Last Saturday, September 13th, we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Drafted by none other than then-Senator Joe Biden, the law allocated significant new federal resources towards the investigation and prosecution of violence against women, harshened punishments for guilty parties, and established the Office on Violence Against Women.
But as encouraging as VAWA’s success has been, this week we were solemnly reminded of just how prevalent domestic violence still is.
Back in February 2014, gossip website TMZ released video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious then-fiancé out of the elevator of a casino in Atlantic City. In response, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice for a paltry two games.
Then, last Monday, TMZ released more elevator security camera footage, showing in graphic detail Ray Rice brutally punching Janay Rice in the face. This time, the league suspended Rice indefinitely, and the Ravens cut him. Commissioner Goodell then went on record swearing that the league had not seen the footage before that moment.
But the next day, an Associated Press report alleged that the league did have a copy of the tape, making Goodell either a liar or inexcusably negligent. Despite this, neither Goodell nor anyone affiliated with the league or the Ravens organization has been fired—sending women the message that, as long as the league keeps raking in money, their human dignity is expendable.
Sadly, though, the NFL is not the only organization that prioritizes its reputation and institutional power over the well-being of survivors of assault and violence.
Sexual assault is an epidemic on campuses all over the country. One in five women in college have been sexually assaulted, and universities—including Penn—have been far too willing to sweep it under the rug.
Too often, the pages of The Daily Pennsylvanian have been inked with stories of sexual assault here at Penn, and we see how little institutional support or prosecutorial zeal exists to bring the perpetrators of these assaults to justice.
According to a massive survey of colleges and universities across the country, only 51% of universities provide a hotline for rape survivors; more than 30% provide no sexual assault training for their students; and most distressingly, more than 40% of schools have failed to conduct a single investigation into a sexual assault claim over the past five years. These facts are unacceptable.
Thankfully, a bipartisan group of senators led by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) has introduced a bill adding more law enforcement oversight over how universities handle sexual assault claims. The bill will establish campus resource centers for students, mandate new training standards for campus employees, and enforce greatly expanded transparency and accountability requirements.
This new bill is a no-brainer, and we support it enthusiastically. Put simply: in cases of violence and sexual assault, the internal chain of command–whether at universities or sports leagues–has failed spectacularly.
We must speak out loudly and firmly on this topic, and we will stand proudly with survivors. Fortunately, we’re in good company. At Columbia, senior Emma Sulkowicz has pledged to carry her mattress wherever she goes on campus until her rapist is expelled or leaves school. She has been greeted with overwhelming support, with students joining together to help Sulkowicz carry her mattress and other students bringing their own mattresses to a protest last Friday. Movements like Columbia’s give us hope for real change on campuses nationwide.
It’s clear that the fox cannot be trusted to guard the henhouse, and these powerful leagues and institutions cannot be trusted to police themselves. We must realize that the institutional popularity of colleges and sports programs is nowhere near as important as the lives and livelihoods of the innocent women (and men) they so readily sweep under the rug. Until then, an insidious culture that protects the image of influential organizations at whatever cost will continue to prevail.
Powerful institutions like universities and sports leagues have not adequately protected women from the horrors of assault and violence. So join with us in supporting meaningful reform of how we handle rape and abuse in this country; action now is nothing less than a moral imperative.
Note: this column originally appeared as a part of our weekly series in The Daily Pennsylvanian