Reframing a Hot Issue on Campus: Boston University Men’s Ice Hockey Team Members’ Sexual Assault Allegation – Jessie Lee
Back in December of 2011 and February of 2012, two Boston University men’s ice hockey team members were accused of sexual assaults against female students on campus. Both players were kicked off the university ice hockey team, though one player eventually had those charges dismissed (1). After the allegations, a task force was put together in March by Dr. Robert A. Brown, President of Boston University, to investigate the incidents and provide recommendations based on its assessment.
The president issued several statements of intent at the time of forming the task force that consisted of university trustees, overseers, faculty, and staff. After six months, the final report with fourteen recommendations appeared on the university website and in Bostonia magazine. These documents have also been cited in a number of major media for a long time.
In this paper, I would like to analyze how the university staff and the task force have misleadingly approached the sexual assault on campus and suggest an alternative approach that would better address the kernel of the problem.
Current Approach’s Flaw 1: The Issue Is Framed as “Within Ice Hockey Team Culture.”
As clearly stated in the letters, the purpose of the Task Force on Men’s Hockey was to “examine the culture of our men’s ice hockey team” (2) and to answer “questions about whether the hockey team's culture and climate have contributed in some way to the actions of the two individuals (3).” The charges of sexual assault by two athletes are being attributed to the culture and climate within the ice hockey team.
Also, in the final report, the task force concluded that the unique culture of men’s ice hockey, its preeminent status on campus, contributed to “a celebrity culture.” The president believed that this situation was exacerbated in the team where professional teams frequently draft players before entering college and that this elevated status could have led to the unacceptable behavior (4). The celebrity culture, in turn, led to “a culture of sexual entitlement” that exists among some players on the men's ice hockey team. According to the report, “This culture of sexual entitlement, as evidenced by frequent sexual encounters with women absent an emotional relationship or on-going commitment, can also involve unprotected sex. This culture is actively supported by a small subset of BU's undergraduate population (5).”
The task force also concluded that there existed significant deficiencies in the structures and processes, which could not achieve the quality of oversight of the men's ice hockey program that was expected and appropriate at a major university, including shortcomings in institutional control and leadership at the team level (5). This conclusion is another attempt to limit the issue to some drawbacks of the men’s ice hockey team.
As shown in a number of studies, sexual assault experienced by the weak, especially female students on campus, is becoming a more serious problem across the university campuses. It is never confined to athlete groups. One in four college-aged women report rape or attempted rape, and one in five college women are raped during their college years (6). Another study showed that since enrolling in college, 27% of women had experienced unwanted sexual contact ranging from kissing and petting to oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse. Moreover, more than one third of these victims reported multiple forced sexual experiences (7). To make the matters worse, 81% of on-campus and 84% of off-campus sexual assaults are not reported to the police, and fewer than 5% of rapes are reported to law enforcement (6).
Framing Theory is based on the assumption that how an issue is characterized in news reports can have an influence on how it is understood by audiences (8). In greater numbers than ever before, people in society get information overload, specifically about any person or situation they have not personally experienced, from the media, especially the news. The news may be the most accessible site for public conversation, the place where policy issues are debated and framed.
Frames operate inside our brains to organize and interpret the cues we get from the world. Lakoff argues that frames are the conceptual bases for understanding anything. People are only able to interpret words, images, or actions that their brains fit into an existing conceptual system that gives them order and meaning. Just a word or an image can trigger whole frames that inspire certain interpretations in audiences (9).
Since the “Within ice hockey team culture” frame has been well accepted and supported throughout the community, it did not seem hard to blame and punish the individual who was in charge of the men’s ice hockey team. According to Iyengar, when people watch news stories that lack full context, they focus on the individuals. Without any other information, they tend to attribute responsibility to the people portrayed in the story for the problem and its solution. In other words, they blame the victim (9).
Although it turned out to be true that the coach of the men’s ice hockey team failed to take sexual assault as seriously as he needed to (10), he might not be the one who is primarily responsible for the incidents because it seemed impossible for him to control the behavior of his players off the ice. The president attempted to comfort him by admitting that the university has not done enough to support structures for the elite-level student-athletes and coaching staff (11). Still, the men’s ice hockey coach has stepped down as Executive Director of Athletics.
