ANAHEIM, Calif. — This March Madness has served as its usual window on goosebump basketball but also as a grim window on the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. In a two-day stretch mid-month, lawsuits from expelled basketball players were announced against Yale, whose team reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, and against the Oregon, whose team remained among the final eight teams still going as Saturday began.
The suits come six months after an Association of American Universities study found that 27 percent of female students reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while at college. It has come one month after Yale expelled accused team captain Jack Montague, and nearly two years after Oregon expelled Brandon Austin, Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson, three players accused for one night, by one alleged victim.
In Oregon’s case, the latest lawsuit against the university made it a total of three — one from the alleged victim, who settled last summer for $800,000, and two from the accused players: one from Austin’s attorneys in October, seeking $7.5 million, and one from Artis’s and Dotson’s attorneys, seeking $10 million each, publicized on March 15. In legal documents, the attorneys in the first Oregon lawsuit claimed the university contacted them for assistance in defense in the lawsuit against the alleged victim. In the second case, the university stated its lack of surprise at that lawsuit, claiming the attorneys had been contacting them seeking financial settlements.
In both the Yale and Oregon cases, attorneys’ arguments have hinged upon an assumption: that the women could not have suffered sexual assault because they either returned to the players, or remained with them overnight and into the morning, after the alleged incidents.
“That defense is very uneducated, and it hinges on society’s beliefs in rape myths,” said Annie Clark, the executive director of the three-year-old organization End Rape On Campus. She said it shows “a clear lack of understanding of trauma,” and said, “I think they’re counting on ignorance.”
In announcing an intent to sue on March 14, the day after the NCAA tournament field was announced, Montague’s attorney, Max Stern, stated that the disagreement over consent concerned the fourth of four sexual encounters between the two people. “We believe that it defies logic and common sense that a woman would seek to reconnect and get back into bed with a man who she says forced her to have unwanted sex just hours earlier,” the statement read.
The latest lawsuit against Oregon, filed by attorneys Alex Spiro and Brian Michaels, reads: “The female student chose to stay overnight at the apartment, and continued to engage in sexual activity after waking up in the morning. Thereafter, the female student was sent home in a cab, and she sent a text message stating, ‘Thanks for getting me home.’ ”
Such a response is not uncommon or inconsistent with trauma, Clark said. “Sometimes they might text the person afterward,” she said. “Sometimes they might stay. Sometimes they might be unable to leave. Sometimes that person is their only ride home, and they might not know where they are.” She cited FBI statistics noting a false-accusation rate of 2 to 8 percent, similar to other crimes, but said the issue for this one crime is often debated in the culture as a “50-50” matter. She also said sexual-assault victims are often impugned for inconsistencies in a way victims of other traumatic crimes, such as fire or burglary, are not.
Referring to the Yale case, Helen Price, the director of Unite Against Sexual Assault Yale, said of the alleged victim’s return to the room, “Actually, it’s a very, very common response,” owing to trauma, stigma and denial. “Especially if the victim and the assailant are in a relationship.” Clark said that “80 to 90 percent” of women reporting sexual assault have some acquaintance with the accused, either “somebody in class, or somebody in a dorm room, as opposed to a person jumping out of the bushes, which does happen but not very often.”
The second Oregon lawsuit came with a wrinkle: Where the Title IX law is often the vehicle through which victims state their complaints (as in the Yale case), attorneys for Artis and Dotson claimed the university violated the male players’ Title IX rights. Their lawsuit reads: “Regardless of guilt or innocence (and, to be clear, each of these plaintiffs was and is innocent), the severity of the penalty, as well as the decision to initiate the proceeding in the first place, were affected by the fact that each of these plaintiffs is male, and the accuser is female.”
That lawsuit called Oregon’s adjudication process both “a sham court” and “a kangaroo court.”
In neither case did the allegations lead to criminal charges. In the Oregon case, the Eugene police department noted “an insurmountable barrier to prosecution” given the evidence. Both sets of attorneys’ statements outlined details of allegedly consensual sex, the Yale case in the fall of 2014, and the Oregon case on the night of March 8-9, 2014, after a big basketball win over Arizona.
At Yale, the players stirred a campus debate when, on Feb. 26, they wore T-shirts in support of Montague. At Oregon, Coach Dana Altman originally appeared in the alleged victim’s lawsuit before she withdrew his name. He came under specific scrutiny for admitting Austin as a transfer after knowing the player had faced a suspension at Providence. At the 2014 NCAA tournament, just after the allegations, Altman said, “You know, we felt comfortable with the fact that Providence wanted him to stay, and at the same time we gathered all the information we could and felt comfortable with our decision.”
At a news conference in May 2014, Altman said his “line of questioning probably didn’t go deep enough there in retrospect.”
With these cases and others, college basketball has joined its larger brother, college football, in the national discussion that raged particularly in the case of an alleged victim’s lawsuit against Florida State University, after rape accusations against that school’s Heisman Trophy-winniner quarterback, Jameis Winston, now of the NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I think the very fact that we are talking about it more than we ever have, in the past 10 years, shows that more people are becoming more educated, and a lot of survivors feel less alone,” Clark said. “But we have a very long way to go in understanding why survivors react the way they do. And in our criminal justice system, very, very few cases are even prosecuted.”