Last Friday night, the Syracuse men’s basketball team was routed by Oklahoma, losing 84-71 – in no small measure because of the shooting collapse of Syracuse’s star guard Eric Devendorf, who finished the game with only 8 points.

56264748Why should readers of a Gender and Sexuality Law blog care about the Syracuse men’s basketball team?  Well, the Syracuse team got as far as they did because Devendorf escaped any meaningful punishment from the University after he punched Kimberly Smith, an SU junior, in the face last November.  In fact, almost the entire men’s basketball team was involved in this attack – they surrounded her car, kicked and dented the car, yelled at her, and when she got out Devendorf punched her.  She asked the Syracuse Police to initiate criminal proceedings against him but they preferred to refer the case over to  SU’s  Office of Judicial Affairs – a student-run group that weighs minor cases on campus.  At the hearing on the incident, 6′ 4″ Devendorf claimed that he had been defending himself when he hit Smith.

The Office of Judical Affairs recommended that in light of the fact that Devendorf was already on probation for hitting another student the previous spring, Devendorf be suspended for the remainder of the year –devendorf-team meaning that he couldn’t play, go to classes or set foot on campus for the remainder of the academic year.  This might have been the end of his NCAA and professional basketball career.  Devendorf appealed the ruling, and the punishment was reduced to 40 hours of community service, and he would be allowed to return to school in the spring ’09 semester.   He did all this, missed 2 games and all was forgiven.  Syracuse was ranked third in the Southern regional conference when the bracket was announced and they did well until they ran into the Sooners last Friday night.  While the Orangemen were winning TV commentators highlighted Devendorf’s athletic ability and coolness under pressure – he was a team leader and a charismatic player.

Devendorf’s lenient treatment from the Syracuse Police and the University’s disciplinary board is, of course, not unusual for a top collegiate athlete who gets into trouble.  Examples abound of charges of sexual misconduct or violence being swept under the rug when taking them seriously might jeopardize a college or university’s athletic program.

I was involved in an incident here at Columbia several years back when a female student accused several members of the Columbia Men’s Basketball team of sexual assault.  After a hearing before our internal disciplinary board the student/athletes were also given community service as a penalty.  And what service were they instructed to perform?  Educating the other members of the basketball team on the problem of sexual assault.  Can’t you just picture the guffaws and innuendo-laden jokes that surrounded these guys’ “presentation” to their teammates on Columbia’s policy against sexual assault and harassment?

“They probably think I’m an a-hole, man,” said Devendorf after he hit Kimberly Smith.  “I know they do. I know everybody thinks I’m an a-hole.”  Yep.  Everyone except the Syracuse Basketball coach Jim Boeheim, the Syracuse Athletic Department and the University Appeals Board.

Until our colleges and universities start taking their student disciplinary codes seriously – including parts of the codes dealing with violence and sexual assault – our campuses will continue to be unsafe spaces for female students, whose safety must take a back seat to the university administration’s drive to win basketball, football, and lacrosse titles.

– Katherine Franke

22 comments

  1. From a criminal law standpoint, I just don’t get this. I find it hard to believe that a campus is a completely separate jurisdiction in which victims don’t have the right to press charges for a crime committed. Especially a private university (though I admit to not being sure if Syracuse is private or public). Perhaps in some states the police or prosecutor must file charges? Here in VA any citizen can go to the local magistrate and swear out a warrant for assault and battery…

  2. It’s not just the universities. I can tell you as a former domestic violence prosecutor that when a DV case came in with allegations against a member of the local D1 university football or basketball team, it was diverted away from the domestic violence unit and into the hands of an extremely high-ranking prosecutor who was a grad of the school and member of its “boosters” organization. Suffice it to say that most of the cases quietly went away, including referals to various pre-trial programs for which the cases usually were not qualified.

  3. And of course U.S. v. Morrison, which resulted in stripping VAWA of its federal civil remedy for victims, started with two Virginia Tech football players’ sexually assaulting a fellow student and going unpunished by both the criminal justice system or school disciplinary processes. I wonder if VAWA could be revised to allow such a remedy specifically when athletes are involved (those being the cases that seem least likely to end in punishment for the offender). After all, March Madness and ACC football have a huge nexus with interstate commerce, which is exactly why the schools are reluctant to punish students who are part of their cash cows.

  4. This begs a very important question – are some abusers above the law?? Well it would seem that the law seems to go either one of two ways: –
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    It is about time that these people were traeted no differently to you and me. This type of story makes me really mad.

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