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Sexual Assault and Athletics

With the Duke lacrosse scandal and, most recently, the news that USC quarterback Matt Sanchez has been arrested for sexual assault, athletes attacking women has been in the news a lot lately. Then again, this is nothing new. Still, these two highly visible situations deserve our attention, and careful thought. The whole issue of sexual assault is terribly tricky, as there are two competing problems that make the whole issue so delicate.

The first problem is that sexual assault is tremendously difficult to prove, the consequence of which is a horrific number of sexual assaults that go unpunished. Because it's so often a "your word against mine" situation, unless there is physical evidence of assault, it's just terribly difficult to prove that there was a crime committed.

The second problem is that you absolutely -must- hold firm to the principle of "innocent until proven guilty." As we learn more and more about the Duke situation, it looks more and more like there was a lot of inappropriate behavior, but it doesn't appear that there was any illegal behavior, at least in terms of sexual assault. We'll know more as this plays out, but it's a good example of how these things often go.

This is a sports blog, so we won't dive in to the details of sexual assault, the legal system, or the rest of the important issues that surround sexual assault. But, there are important lessons for athletes and athletic programs. The biggest mistake that the Duke lacrosse team made was putting themselves in a situation where these kinds of allegations could even occur. Having a huge kegger and hiring strippers is standard college form, so this isn't a holier than thou judge session, but as athletes that represent their universities, and with so much at stake, it's an even worse decision than it normally is. We all took risks in college, doing things that, looking back, I'm sure many of us shake our heads and thank our lucky stars we didn't get in trouble for.

These athletes, though, have even more to lose than we do. Equally important, these athletic programs are huge businesses. Millions of dollars are pumped into these programs, which adds another dimension to the whole situation. Tying this back to USC, the rash of incidents that have racked up, taken in aggregate, begin to take the shape of a pattern. If enough of them pile up, the dreaded "lack of institutional control" is not only possible, it becomes appropriate. Pete Carroll is now in a very dangerous situation. It's not so much that Carroll is a corrupt thug, but rather his loosey goosey "player's coach" attitude has indirectly provided an atmosphere of non-accountability. You might say he's being taken advantage of, though that would be too generous.

The next time you hear someone bitch about Mack Brown or Greg Davis, please keep this discussion in mind. You don't see Texas players earning Fulmer Cup points, and it's not an accident. No program is perfect, but Mack Brown has a legitimate track record of running a clean program. Problem athletes are reprimanded or dismissed. Texas fans can cheer for their team with pride. Do. Not. Underestimate. The. Value. Of. This.

This post is somewhat murky, as I'm racing through it before I head to a meeting, but I guess it's appropriate for such a murky issue. Consider this a conversation starter rather than the Final Word.