“They have sacrificed the integrity of the school for the athletics department,” Lauren Ness tells me about Boston College.
Ness’s life at BC took a turn in the weeks and months following “the recording.” She stopped eating for weeks on end. She would drink to get through her assignments. Then, she began to cut herself. Soon, panic attacks would send her to the hospital and therapy on a regular basis.
On campus, Ness heard it all.
You’re a f---ing bitch.
You’re a f---ing rat.
How could you do that to him? Leave the football team alone.
Ness remembers the night in February 2012 – the moment she found out a recording of her having sex with her boyfriend, a BC football player, was making the rounds at the bar where she was working at the time. The sex, which happened the day after Valentine’s Day, was consensual, but the taping of it threw her into panic. That night, a handful of football players would mock her, making moaning noises as she passed by their table.
“My eyes turned into saucers,” she says. “I was overwhelmed and dizzy. I was trying to catch my breath.”
In a different case in another football-crazy city, Praise Martin-Oguike was called into the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office shortly before jury selection was set to begin earlier this month. Eighteen months had passed since Martin-Oguike, a linebacker for Temple University’s football team, was accused of raping and sexually assaulting a female student. Wearing a black suit, light blue shirt and gray tie, and joined by his pastor father and poet mother, Martin-Oguike was prepared for the biggest day of his life.
In the spring of 2012, Martin-Oguike met a female classmate through a mutual friend. They hit it off and had dinner. After having consensual sex three times, Martin-Oguike received a text from the female student, accusing him of raping her. He thought she was joking. But after he was formally charged with rape, he was stripped of his scholarship and expelled from school. Martin-Oguike’s future had more unresolved – and unexpected – questions than answers.
“I went from living comfortably and being a student to not knowing what my next step would be,” he says.
For Ness and Martin-Oguike, they were caught in situations where sex met big-time college athletics – and the results weren't pretty.
The culture and a 'blueprint'
In the six years following the Duke lacrosse case, the focus on sexually-charged allegations involving student-athletes has intensified to new levels. Earlier this month, seven current and former female University of Connecticut students filed a federal Title IX complaint against the university, accusing it of failing to protect them from sexual assaults. In at least one of the cases at Connecticut, an accuser said her instance of sexual assault happened with a student-athlete, which further crystallized the concern that student-athletes are disproportionately implicated in sexual assaults on campus.
"The thrill and excitement I felt being a student at UConn was shattered when I was sexually assaulted by a male student-athlete,” alleged victim Rose Richi said in a recent news conference. “I spent the following week in my bed crying, trying to understand what had happened to me. I didn't feel comfortable telling anyone or reporting because of the overwhelming privilege of athletes on this campus."
In the only comprehensive national study conducted on the prevalence of sexual assault among male student-athletes, researchers found in the mid-90s that even though male student-athletes made up just 3 percent of the male student population, they were responsible for close to 20 percent of the reported sexual assaults on campus. But that study is almost 20 years old.
Incidents involving students on high-profile college sports teams garner extra attention, and there is scrutiny not only on the school, but also the athletic department, in terms of how they handle cases of sex-related crimes. This is especially true with college football, the moneymaker for athletic departments nationwide.
Last year, at least five football players were accused of sex-related crimes, all of them assaults, except for Ness' non-consensual recording. This year, at least five football programs, including Arizona State, West Virginia and No. 3-ranked Florida State, have already had players accused or charged of some form of sexual violence. The 2010 case involving Lizzy Seeberg, the St. Mary's College freshman who committed suicide 10 days after she was allegedly raped by a Notre Dame football player, still has critics questioning how Notre Dame handled the case, especially given that the accused player is still playing for the Fighting Irish.
