winning quarterback, in 2013. Winston was criminally investigated but never arrested. He has maintained the sex was consensual.
LSU administrative spokesman Ernie Ballard noted that the school offers every student on campus overviews on sexual misconduct and violence, among other social skill topics. But the LSU athletes will receive targeted training above and beyond what the rest of the campus is offered.
Micheala Denny, executive director of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, said sexual assault is a prevalent problem on college campuses, and athletes are not necessarily more to blame.
But she said schools should acknowledge that “issues such as privilege, socially reinforced myths about gender roles and masculinity are all part and parcel of a climate that fosters sexual violence.”
“While athletes are no more responsible for sexual violence than any other group, they do often come from a place of privilege and power on campus,” she added.
Denny said she hopes the curriculum will focus on consent and personal accountability.
Rebecca Marchiafava, vice president of Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response, said there is a connection between sexual violence and peer groups of “hyper-masculinity,” which she said “goes hand in hand with devaluing women or feminine people.”
Marchiafava said she hopes the training focuses on respect for personal boundaries, both physical and verbal. She also said she hopes LSU will not rely on a single training.
“I think it’s great we’re seeing these initiatives,” she said. “But the people in charge will have to make this a priority and not just do it to reduce liability, but really engage in it with the goal of reducing the prevalence of sexual violence.”
Tommy Karam, an LSU sports marketing professor, said athletes are in high-profile positions, and the school’s initiative only mirrors what is happening in corporate America.
“I don’t think it’s an indication that people are messing up whatsoever,” he said. “It’s just smart and healthy, and it’s a good piece of information that these student athletes need to hear.”
LSU officials have stressed the measure is not in response to troubles at home. But Marchiafava, whose organization deals with assault victims in the Baton Rouge area, said she’s seen cases go under the radar.
“There have not been high-profile cases, but we deal everyday with these issues, and there are a number of cases of rape that do not get coverage, and there’s still a vast number of rapes going unreported,” she said. “I would caution anyone who thinks just because they haven’t heard something implicating local athletics on the news, that it’s not happening here. It’s absolutely happening here.”