Trigger Warning: This article contains discussion of rape and rape culture.
The Political Science Students’ Association (PSSA) held its first Town Hall debate of the year last Tuesday, on the topic of athletic culture and school spirit at McGill. The attendees discussed the state of athletics at McGill, the reasons for the lack of a strong athletic culture, and the desire to promote athletics in order to foster a pan-university community spirit.
The discussion was meant to continue the debate recently initiated by the student press. Unsurprisingly, reports by the Montreal Gazette that three Redmen football players are facing sexual assault charges were also brought up. The students were charged 15 months ago, but the University has not taken any disciplinary action.
“A lot of people would argue that […] we still have sports teams that allow students to ‘get away with things,’” suggested Lauren Konken, VP Academic of the PSSA, who was moderating the discussion. “In the American context, there’s been a lot of situations where athletes […] engage in criminal behaviour, be it sexual assault or another variety, and yet […] the University doesn’t take any necessary concerted action because they, as an athlete, are considered an asset to the university.”
Yet, many attendees were quick to dismiss concerns of a possible link between the players’ actions and athletic culture at McGill. “You can’t put an emphasis on football in that sense, [the players] hold a different power [than in the United States]; […] it’s no different from someone participating in Model United Nations,” said one attendee.
“It’s not something to do with the football team, it’s [with the players] as individuals. There was a misplaced emphasis on the athletics aspect,” added another.
Reports of homophobic behaviour were also dismissed as isolated incidents. “It’s unfair to point out one event,” said an athlete who was present at the discussion.
Some of the students present suggested that McGill was “alternative” and mostly immune to the negative effects of sports culture. “If we start going to games, […] there’s no way we’re going to let it get to the jocky atmosphere,” one student claimed.
“What is a jock, what comes with sports culture, that’s a whole set of generalizations that I don’t really think applies to athletics at McGill,” concluded Konken.
With rare exceptions, the general tone of the Town Hall was that the negative parts of our sports culture are merely outliers, the insignificant ‘other’ in an otherwise welcoming environment. The argument about McGill’s sports culture has become polarized: is it totally exclusionary or is it a force for good? In essence, are we dumb jocks or smart student athletes? In reality, the culture stands in a grey area between these poles, and it’s necessary that the McGill community, and, more importantly, the athletic community, self-reflect and wonder why sports are such a good incubator for misogyny, homophobia, and rape culture. This process allows the opportunity to make sports culture at McGill more inclusive, regardless of whether this creates a stronger sense of school spirit. Yes, these problems exist in the broader society; but they exist in sports and are often perpetuated by sports culture. This is not to say that all athletes are guilty of perpetuating these ills, but there are still some, and some is too many. This is especially when athletes at this school are so heavily promoted – being an athlete is not just like being in the Model United Nations – there aren’t huge posters of Model UN participants around campus.
Misogyny and homophobia are inherent in much of sports – men’s sports, in particular. (An excellent piece by Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan notes that female sports teams noticeably lack exclusive, negative cultures.) This is not a McGill-specific problem. Rather, it is applicable to sports culture generally, and to the broader culture, but that doesn’t erase the fact that it exists within the McGill athletic community. The competition and hypermasculinization of sports – McGill briefly had a “BE A MAN” athletics poster on campus, to name one example – creates an exclusive community based on who fulfills the typical masculine tropes best; one of the byproducts of this is a culture of misogyny (one can see this from the narratives of women at a McGill Rugby team dinner), and, often, of homophobia (since non-heterosexuality is not associated with traditional manliness.) While not specific to McGill, one narrative of growing up gay and trying to fit into sports culture as described in Juan Camilo Velásquez- Buriticá’s article in The Daily last year is indicative of the struggle that many may face, as is McGill Tribune columnist Tyler Michaels’ assertion that a student was called a “fag” at McConnell arena before a game. These are individual events, but they can’t be dismissed as mere exceptions. To say that homophobia and misogyny are outliers at McGill is to externalize the problem instead of facing the ugly truth: that much of sports culture here is exclusionary, and that it’s part of a larger problem.
Rape culture exists within McGill’s sports culture and this, of course, is tied to a culture of misogyny. Athletes all across the world have been traditionally held as the ultimate masculine figure, which creates a sense of entitlement among athletes – think of the cultural trope of the athletes being the king of the community. While this is not as big a problem at McGill, athletes are still in a elevated position at the school – no other extra-curricular participant is as promoted by the University as the athlete. This entitlement leads to some athletes feeling they ‘deserve’ any woman they desire, and fosters the idea that women are the spoils of victory. The valourization by the community often leads to the community being on the athletes’ side when they are charged with crimes. We can see this sort of entitlement and community valourization present in the Steubenville and Maryville rape cases, where prominent athletes in small communities are favoured over the survivors of sexual assault. The sports culture at McGill is not as pronouncedly and obviously bad as those two communities, but it is still far from ideal with respect to perpetuating rape culture.
McGill’s response to the alleged events of September 2011 has been particularly dismaying. While there is something to be said for the idea of innocent until proven guilty, McGill and its Athletics department haven’t given the athletes implicated in the sexual assault charge any sort of punishment. The innocent until proven guilty idea in the context of this case is somewhat troubling, as it falls into the stigmatizing myth of false reporting. While false reporting certainly does happen – the Duke University rape case is a recent example of this in an athletic context – its prevalence is much lower than is believed. England’s Crown Prosecution Services released a study that in England and Wales, over a 17 month span during 2011-12, there were 35 prosecutions of false rape accusations as opposed to 5,651 prosecutions for rape. The American Prosecutors Research Institute claims that 2 to 8 per cent of rape accusations in the U.S. are false, but those numbers are also plagued by inconsistent definitions of ‘false’ that often blame survivors, such as the insistence that rape cannot be committed by a friend. In addition, reporters of sexual assault are questioned intensely by police and put through invasive, oftentimes scarring, procedures to verify the claim – and it is not in the prosecutors’ interest to press charges they don’t think they can win. The fact that charges have been filed is in itself a marker of the seriousness of the claim.
While the McGill Tribune has rightly pointed out that McGill’s disciplinary policies did not allow them to take disciplinary action (which is in itself a failure – why doesn’t McGill have an effective sexual assault policy?), the Athletics department’s failure to act is particularly striking. Some balk at the idea of an indefinite suspension, put into place once the department and coach were made aware of the accusations, one that would keep the players out until the situation was put through court, due to the fact that they may be innocent. But what about even a minor action, even just a slap on the wrist, anything? Plenty of schools in the American collegiate system (to name just two recent examples: Florida University and Oklahoma University) suspend or dismiss athletes for alleged crimes before going through the entire legal process; in enacting something as small as a one to two game suspension – even just that bare minimum of a punishment – McGill Athletics could have shown the inexcusability of being charged with any crime, especially one as heinous as sexual assault. McGill Athletics’ inaction to this point displays an institutional failure – and, at this point, the accused have already finished this season, and are expected to graduate at the end of this year, so effective punishment is limited.
McGill, and McGill Athletics, have done all they can to distance themselves from the actions, allowing rape culture to persist on this campus, and within the athletic community. What’s needed is a serious, introspective look, not at why McGill students are apathetic toward sports, but at how McGill can become an exemplary institution (in respect to smashing rape culture) with an exemplary sports culture, one that truly is an outlier compared to the rest.