Louisville's Sex Scandal Is a Symptom of a Broken College Sports System

The Louisville case is not so surprising when you look at how college sports use women as currency in recruiting young male athletes.

Jessica Luther

Jessica Luther

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The Louisville men's basketball team is engulfed in a budding scandal. According to new reports, between 2010 and 2014 the program used strippers and paid for sex during on-campus parties while recruiting players.

Unsurprisingly, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino repeatedly has denied knowing anything about the use of strippers as a recruiting tool, a practice that allegedly was paid for by a former graduate assistant coach. While unanswered questions swirl, and separate school and NCAA investigations reportedly commence, one thing is certain: over the same time period, Louisville brought in some of the top recruiting classes in the country, as ranked by ESPN, and also won the national title in 2013.

In other words, even if Pitino knew nothing, he certainly seems to have benefited from this. And the scandal shouldn't come as a surprise.

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In elite, big-money college basketball, teams like Louisville compete for the very best high school players in the country. Just one future NBA star can make or break a season. Because NCAA rules prohibit paying players, programs offer every other possible inducement: great coaching, the best practice facilities, a storied legacy of winning, extensive television exposure, a pipeline to the pros.

Recruits are also told that they will be Big Men on Campus, and far too often across college sports, they are explicitly or implicitly told that this status includes access to women and sex—a message that dehumanizes women as well as players.

The Louisville case simply takes this logic—this culture—to an extreme and disturbing conclusion.

Tools of the trade. Photo by Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The use of women by college programs can be subtle, and seemingly innocuous. Teams will cast female celebrities as fantasy arm candy in photoshopped images. Other times, the girlfriends of recruits become useful conduits to them. Most famously, female college students get involved in so-called "hostess programs," which have been around for more than fifty years (legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant pioneered the practice in the 1960s).

Fact: many schools use female students as hosts during athlete recruitment. These women give players campus tours and answer their questions about student life. Many work alongside male hosts. So far, so good. There's nothing wrong with students showing prospective students around.The problem is when programs use female hosts specifically because they are women—and because their presence promises something more than a tour of the quad.

Sometimes, hostesses flirt with high school athletes, indulging that Big Man on Campus narrative. "The only inappropriate thing we did was lead on 17- and 18-year-old guys just to get them to come to the school," Lacey Pearl Earps, a former hostess at Tennessee, told Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, the authors of The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football.

Other times, it may go further. In 2013, Sports Illustrated investigated Oklahoma State's football program in a five-part series. Part Four focused on the Orange Pride, the school's all-female recruitment group. The magazine reported that over a dozen former players said that between 2001 and 2011, some members of Orange Pride had sex with visiting high school athletes during their recruitment trips. Artrell Woods, a former OSU football player, told SI, "There's no other way a female can convince you to come play football at a school besides [sex]. The idea was to get [recruits] to think that if they came [to Oklahoma State], it was gonna be like that all the time, with ... girls wanting to have sex with you."

In April, the NCAA announced sanctions against Oklahoma State in part because the school continued to use Orange Pride, even though, the NCAA said, it had been "on notice for several years" that it could not use "gender-based student hosting groups." When I subsequently asked NCAA Associate Director of Public and Media Relations Emily James if all-female hostess programs are against the association's rules, she said that "NCAA rules do not allow the use of student hosts in a way that is inconsistent with the university's policies on providing campus tours or visits to all prospective students. So, the school using Orange Pride in a manner that was inconsistent with the school's policies and NCAA rules was the violation."

Translation: had OSU simply provided attractive women as hostesses for all prospective students, and not just athletes, the school would have been in the clear. In the association's eyes, using women wasn't so much a problem as using them too sparingly. When the NCAA listed the actual violations by members of the Orange Pride, the only specifics mentioned are the women's hosting duties that "included attending meals on and off-campus ... and participating in campus tour activities."

No mention of sex. No mention of the sex specifically reported by Sports Illustrated. I found this absence curious, and told James as much. Her response was more of the same: student hosts can't violate university policies, and recruits can't receive special treatment.

