April 20, 2006 — -- Don McPherson, a former star quarterback at Syracuse University and NFL player, knows a thing or two about the behavior of athletes. And despite public perception, he said the athletes of today are better behaved than ever before.
"The athletes who were the legends when I was a kid, these guys weren't saints," McPherson said. "They were party animals, womanizers, drinkers."
But now their exploits would be in the news, he said. "There's more media out there writing online, 24-hour news," he said. "As a culture, we're less likely to give those guys a free pass."
And to help make sure athletes and other students understand acceptable behavior, McPherson works with young people across the country as executive director of the Sports Leadership Institute at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. The program starts with kids as young as elementary school discussing issues like alcohol abuse and expands as students get older to include topics like hazing and sexual violence.
As Duke University officials deal with rape accusations against members of its men's lacrosse team and the cancellation of its top-ranked team's season, those who work with students and athletes at other campuses say there are many ways to educate them about acceptable standards of behavior as they represent their schools.
"I think it's unfair on both sides to expect that 17-, 18-, 19-, 20-year-old young people, whether they're male or female, on a daily basis can resist the attention they get from everyone -- chancellors, the community at large," McPherson said.
"At the same time, it's not in any way an excuse for their behavior. If you expect people to cheer for you when you play, understand that there's going to be great scorn when you do something wrong," he said, adding, "that's why there's a scholarship. That's why there's media attention. It's part of that scrutiny."
Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., has been working with student athletes to combat campus violence for 16 years through its sexual assault services and crime victim assistance department. It uses peer educators and covers "interpersonal violence" like sexual assault, stalking, harassment and other violent acts, said Ruth Anne Koenick, director of the department.
"If you ask most people, Is it wrong to rape somebody, they're going to say of course it is," Koenick said, adding, "We try to get them to look at some of the more subtle things that we believe are rape supportive, things like language and how do you talk about women, how do you talk about sexuality."
The department works closely with the athletics department and team coaches to discuss community standards and acceptable behavior from athletes representing Rutgers. "Our approach to working with student athletes is they have a unique opportunity on campus to be leaders and to use that and create an environment where violence, particularly violence against women, is not acceptable," she said.
An interactive theater group composed of students who are part of the athletic community is particularly effective at reaching other students. "They know what's real for them," she said.
Joanne Belknap is author of "The Invisible Woman: Gender, Crime and Justice" and a professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which faced its own scandal in 2004 involving football players accused of rape and allegations that the university condoned providing sexual favors to football recruits.
Belknap said students are often not aware that their actions can legally be considered sexual assaults.
"Even the students who are not football players -- even the women a lot of times -- are so completely misinformed on what constitutes sexual assault and rape," she said. "What I keep telling the athletics department is, don't think these athletes have an understanding -- none of the students do. They think if someone is drunk they have no say over what happens to them."
Her work with students also addresses the "bystander mentality." "It's not enough that you don't rape," she said. "You also need to step in and say, 'You need to go home' or 'You need to stop.'"
Belknap said part of the problem is the general environment and societal attitude that students are a part of. "The culture we have in general in the United States is very accepting of violence against women," she said, noting that terms like "bitchslap" are commonly used. "Combined with the status given to athletes, it's just not surprising that this will happen -- not that it's excused."
McPherson said that is something he also stresses with students, who think nothing of attending parties with themes like "CEOs and office hos" or ladies' nights where the goal is to get women drunk, which can lead to sexual violence.
"One of the things we try to do is debunk some of the myths that create some of the false discussions that this is a lacrosse issue or athlete issue," he said. "The kind of behavior seen before the [alleged Duke] assault is not seen as problematic.
"Nobody's questioning that these guys are underage and drinking, who's paying for a topless dancer to come to a party. If you address those issues and start making smart decisions about how you party and how you handle your down time, then you don't set yourself up for this type of situation."
At the same time, McPherson said, Duke University should not be blamed for the behavior of the lacrosse team members, regardless of whether a crime was committed.
"They come from our communities," he said. "Their attitudes and their behavior was not formed at Duke. It's on our high schools and on our communities before these kids get to the campus."
For those affiliated with Duke and North Carolina Central University -- the school the 27-year-old woman who has accused three players of raping her at an off-campus party where she was hired to perform as a striptease dancer attended -- the issue of athletes' conduct is on everyone's minds.
"There is a fair amount of concern among some alumni about the continued sense that maybe some of the off-campus behavior of some Duke students, and maybe in particular some athletes, is a problem for this school," said Robert Ashley, a Duke alumnus and editor of the Durham Herald-Sun.
A former coach in the Duke athletic department told ABC News that it could benefit Duke to model student athlete orientations from in-depth symposiums that professional teams provide for new players. "It's like insurance," he said. "Until the hurricane hits, you don't need it. But when it does, you better have it."
"This is a prime example," he said of the allegations. "I can't see every college sports team doing that because every university doesn't have the budget for it, but if you look at it backward and say how much is this costing Duke's reputation, this has huge ramifications. What's the money worth on that?"
He's also quick to note that situations like this are difficult for athletic departments because they could never have planned for an incident like the alleged rape at the lacrosse house.
"You try to do as much from an administrative level as you can, but there's no 24-hour monitoring," he said, adding, "I don't think you can ever anticipate what's going to go on. But you do as much as you can to show examples to educate your guys as much as possible and look for new and inventive ways to do it."
Students on both campuses questioned what would be the best approach moving forward. Kali Love, a junior at North Carolina Central, said she is not sure if a university program could prevent an incident like rape from being committed by student athletes.
"It's not the behavior that needs to be suppressed," Love said. "It's the cause of the behavior that needs to be solved."
Jesse Longoria, a Duke senior and student body president, said he thinks the lacrosse team is being targeted unfairly for bad behavior and that all student groups make mistakes.
"I'm sure there are fraternities and different teams that have reports," Longoria said. "Certain club sports even have reports. I think that's being played up a bit because it perpetuates the story the media is trying to present. I would say that a team is made up of a lot of individuals. To identify all the individuals based solely on the perspective of the larger group would be totally unfair to those individual participants."
And Amanda Jones, a Duke sophomore, said detailed orientation programs should be offered to all students.
"A good program would reach beyond student athletes and educate college students in general to just be aware of their behavior and understand that they represent their university and they represent themselves and their families whenever they're out, whenever they're in the public eye," Jones said.
But Dominique Read, a North Carolina Central sophomore, sees value in addressing the issue directly with athletes. "They're going to be more in the public eye, so they're going to be a target," Read said. "So of course there should special programs set aside for them."
Andre Jones, a North Carolina Central senior, said "There's always a bit of favoritism for athletes, especially at schools like Duke and North Carolina."
"I know if it's like that here at Central then I know at those schools it's definitely the same thing," Jones said. "That influences the things that happen. They can get away with stuff."
He added: "[Special programs] would be something to help athletes stay out of trouble. Definitely, 'cause this is a messy situation, and it's far from over."