From Hollywood celebrities to politicians to TV hosts, the careers of a number of prominent individuals have recently come to a screeching halt as a result of allegations ranging from sexual harassment to sexual assault. In some cases, their respective employers have quickly found themselves on the receiving end of criticism for not doing enough to prevent and/or immediately remedy these issues.During the last several years, various college athletics programs have also been dealing with large‐scale allegations of improprieties involving the mistreatment and sexual assault of female students. Most recently, at the beginning of 2018, a high‐profile college football coach was fired in the aftermath of allegations of sexually harassing an individual within his own office. Individually and collectively, these types of allegations are disconcerting, particularly given how much focus has been placed on the prohibitions against sexual harassment during the last 30 years.In light of these cases and the corresponding negative publicity, as well as the emergence of the #MeToo movement, the collegiate athletics world should once again focus its attention on raising awareness about what type of conduct is considered appropriate within a college athletics department. In fact, to circumvent negative publicity and other problems triggered by potential claims of sexual harassment, college athletics departments should take proactive steps that will address the issue on two fronts: as a workplace issue for employees and as a health and safety issue for student‐athletes. To implement that type of double‐pronged approach, you will need an effective program that considers three key aspects: education and awareness, avenues and procedures for complaints, and monitoring and responsiveness. Such a program should aim to achieve the goal of ensuring the entire athletics department maintains a safe environment, free from any form of harassing or threatening behavior.Education and awareness. Review, and possibly update, the policies and training programs on the prohibitions against sexual harassment that are currently in place at your school. There are enough recent cases to effectively incorporate into any educational program to make the training current, realistic, and practical. Both the school's Title IX coordinator and the human resources department can provide valuable assistance in this process. Although head coaches may express reluctance at becoming part of any training program, the recent cases underscore the need for everyone to receive proper education about the law, the school's policies, and the expectations for appropriate conduct. The old adage that “it should go without saying” unfortunately no longer applies. In light of the fact that individuals in positions of authority acted inappropriately in the cases mentioned earlier, it becomes increasingly imperative to make sure that everyone within your school's athletics department receives the proper training.Avenues and procedures for complaints. Although these should already be set forth in any school's policies, you must highlight them so that everyone has fresh reminders about how to file a complaint and to whom. Such a process serves two purposes. First, it alerts employees and student‐athletes to the appropriate avenues and procedures and allows the channeling of complaints to the correct individuals. Second, if your department regularly provides employees and student‐athletes with appropriate notice and training, then a potential complainant's failure to follow the stated complaint procedure might become a valuable defense against a potential claim of harassment.Monitoring and responsiveness. There was a time when it was considered sufficient to have understandable policies, a good training program, and a clear complaint procedure. However, the most recent cases now suggest that each college athletics department must have a better handle on operations and management within each of its programs. As a result, periodic monitoring of what occurs in those programs may soon become the newest additional responsibility for each school's athletics department. With that said, effective and comprehensive investigations and responses to any formal or informal complaints will continue to serve as essential requirements in the process of both addressing and remedying any harassment claims.The bottom line is that, given the current prominence of sexual harassment as an important issue on a national scale, you should encourage your school's college athletics administrators to take note and aggressively revisit the subject within their own departments.About the authorTimothy O'Brien, Esq., is a partner with the firm of Libby, O'Brien, Kingsley & Champion, and a partner in the O'Brien Sports Group. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Campus Legal Advisor – Wiley
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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