Ongoing sexual assault investigations involving multiple football players at Vanderbilt and Navy have rocked both institutions. As both of those cases illustrate, sexual violence cases involving student-athletes grab headlines -- some of which can be damning. At the University of Montana, students told federal officials that members of the school’s storied football program were treated as “gods.” Members of the university community told federal officials that the players were “allowed to get away with anything,” and, for a few members of the football team, they did. Yearlong probes from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found at least 11 reported sexual assaults involving university students in an 18-month period. In all, there were a total of 80 rape cases in three years in Missoula, Mont., home of the university, showing a prevalence rate that stretched outside the campus.
The investigation noted that six football players had been accused of attempting or committing sexual assault between 2009 and 2012. According to the findings, the university didn’t prosecute three of the six players for more than a year after the team’s coach was notified of a victim’s complaint to the local police department.
The university’s systematic failure, and the national coverage it received, prompted the call for reform in what’s arguably the most extensive settlement agreement under Title IX. As a result, Montana developed and implemented a institutional model that the Department of Justice and Department of Education branded as “a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country to protect students from sexual harassment and assault.” In a cooperative agreement with the DoJ, the university was awarded a renewable grant of $300,000 over three years to pay for measures such as additional trained therapists to help alleged student victims of sexual assaults, and Personal Empowerment Through Self Awareness, or PETSA, the university’s mandatory computer tutorial for all students.
University of Montana professor Christine Fiore has been advising Montana on addressing sexual violence, spending the past year helping to implement the DoJ agreement. For her, the fact that football players were involved helped raise the profile of the case to a national audience.
“The student-athlete part of the story is what brought the issue, in our experience, to the national forefront,” says Fiore, chair of the university’s psychology department and co-chair of the University Council on Student Assault. “If you look at the New York Times articles, what they’re highlighting is the football team and the alleged perpetrators on the football team. What role did that play [to bring more awareness]? Quite a bit.” Fiore adds: “The student-athlete piece of the story gave way to a more powerful media response.”
Not 'a drunken mistake'
Lauren Ness didn’t personally know Jaryd Rudolph. She thought of him as a complete stranger. She was, however, dating Joe Brown, Rudolph’s suitemate and teammate on the BC football team. (Joe Brown is a pseudonym.) Ness met Brown while she was working at Cityside, a popular BC bar, and they had been seeing each other for around two months. Since she was working on Valentine’s Day, she planned to stop by his dorm room at Walsh Hall the following day for a belated celebration. Ness and Brown thought they were alone.
Police later found that Rudolph’s iPhone, which was leaning up against the door of the suite, took a 20-minute recording of the intimate encounter, without the consent of either Ness or Brown. Ness says she found out later that Rudolph allegedly plugged his phone into an iHome system and played the audio recording throughout the halls of his dorm.
Rudolph was charged with unlawful secret recording under the state’s wiretapping law, having violated Ness’s privacy. The case was not classified as sexual assault, but how the university handled a situation, one involving sex and big-time athletics, remains befuddling. In March 2012, Boston College released a statement, criticizing both Rudolph and Ness.
"In adjudicating the matter, the dean's office determined that the conduct of the student and the alleged victim was inappropriate,” the statement said. The school never clarified what made Ness’s actions inappropriate. Boston College officials declined comment to America Tonight, citing privacy laws. Athletics officials declined to make Rudolph available for comment.
When the story broke, Rudolph was suspended from the team and placed on university probation. But Rudolph was reinstated before Boston College’s first game in September 2012. University officials described the status of the case as a “closed matter.” It wasn’t until December 2012 that Rudolph admitted in a plea deal that there was a sufficient amount of evidence to find him guilty. The defensive tackle hasn’t missed a game, and remains active on the team this season. After completing counseling, the charge was dismissed.
But for Ness, life hasn’t gone back to normal. Shortly after the case made news, she says university officials advised her not to attend BC football games and tried to make her take a medical leave of absence until Rudolph graduated. She suffered multiple incidents of manic episodes and paranoia. She says her therapist would diagnose her with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her student loans, totaling around $75,000, would go into default. Ness says she was unable to pay for them as she was fired from her job at the bar shortly after the incident.
“He took away my reputation, my sanity, my independence,” she says. “Everything that I had solidified in myself completely melted.”
