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Otterbein University Recruits Athletes To Tackle Sexual Assault

Clare Roth
Resources for sexual assault survivors at Otterbein University.

After most classes at Otterbein University let out for the day, students hit the treadmills and weight machines in the Clements Recreation center on the north end of campus. Upstairs in a classroom, though, the women of the school’s softball team sit still in their chairs, listening to Jill Davis teach a different sort of class.

Davis usually works at the local rape crisis center, but she’s here as part of the school’s "Fair Play" program, a sexual violence prevention course tailored specifically to student-athletes.

It includes straightforward classroom stuff—definitions of sexual harassment and assault, videos from campus life departments on why it’s wrong to pressure someone into sex, worksheets on sexual coercion—but Davis uses more interactive methods as well.

She approaches a student with an uncapped sharpie, threatening to draw on her face. After, she turns to the rest of the students.

“How do you know she didn’t want it?” she asks. “She didn’t, like, karate chop my arm off and say, ‘No! Face tattoo!’ How did you know she didn’t want it?”

Credit Clare Roth / WOSU
Jill Davis leads a "Fair Play" workshop at Otterbein University, teaching student-athletes about issues of consent and coercion.

The class dissolves into giggles and shouted jokes, but the women soon start offering suggestions: She said no, she turned away, she put her hand up, she laughed with clear discomfort.

“I’m not confused, right?” Davis continues. “Ninety percent of communication is non-verbal, right? All of that interaction demonstrated to me like she’s not interested, right? So consent is something we have to care about in order to receive that communication.”

Kristy McCray says that lesson—consent, and caring enough to pay attention to these issues in the first place—is at the core of the program she designed.

“Being very mindful of setting a culture of, ‘Here’s how we engage in healthy relationships and healthy conflict resolution and bystander intervention off the field,’ that has to be really intentionally talked about,” McCray says.

McCray, an assistant health and sport sciences professor at Otterbein, created this 10-week program with an hour each week on a variety of topics. The class teaches not just consent, but gender roles, and sexuality, male victimization, lessons for women on assertiveness, and how to say no.

She admits that some research shows a link between athletes and sexually aggressive traits. She thinks any higher rates of perpetration have more to do with how their coaches, institutions and society treat them.

“Some of the things we know about when and where and why it happens has to do with a culture of silence or of protecting their athletes, and prioritizing the team or the winning above looking at the good of the community,” she says.

And that means, sometimes, athletic departments fall short of the goal.

“We see a tagline, right? Like, ‘We don’t hit women,’ or things along those lines,” McCray says. “And that’s important to say, but what does that mean? How do we resolve our conflicts if we’re not engaging in violence? What does masculinity look like if we’re not using violence to prove it?”

McCray created her curriculum for students like Andre Bradley, a basketball captain who participated in the first iteration of the Fair Play program last year when he was a junior.

“I’ll be honest with you, I wasn’t too thrilled that we were spending our winter break taking the class,” he says with a laugh.

But he quickly came around, and he says that lessons on the roots of sexual violence and how to intervene if you see a threatening situation, opened up a dialogue with his teammates.

“It’s still something we talk about in the locker room and stuff like that,” he says. “We’ll still talk about some of the videos some of the examples we learned in class just because of how serious, or like how much it stuck with us.”

A grant from the Ohio Department of Education funded classes for softball, women’s golf, women’s tennis, and half the football team this semester.

At a school like Otterbein, where athletes make up a quarter of the student body, the athletic department is a good place to start. McCray would like to expand the education to all students, but money is a factor.

In the meantime, she hopes it has a ripple effect.

“Working with athletes allows kinda a pathway for influencing the rest of the university as well,” she says. “They play a strong role in both shaping and then changing the culture here on campus.”