June 4 (Bloomberg) -- The men’s rugby team at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was disbanded temporarily after players took part in e-mailed exchanges demeaning to women, a school spokesman said.
“It was locker-room conversation of the worst degree” reflecting a “behavior and mindset we don’t tolerate here,” Lieutenant Colonel Webster Wright, a spokesman for the academy in New York state, said yesterday in a telephone interview. “They were mocking each other to some degree, but there was also derogatory comments toward women, degrading comments.”
The move against the rugby team, a perennial collegiate powerhouse, comes as the U.S. military is seeking to stem what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called a “huge problem” of sexual assaults and harassment. He told graduates at West Point last month that solving it will require “your complete commitment to building a culture of respect and dignity.”
Among those attending the ceremony Hagel addressed on May 25 were the 15 seniors on the 60-player rugby team, who were permitted to graduate after completing disciplinary actions that included “an intense respect rehabilitation program,” according to Francis DeMaro, another academy spokesman.
While the investigation of the e-mail chain “did not find any evidence of sexual assault” or “inappropriate pictures of female cadets,” players were disciplined partly “to address the cultural issues with their actions,” DeMaro said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
The Pentagon has been roiled by a succession of cases involving alleged sexual misconduct, including among service members who work in sexual-assault prevention programs, and an anonymous survey of troops found that most such assaults go unreported.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has scheduled a hearing for today with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss pending legislation intended to improve the investigation and prosecution of sexual-assault cases.
In another case that has fueled debate over the military’s culture, the Army is investigating allegations by soldiers that sexual affairs were condoned at Fort Greely in Alaska, creating what they called a “toxic environment” on the remote base that provides the main U.S. defense against a missile attack.
The issue first touched West Point last month, when the Army disclosed that a sergeant on the academy’s staff, Michael McClendon, faces charges of making video recordings of female cadets without their consent while they showered.
In the rugby team case, the e-mail chain was reported to authorities by a cadet, according to Wright, the spokesman, who said he didn’t know whether the cadet was a man or woman. The recipients included the 60 team members and about 20 former members, he said.
“There was lack of respect across the board that was inconsistent with our values,” Wright said. “When this was bought to the chain of command the issue that was brought forward was the derogatory comments toward women.”
Founded in 1961, the West Point squad has finished second in the national collegiate rugby championships three times, according to the academy’s website. In April, it lost to Life University of Marietta, Georgia, in the Division IA quarterfinals.
“West Point Rugby develops leaders of character, infused with the warrior ethos, principles of teamwork, and an unyielding winning spirit,” according to the website.
West Point withdrew from last weekend’s Collegiate Rugby Sevens tournament in Philadelphia “due to unforeseen circumstances,” according to a May 20 entry on the squad’s official page on Facebook Inc.
The academy, established in 1802, trains Army cadets to become officers. Located on the banks of the Hudson River about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from New York City, the school counts President Dwight David Eisenhower among its graduates.
At another of the military’s academies, three football players at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, are under investigation for the alleged sexual assault of a female midshipman.
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