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Perspective | Magazine

It starts with ‘locker room talk.’ And then it gets worse

By dealing swiftly with sexist talk on men’s teams, Harvard and Columbia are helping disrupt cultures that could cause greater harm.

Associated Press

The “scouting report” created by the 2012 Harvard men’s soccer team is lewd, lurid, and cruel. It describes one Harvard women’s soccer player this way: “She looks like the kind of girl who both likes to dominate and likes to be dominated.” And another this way: “She seems relatively simple and probably inexperienced sexually, so I decided missionary would be her preferred position.” And another this way: “She seems to be very strong, tall and manly so, I gave her a 3 because I felt bad.” And those are the comments polite enough to print.

The nine-page report full of numeric ratings, photos, and evaluations is shocking in its mix of explicitness, thoroughness, and matter-of-factness. But it’s not surprising. The objectification of women combined with a male sense of entitlement is the kind of thinking that, taken a step further, leads to so many sexual assaults on so many college campuses. Here’s what is surprising: the swift and decisive punishment of the players by the Harvard administration. It should serve as a model for how universities handle not just sexist speech but also sexual violence.

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Too often universities put their public images — and their sports success — above everything else. Administrators fail to fully investigate allegations of sexual violence on campus, rely on policies not equal to the task of protecting victims, and underreport rapes and sexual assaults to authorities. In the past, Harvard has been accused of mishandling sexual assault cases. But with the soccer team’s disgraceful behavior, the university did the right thing. The Harvard Crimson first wrote about the 2012 “scouting report” on October 24. Within 10 days, an investigation by Harvard lawyers revealed the same practice had continued with the current men’s team, and the university canceled the remainder of the men’s season.

Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, told The Crimson it was important the investigation conclude before the season did, and she “wanted a response that would be within the context of the team’s responsibilities representing Harvard and this athletic season.” In an e-mail to the university’s student-athletes, Harvard athletics director Robert Scalise wrote that immediate action was “absolutely necessary if we are to create an environment of mutual support, respect, and trust among our students and our teams.”

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Harvard’s punishment of the men’s soccer team signaled to the rest of the campus that sexist speech won’t be tolerated. And the Harvard men’s cross-country team, which in recent years had produced spreadsheets with sexually explicit comments about the women’s team, got the message loud and clear. “[C]ome clean with anything that we have typed down in the past,” captain Brandon Price e-mailed his teammates. (In addition, Columbia just suspended the season of its men’s wrestling team while investigating text messages sent by team members with sexist, racist, and homophobic language.)

The Harvard administration’s message makes a difference on campus today, but it can also help disrupt cultures of sexism that could hurt students in the years ahead. As a former cross-country and track runner on Harvard women’s teams, gut-punched by the story, I felt heartened by the administration’s message.

When universities fail to act swiftly and decisively, they create an environment where sexual violence can take root. Look no further than Baylor University, where over the past five years 17 women have reported domestic or sexual assaults, including four gang rapes, involving 19 football players. Rather than fix what was broken on campus, Baylor officials allegedly ignored and intimidated victims and tried to pretend the problem didn’t exist.

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To be fair, it’s easier to move swiftly when presented with a lewd “scouting report.” Sexual assault cases are far more complicated and involve far greater stakes: long-term physical and emotional trauma for victims, possible jail time for attackers. The Harvard men’s soccer team forfeited its final two regular season games, the chance at an Ivy League title, and the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, which is a punishment fitting the offense. At Baylor, president Ken Starr was demoted, then resigned, and football coach Art Briles was fired. In recent years, three Baylor football players and a former fraternity president have been indicted on sexual assault charges, with two convicted and sentenced to prison.

The men’s soccer team obviously did nothing criminal, but what the athletes wrote and how Harvard reacted shouldn’t be diminished. For anyone who dismisses the “scouting report” as harmless “locker-room talk” and the punishment as Harvard hastily overreacting in the face of public scrutiny, listen up: Sexist speech is a slippery slope toward sexual violence.

The “scouting report” stripped members of the Harvard women’s team of their identities as strong, talented student-athletes — they recently won the 2016 Ivy League championship, their third title in the past four seasons. The male players should have cheered on and respected their female equals, not leered at them. So it’s fitting that by canceling the remainder of the men’s season, the university effectively stripped the male players of their identities as college athletes, if only temporarily. Public disgust took care of the rest. They day after the university canceled the season, the soccer players apologized in the pages of The Crimson. “[W]e are deeply ashamed that it took a public revelation, a loss of trust, and damaged friendships for us to fully grasp the gravity of our conduct,” they wrote.

The apology appeared sincere and the players sounded duly chastened. The men pledged to join the women’s soccer team in combatting sexism and misogyny. They couldn’t have made a more timely commitment.

Shira Springer covers sports and society for NPR and WBUR and writes a column on women’s sports for the Globe. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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