People often say we need to raise awareness about sexual assault. I believe what we need instead is for people to understand the issue of sexual assault.
It’s not a lack of awareness that is our biggest problem; it’s a lack of understanding.
There is a tremendous difference between awareness that a problem exists, and understanding that problem in the ways that matter most.
If people are aware an issue exists, but still maintain certain misconceptions about it, that lack of understanding can have serious consequences.
The current discussion regarding coach Steve Alford illustrates this well.
There is a new vacancy in the coaching position for Indiana University basketball, historically one of the strongest basketball programs in the country. And a lot of people believe that the former IU great and current UCLA coach Steve Alford would be the obvious pick.
You could see it as a fairy tale ending. The small-town Indiana boy becomes Mr. Basketball, wins a national championship at Indiana University, and then works his way through the coaching ranks to end his career at his alma mater.
But there is an issue now that has fans and observers divided. Coach Alford mishandled, to put it mildly, a situation when he coached at Iowa in which one of his players was charged with sexual assault.
The shortest version: When one of his players was charged with sexual assault, Alford defended him immediately, and kept defending him, even doing so publicly. Certain comments he made were insensitive, in addition to the fact that his position of power meant public comments to claim the innocence of his player meant being against the victim/survivor. (More on that later). He apologized publicly, but apparently not until years later when the story became a significant issue at UCLA where he’d been hired to coach.
Those who see Alford as the obvious choice would likely say that the way he handled it is not relevant now. It’s in the past. He has apologized.
Others are saying quite strongly that he should not even be considered because of how he handled it.
Ben Raphel writes a relatively thorough summary of the story, and shares his strong opinion in his article, “Steve Alford’s handling of the Pierre Pierce sexual assault case should make him unhireable at Indiana.”
People want to say it means nothing, or it means everything.
I have a different perspective. I might even be looking at this issue from a unique vantage point.
Because I spent my early years idolizing Steve Alford, and now my work is in preventing sexual assault.
Dismissing his actions as harmless is wrong, but demonizing him also misses the mark. Both distract from the larger issue.
Like many young boys who grew up in Indiana, I dreamed of playing basketball for Indiana University. For hours at a time I would practice in my driveway on a basketball goal my dad made for me by buying a piece of wood, a rim and a net. He painted the backboard white and painted on the red square. He drilled holes in it to attach the rim, and it lasted for a full childhood of shooting and imaginary games against rival Purdue University.
I remember a certain night, thirty-one years ago, holding the ball in my hands and bringing the ball up to shoot. The ball was cold and wet, with chunks of snow on it from it hitting the snow-covered ground after I shot. It was dark outside. I had turned on a light on the outside of our garage that gave just enough light to shoot from a small part of the driveway.
I was a twelve-year-old boy, pretending I was Steve Alford. The Hoosiers had just won another game, and I had to go outside and shoot.
Steve Alford was a presence in our home.
It’s probably fair to say Steve Alford was my sister’s first crush. She was just a couple years older than me, and as a middle school girl who was part of an IU family it made plenty of sense to be fond of the handsome leading scorer for IU. His number 12 was all over her school notebooks and folders, and his photos from magazines were cut out and hung up in her room.
After considering other colleges, I chose to attend Indiana University myself. And I had a wonderful experience there. I joined a fraternity. I made great friends both within and beyond it. And most importantly, I discovered that I love learning. I had (mostly) excellent professors who cared and who challenged me to think and reason better.
Several years ago, I focused my work on preventing sexual misconduct and abuse in relationships, particularly on college campuses. I speak to large groups and small groups. I develop materials and provide trainings. I work with the issue every day.
Before I ever spoke to one group, I read stacks of books and hundreds of articles, and I knew of the emotional trauma of victims/survivors, some of them close to me, and how it affected (and can continue to affect) multiple areas of their lives. I continue to study it almost every day.
But most people don’t do what I do, right?
Here’s something I know after studying this issue for so long: Most people don’t understand it.
It’s not that a person needs to be an expert to practice basic sensitivity. What I am saying is that this issue is ripe for misunderstanding. Certain misconceptions can lead an otherwise decent person like Coach Alford to cause, or add to, serious emotional harm of another, and maybe even believe they’re doing the right thing!
I’m not setting up to defend Steve Alford’s handling of that situation. But I’m also not going to assume he has severe character deficits. There is likely a pile of legitimate evidence that would show he’s a man of integrity, and a wonderful mentor for the young men on his teams.
Multiple things can be true at once. A caring person, and unacceptable behavior. And when that happens we need to be curious about what the larger issue is. Rather than condemn and move on, or ignore it and move on, we need to look for what we can learn from it.
I’m saying we need to be thinking about this in a different way, and that the much larger issue is the pervasive ignorance and misconceptions surrounding sexual assault.
Steve Alford was aware of sexual assault, but he didn’t understand sexual assault. Why can I assume this? Because everyone is “aware” of it, and because a person who understands this issue would not act as he did.
Ignorance does not remove responsibility or culpability. But it can serve as a call for better remedies.
Actions born of ignorance and misconception, however painfully ignorant they might be, can also be viewed as one part of the full picture of a coach or educator, rather than the piece to be cast aside entirely, or focused on exclusively.
We need to get better at recognizing that ignorance on this issue is widespread, and that being an otherwise mature and decent person does not mean a person properly understands this complex social issue.
If we don’t see that the root cause of most unethical, inappropriate, or ineffective actions is ignorance, we will not see that a deeper, better education is a big part of the solution. And people will go on assuming only “bad” (and therefore unreachable?) people don’t “get” this issue. This poor assumption is a significant impediment to progress because it suggests that a greater focus on education on the topic is not necessary.
The reality is, a strategic education of a certain depth is essential. When people understand this issue properly they behave differently.
From Raphel’s solid summary in his article, Alford made some serious errors. Though as I read them, they all made sense to me as how someone could act who does not understand this issue, all the while thinking he’s doing the right thing.
For example, immediately supporting the person you know and like, and assuming he’s 100% innocent is how many people respond. Continuing to defend him publicly was foolish, wrong, and hurtful to the victim/survivor and her family, which I will discuss further.
Assuming there must be some sort of solution from a Christian organization he was affiliated with is how a person who is both a Christian and under-educated on this issue might think.
Perhaps the most insensitive and irrational comments made were about suggesting people should just move on. Alford commenting that “two lives have been affected” can be read to imply he’s equating the harm of the person violated with the harm experienced by the person responsible for her harm.
That doesn’t even make sense, Steve!
(But what he expressed is a common sentiment of people not properly educated to understand this issue).
If you don’t quite get how serious his errors were, consider how it might feel if the most prominent college coach in your state kept coming out publicly against the young woman you care about most, and at the most difficult time in her life when she is struggling to deal with the emotional trauma caused by the person this powerful figure is defending.
And consider that the very act of proclaiming his player’s innocence can only imply that this young woman you care about most is lying about this extreme violation she has experienced, and is still suffering from. You’d be angry if I said you were lying about where you had lunch. Imagine a powerful person suggesting to the world that you’re lying about a crime committed against you.
It could have only added to her pain and the pain of all those who care about her. It is likely that they are still dealing with the emotional pain of that experience, and the added pain from his comments and actions.
He had opportunities to listen more, to seek out better guidance, and to change his thinking and use his voice to make reparations long ago. He’s a big boy, and an intelligent man. He should have sought wisdom from knowledgeable sources.
Steve… brother… you could have met with and sought advice from some women on campus. The University of Iowa would have had no less than a whole lot of women with the expertise to explain why you needed to handle it differently.
We’re supposed to be able to know what we don’t know.
The way Steve Alford handled the report of a sexual assault fourteen years ago might cost him his dream job, and even though I do understand the seriousness of sexual assault I take no pleasure in that. It feels a bit sad to me. I don’t even know if I agree that it would be the right criteria to disqualify him, as wrong as his actions were in Iowa. And they were wrong.
At a minimum, he has a black mark on his career that didn’t need to be there. And he caused harm to a young woman and her family that they didn’t deserve.
But… I believe it’s fair to assume he’s not the type of person who intentionally causes serious emotional harm to a young woman and her family.
As Occam’s razor suggests, sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one. It seems fair to assume that Alford would not have acted as he did if he’d understood the effect of those actions.
This does not to absolve him of his errors, but it can serve as yet another example of the need for greater focus on this issue. Not as a need for more awareness, but as a need for robust education that equips people to understand the complexities of this issue, and how it relates to their work with young people as a coach, educator or parent.
For us to make progress on this serious issue, we need to get beyond simplistic thinking. We need to get past demonizing those like Steve Alford who reveal their ignorance on this issue, and we need to get past acting like this is a simple issue to understand without proper education.
What is needed is the acceptance that a high percentage of the population needs a much better understanding of this issue.
The most positive outcome of this renewed focus on Alford’s errors could be for more people to realize that ignorance and misconception are widespread, including among those who are decent and caring people.
Now is the time for a greater commitment to a deeper level of education and understanding on this issue throughout athletics departments, higher education, and schools (as well as the corporate world).
People who properly understand the issue of sexual assault (including sexual harassment, etc.) behave differently in situations that have anything to do with it. We need to move beyond basic awareness, and equip staff, coaches, educators, and everyone else working with young people with the understanding necessary to be a part of the solution.
Our young people deserve that education themselves, and they deserve a world of properly educated adults.
*A word on “raising awareness” and my emphasis on getting beyond it: There are countless people who were working to raise awareness and provide pioneering education on the issue of sexual assault when I was still shooting baskets in my driveway and sitting in a classroom in college. I am full of humility as I write, knowing that the work of others has created powerful change. I write with the assumption that all who care about this issue agree that what we care about most is the goal of preventing harm. I write this as an attempt to advance positive efforts and increase engagement on this critical issue.