The University of Minnesota did the right thing by firing head football coach Tracy Claeys. Though university leaders have focused on benefits to the football program in recent media interviews, the most important message the firing sends is that the university is taking a strong stand against sexual assault on campus.
Even before Tuesday’s announcement, the university had responded forcefully to the horrific actions by multiple Gopher football players on Sept. 2 of last year. Building on the thorough and fair-minded investigation by the university’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) office and the termination of Coach Claeys, the university can continue to show leadership in creating a campus environment that respects women’s human right to be free from sexual violence.
Awareness has grown of the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an astounding 19 percent of undergraduate women have experienced either sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. Baylor and Montana stand as notorious examples of universities whose reputations suffered when sexual assault was not treated seriously, school policies and codes of ethics were not upheld, and football was valued over victims’ rights.
Enlightened schools like the University of Minnesota have adopted affirmative consent policies, recognizing that a “no means no” policy is inadequate in the face of situations in which women may be incapable of expressing a lack of consent. Instead the university adopted a “yes means yes” policy in which sexual contact is only allowed when there is clear, unambiguous assent to the conduct. By adopting such a policy, the university took a necessary first step. But as the university seems to understand, policies are meaningless without vigorous enforcement.
In this case, the university applied the policy in laudable fashion through its EOAA investigation and 80-page report, comprehensively collecting and examining the relevant evidence. Moreover, it applied an appropriate standard in determining the credibility of the victim, the accused players and witnesses. Most important, the EOAA’s determination of the victim’s credibility evidenced an understanding of how trauma affects memory. Significantly, the report found:
“RS recollections of the events in A2 bedroom have become more detailed as time has passed. For the most part, we found her accounts to be relatively consistent over time, even though they generally increased in detail. We generally attribute the differences among RS accounts over time to her gradual recollection of what she found to be a very traumatic experience, rather than to lack of care or truthfulness.”
Much has been made of the fact that the university suspended the players involved even though the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office twice declined to prosecute. The higher standard of proof for a criminal prosecution has been offered as a rationale for this decision. Given the heinous conduct of the players, I suggest that had the initial investigation by the Minneapolis Police Department been adequate and thorough, the county attorney may have been able to bring criminal charges against at least some of the accused.
It is likely that one reason the criminal investigation did not result in prosecution was failure to conduct skilled trauma-informed interviews of the victim. The Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI) is an established methodology that recognizes the profound effects of trauma on the brain. It is based on the understanding that, as the EOAA examiners recognized, memory of a traumatic event improves over time. As a result, interview techniques must reflect the neurobiological effects of trauma, to effectively obtain evidence of a crime.
The university acted responsibly by terminating Coach Claeys. When players called a boycott in response to suspension of the accused players, Claeys’ expression of pride in the players showed appalling judgment. A person who expresses pride without knowing what happened or, if he did know, in light of such horrific facts, is not molding young men to be responsible citizens, a core function of any coach. Instead, his comments feed into the sense of privilege and entitlement that is viewed as too common among many revenue sports athletes. By terminating Coach Claeys, the university has taken a public and far-reaching action demonstrating a continuing commitment to ending sexual assault on campus.
Our organization, Global Rights for Women, is committed to ending the pandemic of violence against women around the world. The standard by which we measure our work is whether it promotes victims’ human rights to safety and security and the accountability of offenders. I urge the university to apply this standard as it moves forward in its efforts to end sexual assault on campus.
Helen Rubenstein is program director of Global Rights for Women.