- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Perception and reality are not always aligned, a fact that can lead to sweeping generalizations and stereotypes based on class, race and gender.

You know, like jocks are less gifted in the classroom and fraternity members are hardcore drinkers. Both groups also have been known to display penchants for sexual harassment and/or assault.

They share that last trait with the military, which apparently creates a trifecta at the U.S. academies, where athletes form a fraternity-of-sorts amid their fellow future service members.

The latest case in point comes from an extensive investigation by the Colorado Springs Gazette, revealing that Air Force Academy cadets, “including a large core of top football players, smoked synthetic marijuana, drank themselves sick and may have used date-rape drugs to incapacitate women for sexual assault” at parties dating to 2010.

Students at the Air Force Academy, West Point and the Naval Academy are supposed to be different. They’re supposed to adhere to honor codes and higher behavior standards befitting of officers in our armed forces.

It might not be the case on other college campuses, but “character” is supposed to be more than a cliché when you’ll don your country’s uniform upon graduation.

But according to the Gazette’s investigation — based on hundreds of pages of Air Force documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, as well as dozens of interviews — the academy’s culture was so wild, “leaders cancelled a planned 2012 sting out of concern that undercover agents and confidential informants at a party wouldn’t be enough to protect women from rape.”

Academy officials opened an investigation that looked into 32 cadets, including 16 football players and several other athletes. According to academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, nine of the football players and 17 of the cadets overall never made it to graduation, either dismissed or resigning on their own.

Sad but true — we’d be less surprised at such a report if it came from a traditional football powerhouse in the Southeastern or Big 12 conferences.

We’re so accustomed to inappropriate and illegal activities at bastions of big-time college sports, we grow numb with each new tale. We have lumped and labeled the best athletes as walking time bombs, capable of going off at any moment and landing on the police blotter.

The vast majority don’t fit the profile, but we tend to paint them all with the same broad brush anyway. So it’s only natural that Falcons (Air Force), Black Knights (Army) and Midshipmen (Navy) are splattered as well as Seminoles, Longhorns and Ducks.

Last summer, Army’s rugby team was disbanded for six months over an inappropriate email chain that “would suggest a hostile team environment or a culture of disrespect towards women,” according to a statement from the school. Shortly thereafter, reports of a rape case involving three Navy football players captured nationwide attention.

Charges against two players were dropped and the other player was found not guilty by a military judge. But the proceedings fueled a debate that went beyond the academies, expanding to the U.S. military’s handling of sexual violence among its 2.2 million service members.

One concern is that the military system is ill-equipped to deal with the issue. According to the Department of Defense, sexual assault complaints at the service academies rose from 25 in 2008-09 to 80 in 2011-12. In the military, complaints rose from 2,688 in fiscal 2007 to 5,061 in fiscal 2013.

The Pentagon made athletic misconduct one of its top priorities this year in an attempt to prevent sexual assault at the academies. The thought is, if teams change and move toward a position of dignity and respect for women, there will be a trickle-down effect among other males on campus.

A few Neanderthals seem destined to be part of any group. But we could use more strong leadership from athletes off the field. We could use young men who are willing to step in and call a halt — even if they have to call the cops — when teammates are taking advantage of incapacitated women and/or strong-arming coherent ones.

The Air Force Academy’s athletic department might have fostered a culture of hostility toward women, but some of the school’s reform attempts are worthy of emulation throughout the NCAA. Players have formed a group called Cadet Athletes Against Sexual Violence, pledging to eliminate sexual assault among their peers while educating themselves and others on the impact of sexual assault and violence.

Still, it’s unrealistic to expect 100 percent adherence to the rules. “Despite all of our efforts, I expect we’ll still have issues with a few young people who will make poor choices,” Johnson told the Gazette.

But the more self-regulating and self-policing that athletes take on themselves, the more they can isolate the bad apples and limit their influence.

Service academies are supposed to develop leaders.

The issue of athletes and sexual violence could be a great place to make a mark.

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