'We Felt Like We Were Above the Law': How the NCAA Endangers Women

A new report on Oklahoma State's use of "hostesses" to lure in recruits reveals yet another instance of the NCAA normalizing sexism. But there are ways it can change.

Historically, when college sports programs, especially football, have needed to convince young, athletic men to choose their school, they’ve used women to do so. Ever since the days when legendary football coach Bear Bryant coached at Alabama in the 1960s, large Division I athletic programs at major universities have been organizing groups of “hostesses”—college women with pretty, smiling faces who assist high-caliber potential student-athletes when they visit campus.

But hostesses play a larger role in the overall recruiting process than simply being tour guides. The hostesses, according to Deadspin, also “answer questions, and—in the evening when the parents go back to their own hotels—provide entertainment.”

College football is big business. According to Forbes, the minimum that the top 20 most lucrative football programs bring in is in the tens of millions of dollars in profits. The richest—The University of Texas—has a profit of $78 million each year. For teams like these, convincing the best football players to play for them is imperative. But the NCAA severely restricts what schools can use to lure players to their campus; according to the NCAA Division I Manual, programs cannot give recruits “any financial aid or other benefits,” including cash, clothing, or merchandise. In place of these financial benefits, programs use the recruits’ official 48-hour visit to show them a good time, an implicit promise of what their years on campus will be like if they choose to attend that university.

“The only inappropriate thing we did was lead on 17- and 18-year-old guys just to get them to come to the school,” Lacey Pearl Earps, a former hostess at Tennessee, told Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, the authors of the new book The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football. “We are not the only ones who do that. That goes on with hostesses at lots of schools. And no one tells us to do that. We just did it.”

Benedict and Keteyian argue that leading these young men on with “the promise of an intimate relationship is the sort of thing that can trump sold-out stadiums, state-of-the-art facilities, Nike deals and schedules packed with nationally televised games.” Even though Earps says that no one in college football programs tells hostesses to “lead on” recruits, programs are well aware of how instrumental these women are in helping them land top athletes.

The publication of Benedict and Keteyian’s new book on the seedy side of big-time college athletics coincides with Sports Illustrated’s release of the fourth part in a five-part series that focused primarily on the Oklahoma State University football program. After covering money, academics, and drugs, reporters George Dohrmann and Thayer Evans (with help from Melissa Segura) turned their attention to sex and the Orange Pride, the OSU hostess group.

Members of the Orange Pride are, according to their website, “required to attend and work each home football game for the 2013 Football season, raise $300.00 in sponsorship money, attend weekly meetings, and work recruiting official visits, Junior Days, Coaches Clinic, etc.” The SI piece alleges that between 2001 and 2011, a small number of women in Orange Pride slept with recruits while the recruits were visiting campus. It also says that members of the OSU football staff “decided which hostess to pair with which recruits” and “were aware that certain Orange Pride members were having sex with visiting prospects,” and that “Oklahoma State football personnel played a central role in vetting Orange Pride candidates.” According to Dohrmann, Evans, and Segura, the NCAA “passed legislation [in 2004] that, in part, prohibited ‘the use of alcohol, drugs, sex and gambling in recruiting.’” The scandal here, then, is that if the reporting is correct (and there are many, many questions about the veracity of the reporting), the football program did not do enough to prohibit sex during recruiting and thus broke NCAA rules.

Michael Felder, a writer for Bleacher Report and a former college football player at UNC, weighed in on Twitter after reading Sports Illustrated’s report: 

But overall, the response to the Sports Illustrated series has been something like one long, collective shrug. Part of that can be attributed to the ongoing scrutiny over the facts in the articles, but another part is that many people just think corruption like this at a Division I football program is old and unsurprising news. They aren’t wrong: This isn’t the first time allegations have been made that women in hostess groups are being used for sex. This known tradition of corruption, however, is not an excuse to ignore the evidence that the culture of men’s Division I sports can be harmful to women. Rather, the Sports Illustrated report and the publication of The System come at a moment when the use of women by college football programs and the sexual abuse of women at the hands of college football players deserve as much attention as ever.

In 2002, former members of the University of Oregon hostess program alleged that sex between recruits and the women in the program was not uncommon. Similar claims were made about the Arizona State hostess program the following year. The list goes on. Many of these allegations surfaced following the revelation of horrific events that took place at the University of Colorado. In 1997 and again in 2001, women said that they were raped at parties hosted for football recruits. The later instance involved both football players and high school recruits who, together, allegedly sexually assaulted three women. No charges were filed in either case. The 2001 case, though, led to multiple lawsuits that went through the courts for years, finally ending in a settlement in 2007.

Currently, there are two Division I football programs that have multiple now-former football players charged with rape. Vanderbilt University has recently dismissed five football players. Four of them have been charged with five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery for allegedly participating in a gang rape of an undergraduate in a dormitory on campus this past June. One of the men accused, Jaborian McKenzie, enrolled at a different university—Alcorn State in Mississippi—after getting out of jail on bail. He played in their September 7 game against Mississippi State. (When news broke the following week that the accused rapist was still playing football only at a different university, Alcorn dismissed McKenzie, and its president admitted that the university had “made an error in judgment.”) The fifth player, Chris Boyd, helped to cover up the alleged crime but pleaded guilty and took a plea of a lesser charge. He will testify against his former teammates.

And at the Naval Academy, three players are on trial for allegedly raping a female midshipman at an off-campus party in 2012. The Navy case is almost identical to an incident that happened there in 2001: Three football players were accused of gang-raping a woman off campus but no charges were pressed. Instead, the men were “kicked off the team” and “avoided criminal prosecution by agreeing to resign from the academy.”

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Jessica Luther is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. She is a PhD candidate in the History department at University of Texas. She writes about sports and culture at Power Forward.

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