BY LEXI LOBDELL ’20
Recent sexual assault cases involving National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) teams and coaches have brought women’s rights to the forefront of collegiate sports discussion. In February, Larry Nassar, the former U.S. Gymnastics and Michigan State University’s sports medicine doctor was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for over 265 criminal sexual conduct towards young girls, according to The New York Times. These criminal cases took place at both MSU and Olympic training facilities.
U.S. Gymnastics and Michigan State University have been criticized for how they handled this scandal. (Both organizations knew about allegations against Nassar and failed to report athletes’ concerns or take action.) Since then, the entire U.S. Gymnastics Board stepped down under pressure from the United States Olympic Committee. Michigan State University’s president at the time, Lou Anna K. Simon, also resigned from her position due to backlash from the Nassar case.
During the trial, over 150 girls and women give testified against Nassar, including multiple Olympians. Judge Rosemarie Aquilin was presiding judge over this case and permitted any women abused by Nassar to testify against him and let their voices be heard. According to The New York Times, Aquilin told one women, “Leave your pain here and go out and do your magnificent things.”
Following the #MeToo movement, this case has raised questions about athletes’ safety in the collegiate environment, female empowerment through athletics and has lead to discussions about how to improve women’s rights and safety in the NCAA across the nation.
Mount Holyoke’s mission includes improving education and leadership, as well as creating opportunities for women and advancing women’s rights. Adhering to this mission, the athletics department has several policies in place to cultivate a safe environment for student-athletes. Associate Director of Athletics Summer Hutcheson has worked with the College for four and a half years, a period in which the athletics department has made several policy changes to address the shifting landscape of college athletics. “These measures include but are not limited to, banning the use of video capable devices in the locker rooms and the athletic training room to ensure privacy; providing more information on our website about the different locker room and bathroom facilities available to all users; putting windows in all our coaches offices to maintain transparency when folks are meeting privately,” said Hutcheson. “Most recently, we implemented sexual respect and violence prevention education for all our student-athletes, coaches and staff. While a simple educational workshop can’t change culture, we see this as a start to helpful dialogue.” All student-athletes are required to attend a sexual respect and violence prevention training this week.
While these safety policies are necessary at both women’s colleges and coeducational colleges, Hutcheson explains there are a few differences while working in athletics at a women’s college “I quickly realized I was leaning on false gender stereotypes in my assumptions,” she said, “but the list of what student-athletes need to be successful is not dependent on gender, so my work didn’t change. A benefit that our student-athletes have at Mount Holyoke is that our teams always have the premier game and practice times; they don’t have to wait behind the football team.”
At Mount Holyoke, the varsity equestrian team has the unique opportunity to compete against men, as riding is one of the few coed-format — though female dominated — sports. “The men who do compete are often very competitive, and sometimes seem to be given an advantage by judges,” said Captain Mollie Kowalchik ’19. “It can be extra rewarding when you compete against men and win.” Head Coach CJ Law agreed, adding, “Knowing that the male riders tend to stand out [due to numbers] only pushes my riders to stand out even more and to prove they have the same ability or more.”
“I think athletes are empowered by the process of becoming stronger, exploring what their bodies are capable of and pushing those limits,” said Head Athletic Trainer Ellen Perella “So many people, especially females, have a negative body image that can be so draining to one’s morale, time and energy. I want everyone to feel strong, healthy and positive about their physical selves.”
Hutcheson hopes that participating in athletics transforms students off the field as well. “We want our student-athletes to know that it is possible to achieve great things in athletics as well as academics,” she said. “They aren’t mutually exclusive.”
Law acknowledged the importance of the team as a source of encouragement: “In my case, I have seen women empowered by knowing they have over 40 team members cheering them on and wanting them to succeed.”
Kowalchik also emphasized the importance of her team’s support. “Not only do teammates support each other during practices and competitions,” she said, “but also in other aspects of life. Knowing that you have a whole team supporting your endeavors is extremely empowering.”