The response toward Ness, who was never identified by name in the reports, around the BC community was mixed. “A lot of people were saying, ‘She’s a grad student, what’s she doing with an undergrad anyway?’” says Chelsea Lennox, 21, chair of BC Students for Sexual Health. “They were just looking for a reason to put her in the wrong.”
Living in Brighton, Mass., the home of Boston College, the posters of BC football that line the storefronts serve as a constant reminder for Ness of how the school handled her case. The charges against Rudolph did not involve sexual assault, but she likens her experience to being raped.
“It’s a much deeper form of violence because it lasts much longer,” says Ness, who adds that she’s still in therapy. “The way society underplays these kinds of actions, you can cry for help and you won’t get it.”
Despite finishing with her masters program at BC and now working two jobs, the recording, and the fallout, continues to follow the 24-year-old Ness, who regularly runs by the campus. She wonders aloud why the campus didn’t protect her when she needed it the most.
“This wasn’t a drunken mistake,” Ness says. “There was nothing I could have done to avoid this. I was crying every day for a year and a half…I’m still a little bit f---ed up.”
What's the NCAA's role?
The increased awareness on sexual violence on campuses has also gotten the attention of the NCAA. On paper, the organization defers authority on the subject to its member institutions. But last year, the NCAA organized a Think Tank with campus violence experts to discuss best-practice models for prevention. The dialogue among member institutions will convene again at the NCAA Convention in January 2014.
Richard Southall was one of the experts who participated in the event. Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, says sexual violence continues to be an uncomfortable topic for the NCAA, even though the NCAA is being proactive in addressing the issue.
“For negative topics, it’s hard to continually marshal resources,” Southall says. “The problem is that there’s only so many resources marshaled for so many issues the NCAA wants to address, and sexual violence is not necessarily at the forefront or at the top of everybody’s list day-to-day.”
The NCAA maintains that the lack of reliable data on the rate of sexual violence committed by student-athletes remains an issue for trying to quantify the reach of the issue.
“When a college athlete is implicated in sexual assault or any bad act, this draws attention in the media, but this does not give us good data on prevalence,” says NCAA spokesperson Gail Dent. “We are looking for credible research to establish the prevalence of sexual assaults committed by athletes on campus, and we are working with our research department and other experts in the field to continue to better understand prevalence and risk factors.”
Not everyone thinks the NCAA and its member institutions are doing enough to implement policies to help curb sexual violence and punish the guilty offenders. All colleges and universities must follow certain federal regulations to prevent and respond to sexual assaults on campus, and student-athletes are beholden to the same rules as their peers. But in “Penalty on the Field: Creating a NCAA Sexual Assault Policy,” lawyer Trisha Ananiades, argues that the NCAA should adopt its own sexual assault policy, in case a student is let off easy by his or her school, or simply transfers to another.
Others suggest that the current outlook toward women from athletics departments, as a whole, needs to be improved in instances involving sexually-charged crimes.
“You need athletic directors who say that the value of women on their campus is more than the value of winning or more than the value of [the revenue] coming in,” says Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel for the Victims Rights Center, the first law center in the U.S. dedicated solely to alleged sexual assault victims. “That’s the only way it’s going to change. The problem is so deeply entrenched in our society that it’s hard to think that we’re going to see change.”
While updated data on the prevalence of sexual violence cases involving student-athletes remains unclear, there's no doubt that the media attention from the cases involving student-athletes helps drive the bigger conversation. But the media firestorms that are generated from accusations of sexual violence involving student-athletes can also turn ugly. And in cases of student-athletes who are falsely accused of sexual violence, such as Praise Martin-Oguike, their innocence is often forgotten and overshadowed by the rapist branding.
From accused to vindicated
After his parents came to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1999, Martin-Oguike took up football at Woodbridge High School in central New Jersey. He wasn’t heavily recruited, but earned a scholarship at Temple, choosing to stay close to home and get involved with the school’s business program. He was one of just five true freshmen to see playing time during the 2011 season, playing sparingly at linebacker and on special teams.