Based on the approach described above, the task force made suggestions that included improvement of the oversight structure and a mentoring program of peers and alumni for the men’s ice hockey players (12).
Without a sense of the forces that brought the people in the story to this point, viewers are likely to distance themselves from the “victims” portrayed in the story, assuming that they brought the problem on themselves, looking to them to work harder to solve their own problem or to accept the consequences of their behavior. Watching episodic stories, viewers gain no insight into the larger social and political circumstances that contribute to the individual problem (9).
How to view an issue may determine how to think and act about it. Those who have encouncered the news that dominantly uses frames the task force has come up with, especially the broader student population, are likely not to be much concerned and ignore their responsibility to be enlightened about the issue and change the norms on campus.
The 16-member task force was all comprised of professionals from various fields, including faculty and staff members, trustees, and overseers. Without university students’ direct involvement in the task force, which aimed to investigate the incidents occurring on campus, the assessment seemed superficial and imperfect. Some unnamed students told CBS Boston that they did not necessarily see the ice hockey players as entitled or elevated in their social status (13).
Current Approach’s Flaw 2: The Issue Is Put in the Context of Alcohol-Induced Incidents.
One of the two players charged with sexual assault allegedly had a history of alcohol-related problems (14). The coach of the men’s ice hockey team said, "There is no question in my mind it's an alcohol problem (15)." Also, in an interview with one of daily newspapers, he stated that sexual assault this player committed was the fourth alcohol-related incident for which the player had been punished, and then insisted that he had tried his best to punish and warn the player to be more responsible about drinking. Since the player was also victim of alcohol problems, the coach felt sorry for the loss of one of the well-liked and outstanding players that left a consequent hole in the team’s soul (14).
He put this assault in the context of other alcohol-related incidents that had the player on team probation and then framed it as just another example of problematic drinking behavior. If he was an alcoholic, he may have behaved out of control. However, not every alcoholic assaults women. By dismissing assault as something men do when they are drunk, the significance and seriousness of the issue is minimized.
Also, in the final report of the task force with the description of the late night party at the hockey arena after the team won the 2009 national championship, the university president blamed a cocktail of beer and success. According to the report, “substance abuse, including heavy alcohol use in particular, can be an important part of students’ social and sexual culture (16).” He also articulated in another statement that excessive alcohol consumption has played a role in the majority of the instances of alleged sexual assault that has been identified through the work of the task force (17).
Based on these assessments, the task force made recommendations with regard to how to implement a comprehensive, campus-wide program that would aim at moderating university students’ alcohol use (4). The suggestions included that the university should establish an office that offers a comprehensive alcohol and drug prevention program and that the current rules of the ice hockey team need to be updated to include polices related to sexual violence and alcohol use (12).
By lumping alcohol and sexual violence together, they have made the very guts of a matter unclear. As some studies show that alcohol consumption is associated with sexual victimization, partly because sexual predators are more likely to target women who have been drinking, alcohol consumption could be a reinforcing factor in behaving in uncontrollable ways (18). However, it should be noted that drinking should not be equaled to or used as an excuse for sexual assault.
Ecological approaches are consistent in identifying gender-based, discriminatory attitudes and unequal power structures as pivotal in the continuation of violence against women and sexual assault and also as significant points for primary prevention (19). Sexual assaults are not motivated by an uncontrollable impulsive sexual urge. Also, sexual offenders come from all educational, occupational, and cultural backgrounds. They are ordinary, not mentally ill or abnormal, individuals “who sexually assault victims to assert power and control over them and inflict violence, humiliation and degradation (20).”
Current Approach’s Flaw 3: Recommendations Made Are Misleadingly Linked to Improving Academic Performance of Men’s Ice Hockey Team Members.
