Every football and basketball season brings a new sexual misconduct episode at the University of Minnesota. Students, faculty, the administration and the public at large are no longer surprised when another incident of egregious, if not technically criminal, off-court behavior of (mostly) male athletes hits the news. Recently, 10 of the “student-athletes” in the men’s football program were suspended (one or more may even be expelled) for their involvement in what, at the very least, was an experiment in serial sexual intercourse with a female student. That’s the best-case scenario; the worst is that the woman was raped by several men but is unable to document the details because of her own bad judgment in being under the influence of too much alcohol.
What is staggering, however, is that upon the conclusion of the U’s internal Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action investigation and subsequent announcement of the suspensions, Tracy Claeys, the head coach of the men’s football team, supported his players’ proposed boycott (since called off) of the Holiday Bowl game against Washington State’s football team scheduled for Dec. 27. Incredible though it may seem, Claeys tweeted, “Have never been more proud of our kids.” His tweet came in the wake of a statement from one of the players, Drew Wolitarsky, who declared to the media, “We are now compelled to speak out and take back our program.”
I have news for Wolitarsky and Claeys: It is not your program to take back. One of you is a student-athlete, at best; the other, a paid (if overpaid) employee of the institution, who, moreover, is obliged to follow regents’ policies on all matters relating to the university. Extreme rape-affirmative behavior (even if not actual rape) is hardly something to condone, let alone support! The message the coach sent to the U community is that the sexual “exuberance” (let’s call it that) of the young men he purportedly mentors is fine and dandy; it’s what makes them men.
Is this what we ought to tolerate? Where do they find these coaches and athletic leaders — themselves serially incapable of understanding the norms of basic decency? (Remember Norwood Teague?) Whatever the sordid reason, one thing that comes through loud and clear is that neither our coaches nor the student-athletes in their charge are learning what it means to represent a sports program, an institution, or the state.
This is enough. Enough talk as well about building an “athletes’ village” (where athletes will live together in isolated harmony; that will undoubtedly give them a further sense of their privileged status). Those plans should be scrapped immediately, the funds reallocated to the cause of real education. The stakeholders of the university — every student and faculty member to the administration and the regents — have to be the ones to take back the program from those who think that they can act with impunity and intimidate everyone with the threats of bogus lawsuits and game boycotts. Eliminating an athletics program is possible; it was done at the University of California, San Diego (a highly reputed institution where the administration had the courage to say basta! to the degraded culture of Division 1 sports).
In reality, such an outcome is not likely here. The latest bulletins indicate that Wolitarsky and his brethren have recognized the side on which their bread is buttered, which is to say, they appear to have been informed about who pays the bills for their program. The good news for those appalled by this latest incident is that, at least for now, the U will not lift the suspensions; for their part, the players have assented to play in the bowl game.
But let’s not let them off the hook so easily; let’s give them what they’d asked for — and more — by eliminating the men’s football program entirely. It’s a losing proposition, anyway, and with such a move, the University of Minnesota might stand out in the Big Ten conference for its bold stance on collegiate athletics.
No one at the U should support the bad sexual behavior of athletes simply because it has not descended to an actual crime. The issue is about what is appropriate conduct and behavior for all students. If our student-athletes are not learning this minimal lesson, why stop at suspensions?
Keya Ganguly is a professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota.