College athletes report high incidence of sexual abuse by campus authority figures, survey finds

Rampant abuse mirrors prior flagrant pattern reported at Ohio State, Michigan State

As several major universities grapple with an epidemic-like plague of hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by authority figures, a new report by a national survivor advocacy group suggests that kind of abuse is endemic on college campuses — with athletes being at particular risk of being abused.

Based on the findings of a recent survey of college-educated Americans under age 45, more than 1 in 4 current and former college male and female athletes said they endured inappropriate sexual contact from a campus authority figure – most often a male professor or coach. More than half of those victims were also threatened by the perpetrator to not report the abuse or to reject sexual advances.

“The risk of sexual abuse and exploitation doesn’t end when our children go off to college. If anything, they face a whole new set of risks, even from the authority figures who are supposed to protect them.” said Lauren Book, founder of Lauren’s Kids. “While the overwhelming number of authority figures on college campuses enrich students’ lives, college students must also be educated about what to do if anyone – a coach, a professor, a doctor, mentor or advisor – crosses a line.”

Besides actual sexual contact by a campus authority figure, 26% of respondents said they were threatened and 19% experienced harassment.

National civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who along with co-counsel Rick Schulte represents hundreds of Ohio State and Michigan State sexual abuse victims, said the survey confirms that inappropriate sexual behavior by authority figures is widespread on campuses. Student athletes are at particular risk because they fear loss of their scholarships or status on a team, which can jeopardize their future.

“These findings suggest that the kind of sexual abuse uncovered at OSU and MSU may be just the tip of the iceberg,” said renowned civil rights and personal injury attorney Ben Crump. “The pressure on college athletes to endure sexual abuse by coaches and other authority figures is enormous. For many, playing college sports is their ticket to college and a pro career. They simply aren’t willing to risk losing a scholarship or a starting position on a team by disclosing what’s going on.”

In fact, of the athletes surveyed, 39% said they failed to report inappropriate contact because they were afraid the perpetrator would punish their grades, career, or team status, while 29% were afraid of losing their scholarship.
21-CRU-001 Campus Sex Abuse Report V2_5

Download pdf here.

Shockingly, 83% of athletes were also aware of another student experiencing some form of inappropriate behavior by a campus authority figure, including:

  • 34% who knew of a campus authority figure raping or sexually assaulting another student
  • 34% who knew of a campus authority figure using their position to coerce a student sexually.

“These results point to a toxic environment on college campuses that demands systemic change,” Schulte said. “Victims need to know they can fight back without going public with their stories and that they have federally guaranteed rights.”

Schulte noted that more than half of those surveyed (53%) were unaware that victims of sexual abuse can bring forth a lawsuit confidentially — without their name being publicly disclosed. Among women, 66% were unaware they could maintain their confidentiality.

Hundreds of student athletes at Ohio State University alleged being groped during medical exams by former team doctor Richard Strauss, who died by suicide in 2005. The abuse spanned two decades of Strauss’ tenure as an athletic and student health doctor from 1979-1998. OSU has committed nearly $47 million in settlements to compensate the victims.

Similarly, Michigan State University has agreed to pay $500 million to student athletes who were sexually assaulted by former faculty member Larry Nassar. Nassar sexually abused more than 150 student gymnasts, including many Olympians, during medical appointments over the decades.

This type of abuse has serious, long-term consequences for the victims. Of the surveyed athletes who reported unwanted sexual contact by a campus authority figure, 98% reported at least one negative life consequence. Those included issues such as PTSD, an addiction, a mental health problem, bankruptcy, declining grades, leaving school, failed relationships, or loss of status on a team. That’s nearly double the rate among non-victims.

Besides athletes, students active in clubs also reported higher levels of sexual abuse, threats and harassment from campus authority figures than other students. Among all current and former college students surveyed, 1 in 10 said they experienced some form of inappropriate sexual contact by an authority figure.

Click here to download a parents’ conversation guide. To download a guide to your rights under Title IX, click here.

If you or someone you love has experienced sexual violence, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE (4673) or for support. It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7 in English and Spanish.

The survey of 1,500 college-educated Americans was fielded June 2-3, 2021, including 767 under the age of 45. Margin of error +/- 3.5% at 95% confidence level. Results representative of college-educated American adults in terms of race, gender, income, and region.