Opinion: DU and CU still allow coaches to pursue sexual relationships with student athletes, against NCAA recomendations

Fifty years ago, my tennis coach sexually assaulted me. I was 16 years old. I had plans for greatness in my sport. Although I did receive a full tennis scholarship at the Division 1 level and played No. 1, my college career was about getting through each match. My tennis was never the same. I was lost. My plans for playing professionally were no longer.

And I kept it quiet … for over 30 years.

Although I believe progress has been made – more women are speaking up and more is being written about the harm incurred from being exploited — there is much work to be done. The system is still set up to favor men. That must change.

Colleges and sports organizations are not doing enough to protect their students and athletes.

I was an assistant tennis coach for 16 years at the University of Denver. Their official policy is that they “strongly discourage romantic or sexual relationships between a teacher and student or between a supervisor and supervisee.” The relationships between a coach and an athlete is not even mentioned but are covered by the same policy. The coach/athlete relationship is more fraught for abuse because of the amount of time spent together – the practices and travel far exceed the time spent in a classroom.

This policy is egregious. It does not take a stand for young athletes. Although a power imbalance affects men as well, the majority of situations involve men in positions of power over women.

The policy for the entire University of Colorado system on such relationships leaves the door open for a coach or professor to pursue a relationship. They require that once a relationship begins it be disclosed so that the “evaluative authority” can be removed. In other words, we will have someone else supervise you. That cannot work in a coach and an athlete relationship.

Any relationship between a person in a position of power and their subordinates must be prohibited. Two people must be on equal footing for consent to be given. Consent cannot be given if the person has power over your grades, playing time, scholarships, and future career. The power imbalance compromises the ability of the less powerful party to freely give consent. They may feel implicit or explicit pressure or an obligation to comply.

Students and athletes are afraid to report flirtatious behavior for fear of retaliation or negative consequences. In my experience with young athletes, they haven’t been taught how to respond to inappropriateness. Education in this area needs to be taken seriously.

Having coaches watch a short video once, or even once a year, is not enough. Students and athletes should be able to trust that they will be safe with the people their school has hired.  When that doesn’t happen, they should be able to trust that their school would have their back.

If policies were clearly laid out against misconduct, I think women would be empowered to speak up.

I have witnessed inappropriate comments where the players nervously laugh. It obviously doesn’t feel okay to them, but they accept it as just something men do. But I know, after years of working with male colleagues, that most men are not inappropriate. This behavior should not be tolerated and men should speak up too.

Without an absolute stand against these relationships, it creates an unhealthy environment where coaches and professors can use sexual comments to “feel out” a young woman’s tolerance for crossing the line. Not all sexual comments result in a sexual assault, but most sexual assaults begin with sexual comments.

Colorado State University has shut the door on such behavior. The CSU Department of Athletics prohibits amorous relationships between its staff and student-athletes. In the policy statement, CSU cites the potential conflict of interest, such as the authority coaches/staff members have over athletes and how that greatly restricts their ability to say no and to give consent. At CSU, coaches sign a contract prohibiting such relationships.

The NCAA published “Staying in Bounds” in 2012 to educate member institutions about the inappropriateness of relationships between athletes and athletics department personnel. The first sentence of the close to 40-page document (written by two women) states that “sexual relationships between coaches and athletes has become a serious problem and member institutions must prohibit such relationships to ensure that sports programs offer a safe and empowering experience for all student-athletes.”

It was written 12 years ago.

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The NCAA even gives a “Model Policy” which CU and DU could have followed. The purpose of the NCAA, founded in the early 1900s, is to protect student-athletes, yet they allow member institutions to come up with their own policies in this area. I’m sure there are many requirements to be a member institution with the NCAA, but safeguarding women is not one of them.

When an institution fails to take a strong stand, they erode trust and diminish their credibility to create an environment where everyone is safe and respected.

My years of silence didn’t help anyone. I was able to shut out my assault for decades, but as my children became more independent, I had more time in my life and the trauma crept in. I don’t want others to wait as long as I did. Our stories need to be told and we need to be a part of the change for others.

Karen Denison Clark coached tennis at the University of Denver for 16 years and is an advocate for safeguarding women.

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