In Defense of Athletes: An Elephant for Professor Dumm

dumm athletes

(Liya Rechtman)–I was shocked and deeply offended by Professor Dumm’s article published in The Student last week titled “The Elephant in The Room.” I would like to take this opportunity to first debunk Dumm’s conspiracy theory with regard to the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee’s report and to then discuss the effect of his statements about athletes.

I will not respond in depth to the claims about athletes’ propensity to believe rape myth and perpetrate rape, except to say that while the committee was aware of the studies he cited it was unimpressed by them. Many of them hearken back thirty years and primarily refer to Division I and II universities, not Division III colleges like Amherst. Not only are many of them extremely poorly conducted, but also more recent studies tend to not replicate their findings. In short, I find that his statistical claims fall far short of the mark in their applicability to our campus.

I am addressing his points first and foremost as an Amherst college student. I write secondarily as a student representative both on the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee and formerly on the Sexual Respect Task Force. Finally, I respond to Professor Dumm because I am a friend to many members of the campus community who were hurt by the misinformed theories and misplaced anger displayed in last week’s article.

Professor Dumm says that he does not presume to know the minds of the members of the committee. Yet he goes on to suggest that we were addled and mesmerized by the big wallets of alumni and uninterested in creating a safer campus, if it meant chastising athletics. Not only is this charge incredibly disrespectful to his colleagues and students who worked tirelessly on the report, but it is also quite frankly detrimental to open dialogue, when any position one disagrees with immediately becomes linked to a broader conspiracy. As a member of the committee, I can attest to the fact that neither alumni funds came up as a possible obstacle to finding the true perpetrators of rape culture nor was there pressure of any kind brought to bear on our deliberations. I do not presume to know the mind of Professor Dumm as he wrote this article, but I only hope that he does not treat all policy proposals with that level of cynical abuse because I cannot imagine how that could contribute towards the betterment of our community.

In his article, Professor Dumm decries the line in the report that stated our view that it is, “counterproductive to indict any one demographic.” And in response he reiterates old claims that athletes, because they embody certain physical and social attributes commonly associated with masculinity, perpetrate rape with more frequency than other demographic groupings. There are certainly athletes who assault and harass. The effect of this sexual disrespect can and often is compounded by the social reinforcement they receive from their friends and teammates.

However, for every Jordan Johnson, there’s a Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Assault, unfortunately, is not limited to any one community or performance of masculinity. Instead, it is prevalent throughout many (I might say ‘all’) subcultures. The effect, therefore, of focusing on one, highly-visible, community and using that as our cultural scapegoat is two-fold:

First, accusations like Professor Dumm’s enable us to lose sight of, and therefore, de-regulate other communities. Yes, there have been assaults by members of athletic teams, but there also have been reported cases of assault perpetrated by members of organizations that run the gamut from the debate team, to the theater program, to the a capella groups, to the organic farming and sexual health communities. Not to mention, of course, the rape and harassment within the queer community. It was on behalf of the survivors of these assaults that, I advocated for a broader perspective in my capacity as a member of the committee.

Any one culture (like Amherst) contains many subcultures. In each subculture exists a social hierarchy, with some members on top and others at the bottom. This hierarchical structure alone is conducive to creating environments of entitlement and competitive aggression. However, there is an interesting difference between non-athlete and athlete subcultures at Amherst. Unlike a varsity team, a non-athlete subculture doesn’t currently have access to the resources, education, and community support that are probably needed to create intentional and respectful space for sexual interaction. The athletics department has spent much time, particularly in the past few years, examining ways to create holistic education and open dialogue about sexual respect for its coaching staff and members of its teams. In contrast, the Marsh Arts House, of which I am a resident, has not once had programming around those issues and has only spoken to staff and faculty about banalities surrounding fire safety, as is true with most upperclassmen dorms. This is one of the major reasons we found it counterproductive to point an enraged finger at athletics and tell them that they are the problem with our community.

The other problem is created by demonizing 40% of the student population and treating them as either past or potential rapists. Simply put: when someone calls you a rapist, racist, bigot, or general asshole, how interested do you become in working with that person, even if you agree with their cause? I would venture to guess that, by solidly alienating incredibly-valuable, potential allies you make this campus angrier and less safe than by any count it need be. Dividing and assigning blame to people based on a set of stereotypes is plainly unhelpful. It’s unclear to me what Professor Dumm hoped to accomplish by taking this stand.

Finally, I would like to step back for a moment and consider Professor Dumm’s responsibilities as an Amherst College professor. I am a Junior here and I am incredibly grateful to all the professors who I have worked with and learned from since coming to Amherst. I respect my professors, both academically and in their dealings with me as a student and a person as a whole. Last semester, I was so touched when I saw many familiar names on the list of professors who were in favor of changes in the sexual assault policy and who felt moved by the campus’ crisis. When professors, including Dumm, spoke in open forums, I listened attentively. That being said, it was my understanding that part of the role of a professor is to educate us without prejudice. The demonization of athletes not only confused and hurt athletes (and others on campus) because of its inflammatory content, but because it came from the mouth of a professor, someone whose opinions we look towards to guide us as students and not blindly cut us down by playing on stereotypes.