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Jocks and locker room talk? Lessons for workplace investigators from research on student athletes and sexualized violence

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Over the past several years, high profile allegations, investigations, and findings of sexualized violence in sports have garnered significant media attention, both within Canada and around the world. As a workplace investigator who focuses on investigations and assessments in the education sector, these incidents have gotten me thinking about the intersection between secondary and post-secondary institutions, athletes, and misconduct.

We can probably all think of stereotypical portrayals of “jocks” on TV and in movies as sexually aggressive or engaged in inappropriate “locker room talk.” But do these portrayals have any basis in reality? In particular, are student athletes more likely to be affected by sexualized violence? Are they more likely to perpetrate this type of violence? Are there any particular risks affecting this population, and what should workplace investigators in this sector be aware of? I decided to look to recent research to learn more.

The Research

There is a sizeable body of research on the intersection of student athletics and sexual violence, and my aim in this section is to highlight recent research that sheds light on different aspects of this issue. This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive overview of this field of study. However, the research below contains important takeaways for workplace investigators.

Taking a broad perspective of the link between student athletics and sexual violence, a 2023 systematic review1 of research from various countries, including the US, UK, and Canada, looked at the characteristics of secondary and post-secondary institutions that are associated with all types of violence, including sexual violence. The researchers aimed to understand the “ecological risk factors” for violence, such as campus demographics, institutional climate, and institution setting, as opposed to “interpersonal risk factors,” such as alcohol use. Among other characteristics, the researchers identified having more competitive athletics programs as a post-secondary school characteristic that appeared to be associated with higher rates of sexual assault, though the researchers also noted that findings in this regard were mixed.

With respect to the connection between student athletes and the perpetration and/or experience of sexual violence, a 2022 study2 examined data from a regularly conducted survey of over 100,000 high school students in Minnesota. The researchers specifically looked at the link between level of involvement in sports, ranging from uninvolved to moderately involved (1 to 4 days of sports participation per week) to highly involved (5 or more days of sports participation per week), as well as perpetration or experience of sexual harassment and/or coercion into sexual activity. The researchers found that more frequent participation in sports by male students was associated with a higher risk of both perpetrating and experiencing sexual harassment and coercion. They noted that this is consistent with research findings in the post-secondary sector. The researchers also found that female students who were moderately involved in sports had a higher risk of experiencing sexual harassment and of perpetrating sexual harassment and sexual coercion.

A recent study conducted using data from Canada looked specifically at the connection between student athletes and being subject to sexual violence. In this 2022 study,3 a group of researchers examined data from a study of students, professors, and employees at six universities in Quebec, in order to assess whether participation in a varsity sport increased students’ risk of sexual violence or whether that participation had a protective effect against sexual violence. The researchers concluded that, in fact, participation in a varsity sport did not significantly increase or decrease students’ risk of experiencing sexual violence.

However, the researchers did identify some trends in the context within which student athletes experienced sexual violence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these students were more likely than other students to report that they experienced sexual violence perpetrated by a coach, in the context of participating in sports and during a sports-related initiation.

Takeaways for Investigators

A major takeaway from the research detailed above is that the connection between student athletics and sexual violence is much more complicated than the stereotypes portrayed in movies and TV. As workplace investigators, this serves as an important reminder to check our biases in conducting investigations that involve student athletes. We can’t assume that a varsity athlete is more likely to perpetrate sexual violence, just as we can’t assume that they are less likely to have experienced sexual violence.

Investigators should also be aware of the contexts within which it appears student athletes are more likely to experience sexual violence: perpetrated by a coach, in the context of participating in sports, and during a sports-related initiation. These contexts can present challenges for an investigation. For instance, the power imbalance between a coach and student athletes may mean that students are less likely to come forward with complaints, to cooperate with an investigation, or to be forthcoming in their evidence. A sports-related initiation may involve alcohol or drugs, which could mean that there are gaps in the parties’ or witnesses’ memories.

The bottom line is that investigators who are conducting investigations that involve student athletes should be alive to the context within which the alleged misconduct took place and should be prepared to deal with the evidentiary challenges that context could present.

1 Tashkandi Y et al. (2023) “A Systematic Review of Campus Characteristics Associated with Sexual Violence and Other Forms of Victimization” Trauma Violence Abuse. 2023 July; 24(3): 1777–1796. doi:10.1177/15248380221078893.

2 Cheever J and Eisenberg M (2022) “Team Sports and Sexual Violence: Examining Perpetration by and Victimization of Adolescent Males and Females” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 37(1-2)  NP400 –NP422.

3 Parent S, Daigneault I, Radziszewski S and Bergeron M (2022) “Sexual Violence at University: Are Varsity Athletes More at Risk?” Frontiers in Psychology 13:861676. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.861676.

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