Through a friend, Martin-Oguike says he was introduced to a stunning 21-year-old Temple business student from Maryland toward the end of his freshman year. They had consensual sex twice and remained friends. The Nigeria native knew she wanted a committed relationship from the get-go, something Martin-Oguike, then 18, wasn’t ready to have. In late May 2012, she had allegedly texted Martin-Oguike, asking if he’d drink some vodka with her. Later, Martin-Oguike says they had consensual sex for a third time at his dorm at 1940 Residence Hall.
Then, the linebacker would get a text message from the female classmate. Much to his confusion, she was accusing him of raping her. In a flurry of text messages between the two, Martin-Oguike denied raping her. In a response to the alleged threats from the accuser, Martin-Oguike asked, “Are you going to press charges?”
“I didn’t think she was serious,” says the soft-spoken Martin-Oguike. “I didn’t take it as anything.”
But she was serious. Four days after they had sex, Martin-Oguike was arrested on rape charges. According to the initial affidavit, Martin-Oguike was accused of forcing the female student into a lying position, choking her by the neck and ripping off her shorts before raping her. The affidavit detailed how the female student said she kicked her legs, crying for him to stop. The female student’s story also had her first meeting Martin-Oguike when she was moving into a new apartment with her mother, according to the affidavit. After the incident, the female student’s account included her discovering vaginal bleeding, and later showering and vomiting repeatedly.
Soon thereafter, Martin-Oguike was suspended indefinitely from the football team and stripped of his scholarship. The university would go on to expel him.
Before walking into the district attorney’s office on the day of jury selection, there had been many sleepless nights for Martin-Oguike, who had moved back home to Sewaren, N.J., taking classes part-time at Middlesex County College in nearby Edison. In the days following his arrest, he says he would check Twitter for many of the hurtful comments lofted his way. Martin-Oguike remembers being harassed by a woman at the local medical school he was working at part-time, openly questioning his boss about why Martin-Oguike was employed given the rape alllegations.
But sitting in a private room across from the district attorney, the former Temple student-athlete was told that the charges that had been hanging over his head for the previous 18 months were going to be dropped.
Martin-Oguike was overwhelmed. His parents dropped to the floor. Martin-Oguike’s father would hug his son’s attorney, James Funt, telling him, “God bless you.”
“I couldn’t really grasp it,” Martin-Oguike says. “I almost fainted for a second.”
So, what happened? By court order, Funt got access to the accuser’s cell phone records. Through those records, Funt and his associates were able to prove that the female accused was someone who had been jilted by football players in the past. The accuser, Funt says, didn’t want to be pigeonholed on campus as being a “football groupie.” National research has found that a false accusation of rape, though relatively rare, usually involves a woman between the ages of 21 to 30, and can be perpetrated for a number of reasons – revenge being one of them. With this new evidence, the prosecution dismissed the charges.
“A full forensic examination of her cell phone revealed the true nature of who she is, and the completely consensual nature of her sexual relationship with Praise,” Funt said in a press release. “When looked at in conjunction with the medical information, it was clear the complainant’s story was simply not true.”
Now, with the charges dismissed, Martin-Oguike, having been branded as an alleged rapist for the last 18 months, faces an uphill climb in trying to move on. When Googling Martin-Oguike’s name, the words “rape” and “victim” show up as two of the first four most common search entries.
Amazingly, after being stripped of his scholarship and being expelled from school, Martin-Oguike wants to return to Temple and the football team. Several teammates texted Martin-Oguike, supporting their former teammate throughout the ordeal. If he can’t return to Temple, he’ll begin the process of re-applying to schools, hoping to eventually go to medical school if he can’t live out his NFL dreams. But even with the charges having been dismissed, the stigma that’s now attached to Martin-Oguike makes for a challenging first step.
“I don’t think it would be just for a school not to accept me just because of the false allegations,” he says. “I was proven innocent. I think I would be accepted.”