Oklahoma State's mascot, technically a big man on campus. Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA's lack of concern about the sexual exploitation of hostesses shouldn't be a complete shock—the organization isn't particularly concerned with the economic exploitation of its athletes, either. In place of cash, programs turn to women as currency for players, to sex as a signing bonus, effectively shrugging and saying, What else are we to do? For the programs that exploit them, these women exist as props, not as people with agency. And when human beings are turned into prizes to be awarded for a job well done—into objects that can be abused without consequence—then a Louisville assistant paying for recruits to have sex is not such an anomaly after all.

All of this, of course, is hugely dehumanizing. And dehumanization is a very dangerous tool. Just ask Katie Hnida. A kicker with Colorado and then New Mexico, she was the first woman to score points in a Division I football game, in 2003. She transferred programs, she says, after she was raped by a fellow player and bullied by others. "When we value/use women for their bodies, women become objects instead of people," Hnida says. "The second something becomes an object, it is much easier to commit an act of violence against them. It becomes violence against objects instead of against a living, breathing human being."

It's not hard to find examples of this dynamic at work. In 1997, a 17-year-old high school student reported that she went to a party for Colorado football recruits, drank a lot, passed out, and woke up to a recruit raping her. The recruit said it was consensual; she said it was not and that is why she ran down the hallway naked, screaming afterward. "I feel strongly the entire party was a setup," she told the Times in 2002. "I was invited there for the purpose of having sex with recruits, whether I was willing to or not, whether I consented or not."

In December 2001, three women reported that football players and recruits from the University of Colorado had raped them, two at an off-campus party, the third in a dorm room. In October 2003, District Attorney Mary Keenan gave a deposition in a lawsuit filed by one of the women. In that deposition, she said that none of the players were charged because they believed they were attending a party where everyone there had already agreed to have consensual sex.

"The recruits had third-party consent that had nothing to do with" the women, Keenan said. "They had been built up by the players to believe that the situation they were going into was specifically to provide them with sex. Their mind-set coming into it was that it was consensual because they had been told it had been set up for that very purpose, and that's what was going to happen."

(Note: there is no legal concept of "third-party consent." Nothing ever came of the 1997 case. Two of the women in the 2001 case sued, and in 2007, the Colorado settled with them for $2.85 million).

Women reported being sexually assaulted by a recruit during campus visits in 1998 at Oregon State; in 2000 at the University of Florida; and in 2013 at William & Mary and Wisconsin. "Until we stop using women and their bodies as recruiting tools, we will never end violence against women," Hnida says.

James Franklin is having a lot of success recruiting in his new job as head coach at Penn State. Photo by Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Recruitment and sexual assault often overlap; it's literally happening right now in a courtroom in Nashville. At a hearing this week for motions pertaining to re-trial for two former Vanderbilt football players who, along with two other former players, are charged with the sexual assault of a fellow student in 2013, lawyers asked the judge to allow them to bring up the fact that the woman met one of the defendants because she was part of recruitment.

"The woman told police she was at a medical examination four days after the incident," local media reported, "when [then-head coach, James Franklin] and [then-director of performance enhancement Dwight] Galt told her they 'cared about her because she assisted them with recruiting.'" According to a court filing, what she meant by "assisting them with recruiting" was that Franklin asked her "to get fifteen pretty girls together and form a team to assist with the recruiting even though he knew it was against the rules."

Franklin denies the existence of that program. He now coaches at Penn State, where his greatest success—so far—has come in recruiting. Perhaps there's no connection. And maybe Pitino had no idea about what was happening at Louisville. No matter. Ignorance isn't an excuse. Not for a system that too often tells young men, implicitly or explicitly, that the women on campus exist as accessories to their lives and prizes for their athletic performance. Not when sex, or the promise of it, is used to swing and seal recruiting deals. Women aren't currency. Sex isn't a bonus. It's time for the college sports establishment to stop treating them as such.