The initial charges the task force took on included examining student-athletes’ academic quality and their chosen fields of study, their life issues and interactions with the broader university community, and their disciplinary history compared with those of “average” undergraduate students. According to the report, these criteria were justifiable since “the Boston University community expects that our student-athletes, as representatives of the University, will adhere to the same high standards to which we hold all members of our community and which reflect the mission and aspirations of our university (2).”
As also implied in the term “celebrity culture” mentioned earlier, the members of the men’s ice hockey team were too segregated from other college athletes, the larger undergraduate population, and the rest of campus, especially due to their housing arrangements, exclusive training, and the high demands of team participation, which have, in turn, led to the undesirable behavior, including sexual abuse (21). Accordingly, the report repeatedly emphasized the segregation of the men’s ice hockey team from the rest of the community and the necessity to take steps to address this separation.
In addition, the task force concluded that even though there were no clear systemic problems found with the ice hockey program, as evidenced by the fact that team members’ recent disciplinary history did not reveal any pattern of infractions that was significantly different, in type or number, from the undergraduate population as a whole, athletes often had grades and entrance test scores below the general student population (22).
The report noted that nearly a third of the ice hockey team membes are already committed to a National Hockey League team for future play, a phenomenon which significantly contributes to an environment in which players may not be fully engaged in the academic and extra-curricular activities that are routine for the general student population (23). This comment only restates that those unfortunate sexual assaults have occurred inside the ice hockey team and thus make general university members innocent in the matter.
Based on these findings, the task force finally recommended developing a plan to ensure that all student-athletes including ice hockey players are fully integrated into “student life,” with particular emphasis on housing arrangements and participation in the community (12).
Taking a close look at how the statements made by the task force framed the ice hockey players and their life, it seems as though they are “non-average” or “not integrated into student life.” Those statements might also be misleading that sexual violence committed by the ice hockey players is attributed to their poor academic performance and maladjustment to the community.
Due to these conclusions, ice hockey team members, as a whole, are at higher risk of being stigmatized. Stafford and Scott defined stigma as “a characteristic of persons that is contrary to a norm of a social unit,” where a norm is defined as a “shared belief that a person ought to behave in a certain way at a certain time.” Also, another influential definition of stigma is a “mark” (i.e., attribute) that links a person to undesirable characteristics (i.e., stereotypes) (24). According to the university’s perspective, it is likely that playing ice hockey on the Boston University men’s ice hockey team links student-athletes to undesirable characteristics such as misconduct or poor “academic performance” in school.
There certainly exist various kinds of lifestyles and individuals, not only on campus but also in society. Achieving excellent performance in school does not necessarily mean getting high test scores. Furthermore, sexual violence seems to have nothing to do with whether offenders are highly educated or excel in their studies. As described under Flaw 2 section, sexual violence is, like other forms of violence, a consequence of power difference between an offender and a victim.
New Approach: Campus Sexual Assault Prevention Seminar (CSAPS) at Boston University
As one way to address sexual assault problem on campus, Boston University will support and provide sexual assault prevention seminars to its students in active collaboration with The Center for Gender, Sexuality and Activism (CGSA). CGSA is a student-led organization on campus that aims to end gender oppression and violence, and advocates for the full equality and inclusion of women, queers and transgender students (25).
Instead of only targeting the men’s ice hockey team members and stigmatizing them, this seminar will be a requirement for all undergraduate students. Without didactic presentations that would likely invoke psychological reactance, students will rather be broken down into small groups and have moderated discussions with their peers as to definitions, causes, and examples of sexual violence/assault/rape over several sessions. Moderators will also be students who will be trained by CGSA. Then, students will write a final paper addressing practices they should adopt or change to end sexual assaults on campus. Additionally, more in-depth discussion about supportive theories or support groups designed to share personal experiences will be held for students who are willing to participate.
New Approach Addressing Flaw 1: CSAPS Will Target All Undergraduate Students at Boston University.
In their final report, the task force admitted to the fact that the absence of systematic processes for sexual assault prevention training for the members of the men’s ice hockey team, and university students more broadly, contributed to behaviors that place many students at risk (11). Nevertheless, the importance of the said problem seemed overlooked due to the dominant “within ice hockey team culture” frame.
