Monday’s blockbuster report in USA Today about LSU’s mishandling of sexual abuse cases by athletes and others was appalling on many levels. No young woman who is raped or sexually abused should be treated with the apathy and disregard described in the newspaper’s report.
Sadly, it shouldn’t be news that LSU might not take sexual misconduct seriously. Last year, a group of graduating seniors in one of my courses spent the semester investigating the school’s handling of sexual misconduct and discovered that LSU had only expelled one student for sexual assault in the previous ten years. While the students shared this information widely, with university officials and local media, nothing much happened. They were largely ignored.
So, when I read the USA Today story Monday morning, my first thought was, “How could our local media have again missed a story that was right under their noses?” My only conclusion is that this ignorance is not blissful, but willful.
To miss LSU’s casual approach to sexual assault by athletes and others, you’d have to force yourself to ignore it, which it appears almost everyone in a position of power at LSU and the local media have done.
If you’re a sports reporter who covers LSU, you’d have to force yourself to ask about the quarterback’s injuries and not about how the football team failed to respond when its players injured young women. You’d have to be more concerned with how LSU’s football defense is failing than how LSU is failing to defend young women preyed upon by athletes and other male students.
So, this story is not just about LSU’s failures. It’s about the local media’s failure to do its job. It’s about local sports reporters who are too often operating as extensions of LSU’s Sports Information department. And it’s about newspapers and television stations that devote more ink and airtime to first downs than the way LSU has let down the students and their parents who trust the university as a safe place to study and work.
Consider the press briefing on Monday afternoon by LSU head football coach Ed Orgeron. He faced the press just hours after the USA Today story broke, making these brief remarks about the incident:
“First I want to say that we need to support and protect victims of violence, sexual abuse of any kind. There’s no place in our society nor on this campus or on our football program for any behavior of this type. When accusations are made, we have a legal and moral obligation to report every allegation to the university’s Title IX office so due process can be implemented. I have in the past, and will continue to take appropriate action and comply with reporting protocols. I have confidence that the university is working to address our policies and processes when allegations arise. That is all I’m going to say at this time. I just want to address that before we have any questions.”
And then he welcomed questions from the press. The first was about the roster for this weekend’s Arkansas game. The second question was about who would start at quarterback for that game. The next was about the number of injured players on his roster. The next, about the conditioning of his players. Then, a question about quarterback T.J. Finley. Next, a question next about the effect of COVID on his players. Then, a reporter asked about quarantining players with COVID. Then, another COVID question.
On and on this went, until the 22nd question, when a reporter finally, gingerly, asked Orgeron about the USA Today story, which the coach batted away, saying, “I’m not going to comment on that. I’m going to let it go with what I said. I want you to know that your question is important.”
Then, Orgeron moved on from that “important” question and so did the press. He never got another question about the scandal.
The word for such reporters is “homers,” journalists who don’t do much real reporting on the home team, but rather use their stories to root for those teams.
In Louisiana, we’ve had far too much of such reporting. That must change, for the good of the university and for the safety of thousands of young women on this and other college campuses who deserve a secure environment and a university that treats them with dignity, defends their rights and seeks swift justice for those who assault them.
Maybe it’s good that local media organizations were embarrassed and caught flatfooted by USA Today’s reporting. Throughout the day on Monday, I saw several media organizations rouse themselves to action and began soliciting victims on social media to contact their reporters with their stories.
Better late than never. Let’s hope this episode sparks some soul searching and reforms not only at the highest levels of the university, but also in local newsrooms.
It’s way past time for less cheerleading about LSU and better reporting about what happens off the football field. If my students could uncover some of the ways LSU ignores and mishandles sexual abuse allegations, surely the local news media – including the sports reporters – could find much more. It’s time they started trying.
Author Robert Mann is a professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.