Is football a religion? Do the high priests of college football act like the leaders of the nation’s most conservative fundamentalist colleges? In some ways, when it comes to responding to accusations of rape and sexual assault, the similarities seem creepily prominent.
News emerged today that the case of football star Jameis Winston at Florida State will undergo a new round of scrutiny. Back in December, Winston evaded charges about an alleged sexual assault. At the time, pundits accused FSU of coddling Winston because of Winston’s star power.
As we’ve seen in these pages, conservative evangelical Protestant colleges–“fundamentalist” schools–have weathered similar charges of stonewalling and covering up charges of sexual assault on their campus.
Are these cases similar? Does football function like fundamentalism? That is, does the culture of big-name, big-money football create an environment in which everything else takes a back seat to success on the gridiron? Where any questioning of the football team becomes similar to questioning basic tenets of orthodox religious belief?
Let’s take a look at some of the similarities and differences.
At least according to some accusers, fundamentalist schools actively target victims of sexual assault. Both men and women, students and administrators, are steeped in a “purity culture” that encourages all involved to see female victims as sexual temptresses. When accusations of rape emerge, victims are attacked by students and administrators. The threat of making such accusations intimidates many other victims into a scarred silence.
Similar hostility emerges with college football. The alleged victim of the FSU rape, for instance, eventually dropped out of school and moved out of town due to constant harassment and death threats.
Also, it seems both football and fundamentalism push college administrators to worry first about the school, and only secondly about the complaints of victims. With football, the stars must be protected. No one can win a Heisman Trophy or a national championship from a jail cell. And with fundamentalism, schools must protect their reputations as uniquely safe environments. Publicity about sexual assault would certainly threaten that reputation.
But there are also significant differences. First of all, non-fundamentalist schools are almost all subject to review by federal guidelines. In the case of FSU, for example, the case has come back into the headlines because of accusations that the FSU administration might have violated provisions of Title IX in its handling of the case. Most fundamentalist schools refuse all federal funding, so they can operate without such oversight or federal review.
More profoundly, cases at fundamentalist schools are about more than just administrative cover-ups. Some pundits insist that the culture at fundamentalist schools operates as a hyper-charged version of broader cultures that blame women victims. More than at pluralist public schools such as FSU, critics allege, fundamentalist schools promote both sexual assault and victim-blaming by insisting on a “purity culture” standard. Women involved in sex of any kind often find themselves accused of instigating sinful acts.
There’s no doubt that big-time college sports look like religions, in lots of ways. They have weekly rituals, with ceremonial outfits and traditional musical accompaniment. They have high priests and acolytes who huddle to make important decisions. And, at least in the eyes of many fans and players, they involve the community in a staged fight of the powers of good versus the powers of evil.
But does this quasi-religious adoration of college sports bleed over into the treatment of accusations of rape as well?