Berkowitz and others point to the importance of social and community norms as a significant cause of sexual violence. Social Norms Theory states that much of people’s behavior is influenced by the perception of the extent that they believe others in their immediate environment would support them and share their concerns (26). In other words, if unhealthy behavior is perceived to be the standard in a social group, the social urge to conform will negatively affect overall behavior of group members. Alternatively, by educating a group about healthy behavior that is in fact the usual practice among their peers, the behavior of the group can be affected in a positive manner (27). Peer influences are considered to be a particularly important factor in enabling behavior change of individuals.
Sexual assault is a very sensitive, tough issue to talk about. However, students are expected to have greater chance of changing their norms and behaviors when they frequently have open, honest conversations about this issue with their peers. This is also essential to overcome a taboo about talking about sexual issues and remove stigmatization of sexual victims.
New Approach Addressing Flaw 2: CSAPS Will Focus on the Root Cause of Sexual Assault.
While focusing on sexual assault, CSAPS would address that alcohol and other drug abuse can be risk factors in that they likely induce more violent behavior. However, it should be stressed that the cause of action is different between sexual assault and alcohol abuse. The former is caused by power difference between people, and the latter is by addiction. Alcohol and other drug abuse prevention training should also be provided, but in a different setting.
Once successfully implemented, CSAPS will make the university’s rigorous efforts to address sexual assault on campus dominant on the university media’s agenda and public press outlets. Agenda Setting Theory refers to the idea that there is a strong correlation between the emphasis that media place on certain issues and the importance attributed to these issues by mass audiences (28). The theory has explanatory, predictive power because it predicts that if people are exposed to the same media, they will feel the same issues are important (29). Members are limited by the amount of "surplus compassion" they can muster for causes beyond the usual, immediate concerns of their social status. In the same vein, the number of social problems is determined, not by the number of serious situations and conditions facing society, but by the carrying capacities of public institutions (30).
When publicized broadly, it is expected that other universities would follow these efforts and support adoption of the program on their campus. That way, social norms among university students can be changed positively.
New Approach Addressing Flaw 3: CSAPS Will Emphasize That Sexual Assault Involves Everyone on Campus.
In Social Cognitive Theory, sociostructural factors operate through psychological mechanisms of the self-system to produce behavioral effects. Thus, socioeconomic status and educational and family structures affect behavior largely through their impact on people’s aspirations, sense of efﬁcacy, and other self-regulatory inﬂuences. (31) School setting may be an ideal channel to deliver tailored health messages and target peer norms. Of the factors that would bring about behavior change, perceived self-efﬁcacy plays a critical role because efﬁcacy beliefs affect adaptation and change not only on their own, but also through their impact on other determinants. Such beliefs inﬂuence whether people think in ways that are self-enhancing or self-hindering. (31)
Within this conceptual framework, personal factors in the form of moral thought, moral conduct, and environmental factors all operate as interacting determinants that influence each other bidirectionally. (32) By promoting self-efficacy throughout the seminar sessions, students will be able to demonstrate knowledge and beliefs with regard to what constitutes sexual assault, the significance of current norms to let sexual violence persistent on campus, and actions to take when they are sexually assaulted or see others engage in unallowable behavior. Students will also be expected to learn that they need not to silence their voice in a matter of sexual assault involving themselves or others and that there are many resources and professional service providers available on campus.
Changed behaviors and norms can also influence campus environment towards anti-sexual violence. To put it concretely, a suggestion, development, and change of policy or regulations as to sexual assault, violence, and safety will be more supported by the university and its members.
Even though the sexual assault allegation that appeared on a number of media involved two men’s ice hockey team members, sexual assault is a very common phenomenon on university campus. Nevertheless, the task force to investigate this problem misleadingly framed it as a part of the hockey team culture, one of alcohol-related problems, and a matter caused due to segregation from the community. On the other hand, Campus Sexual Assault Prevention Seminar (CSAPS) can overcome these flaws. The seminar will target entire undergraduate population, address the root cause of sexual assault, and increase self-efficacy of all students to change the norms on campus.
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