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NFL Can't Keep Out Felons If Colleges Protect Them

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The NFL will ban prospective draftees with domestic violence, sexual assault, or weapons convictions from attending the annual scouting combine. But as long as colleges and teams go to great lengths to protect players who have been accused of such crimes, this new policy shift won't change much.

Case in point: On Tuesday, six women filed a federal Title IX lawsuit against the University of Tennessee, accusing the school of fostering a culture that enables sexual assault by athletes who can be all but sure they won't be thoroughly investigated or prosecuted. Five of the six women say they were raped, in events dating back to 1995, by three former football players, a former basketball player, and a non-athlete. According to the civil suit, "UT intentionally acted by an official policy of deliberate indifference to known sexual assaults" creating a "severely hostile sexual environment." 

The university is accused of using the state's Uniform Administrative Procedure Act "to delay and altogether avoid sanctions and discipline for sexual assault" by allowing only the accused "the right to confrontation, cross-examination, and a right to an evidentiary administrative hearing," while denying those rights to the victim. Tennessee's act is a legislative anomaly -- in other states Title IX hearings afford these rights to both the victim and the accused. The suit says players rely on the act to drag out the investigative process so that they can complete their courses and maintain their eligibility, often to transfer to another school and thus completely evade punishment.

But perhaps most troubling is the picture the suit presents of an overt code of silence and solidarity with players enforced at UT. The director of student judicial affairs alleged that the athletic department was "'coaching witnesses to get their stories straight." One plaintiff says she witnessed a player, Drae Bowles, being assaulted by teammates a day after he took one of the victims to the hospital and encouraged her to report her assault. 

This is, essentially, a major college sports program practicing omertà -- the mafia's code of honor to keep quiet about criminal infractions. And most of this isn't unique to UT. You could write a book on the scores of universities whose athletic departments have long done their part to keep it in The Family, often working in conjunction with their local police departments.

And this is why the NFL's new rules won't keep out the vast majority of the Jameises and the Johnnys from the combine. The ban hinges on convictions, which hinge on the legal system working. And of course, being kept out of the combine doesn't mean a player won't get drafted. So while we can see the ban as a sign that the league is taking steps toward weeding out the worst offenders from its labor pool, let's temper our excitement. This is yet another NFL "change" that changes very little.

Now, I don't have a perfect solution here. NFL players already have the worst workers' rights in professional sports, and a private employer screening out a bunch of mostly black men with any level of criminal history would only exacerbate the problems stemming from America's system of  mass incarceration.

The bigger issue here is that we are dealing with things after an assault has occurred, rather than before. "Prevention, not punishment" is the preferred strategy by many advocates against violence against women, and that starts years before the NFL, or even college. It starts with peer groups and frank conversations about rape in high school and beyond, with teaching boys about entitlement and consent, even in hypermasculine spaces like sports. 

That must continue onto college campuses. UT provides a glaring example for how a university's failure to act on a past accusation may have led to future assaults, for how the absence of punishment undermines the goals of prevention.

The NFL should play a role in combating sexual violence among its players. But it can't fix a rigged system by relying on the racketeers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net