College Consortium: College Athletics and Sexual Violence - The Role of the NCAA in Protecting Student Athletes

Jan 14th, 2022

By Caroline Stroh and Maddy LaCure

Since its founding in 1906, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), has existed as a membership based organization to protect athletes and regulate college sport rules (NCAA, 2021). Over 1,000 American universities are members of the NCAA, representing over 500,000 student athletes competing in NCAA competitions nationwide. Under the leadership of the Board of Governors, the NCAA provides policies and guidelines to promote the health and safety of student athletes. Although NCAA leadership has named sexual violence prevention amongst student athletes as a major focus area over the last decade, they could be doing more to protect student athletics from sexual violence. The NCAA can take a more active role in monitoring and tracking complaints against staff to protect students from sexual violence and hold perpetrators accountable.

In a 2021 survey of 1,500 current and former college student athletes, more than one in four respondents reported enduring inappropriate sexual contact from a campus authority figure, most often a coach (Book, 2021). 83% of the survey respondents were also aware of another student experiencing inappropriate conduct from a campus authority figure (Book, 2021). This study not only brought light to the pervasive rates of abuse by coaches and campus staff, but also revealed the barriers to reporting for student athletes. The survey results showed that 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’ (Book, 2021). As this is one of the only widely accessible surveys addressing abuse and assault from campus staff, there is a large gap in research and data collection from survivors. However, this survey raises many areas for concern in the power dynamics of coach and student-athlete relationships and highlights a population of survivors that have been overlooked. Specific to athletics, there are unique aspects of the coach-athlete relationship that can contribute to sexual abuse.

There is an inherent power imbalance in which coaches have authority over their athletes and athletes are aware that their coach has influence over their success and their team’s success. The boundaries between coaches and athletes may also become blurred, as coaches play a major part in athletes' lives and may take on the role of coach, friend, and mentor all in one. Coaches may also take on a parental or familial role in the lives of their student athletes. They may engage in students’ personal lives and participate in activities outside of sports (Gaedicke et al., 2021). Additionally, there is immense trust and closeness within the coach-athlete relationship. Athletes view their coaches as trustworthy figures and they are encouraged to follow their advice. (Gaedicke et al., 2021). Although none of these factors on their own are abusive, these close relationships, combined with the power coaches and campus officials have over student participation, financial support, and overall success, also create opportunities for coaches to use their power to groom and abuse athletes.

There are actions the NCAA can take to protect students from abusive college staff and prevent further harm. Although the NCAA does not have the same power as law enforcement agencies, university conduct boards, or university human resource departments, it can create and enforce rules, investigate infractions, and punish violating universities. In order for colleges and universities to be members of the NCAA and for athletes to play for an NCAA member team, they all must agree to and abide by many rules and procedures in their bylaws. The NCAA sets numerous standards for athlete eligibility for grades, employment, recruiting, publicity, and more that require monitoring to enforce.

In addition, the NCAA mandates drug testing consent forms from all athletes and conducts year-round testing to ensure all student athletes are in compliance with their substance free policy. If an athlete is found in violation of this policy, they enforce strict disqualification rulings. They also regulate athletes' opportunities to earn income and state that athletes cannot be compensated for any endorsements or opportunities related to their athletic ability or position as a student athlete (NCAA, 2022, p.74). These incredibly detailed policies and regulations show that the NCAA has established the capacity and authority to implement and enforce many rules. This diligence and enforcement can also be applied to sexual violence prevention.

The NCAA put forth an updated sexual violence policy that goes into effect for the 2022-2023 school year that will require all college athletes to disclose to their university if they were investigated or disciplined through a Title IX proceeding, or criminally convicted for sexual, interpersonal, or other acts of violence each year (NCAA, 2021, p.2). Although this addition will require students to disclose violations and encourage member schools to hold student perpetrators accountable, it does not provide guidance on how to handle investigations or decisions about eligibility, nor does it include any mention of abuse committed by staff. The policy explicitly states that ‘the athletics department will cooperate with college or university investigations into reports and matters related to sexual and interpersonal violence involving student-athletes and athletics department staff in a manner compliant with institutional policies for all students’ (NCAA, 2021, p.3), leaving all investigating and discretion to the member university.

Comparing this policy to the NCAA substance free policy, forcing universities to declare a student-athlete ineligible from play if they test positive for a banned class of substances, the NCAA is coming up short in their efforts to protect student athletes from sexual violence. This discretion, coupled with not including coaches and athletics staff in the new policy, can makes it easier for students that have a prior history of sexual violence or staff members that have sexually victimized student athletes to move to different schools without recourse and possibly create further harm for more student-athletes.

In order to address this gap and prevent further harm, the NCAA should require member schools to disclose all reports of staff accused of sexual abuse. Then, the NCAA could compile a centralized tracking system of all reports and updates on investigations and outcomes that would prohibit accused staff members from moving from school to school until an investigation was completed. Additionally, the NCAA should implement a zero-tolerance rule against all forms of sexual abuse by staff members and require member schools to adopt the Staying in Bounds model policy to prohibit staff and student-athlete romantic relationships due to the weight of the inherently uneven power dynamics (Brake & Burton Nelson, 2012).

The NCAA is a powerful organization whose management expands across the United States and in the lives of thousands of individuals. Despite strictly regulating other issues in athletics, there is a gap in policy and enforcement to prevent and end sexual abuse committed by college staff. College athlete survivors, like all survivors, deserve to be heard, respected and cared for by the organization that was founded to protect them from harm. The NCAA has the national recognition, membership, and reach to be a leader in sexual violence prevention and must address these oversight gaps to protect students, hold perpetrators accountable, and prevent future harm.



Book, L. (2021, August 31). College Athletes Report High Incidence of Sexual Abuse by Campus Authority Figures, Survey Finds. Lauren’s Kids.

Brake, D. & Burton Nelson, M. (2012). Staying in Bounds: An NCAA Model Policy to Prevent Inappropriate Relationships Between Student-Athletes and Athletics Department Personnel. NCAA Publications.

Gaedicke, S., Schäfer, A., Hoffmann, B., Ohlert, J., Allroggen, M., Hartmann-Tews, I., & Rulofs, B. (2021). Sexual Violence and the Coach–Athlete Relationship—a Scoping Review From Sport Sociological and Sport Psychological Perspectives. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 3.

NCAA Board of Governors Policy on Campus Sexual Violence. April 27, 2021. NCAA.

NCAA Drug-Testing Program 2021-2022.

NCAA 2021-2022 Division 1 Manual. August 1 2021.

NCAA History.

Perez Jr., J. (2020). NCAA Delays New Sexual Violence Policy, Months After Approval. POLITICO.

Thomas, S.-S. (2021). Commentary: The NCAA is Still Turning a Blind Eye to Sexual Abuse. Fortune. Retrieved from:

Wiersma-Mosley, J. & Jozkowski, K. (2019). A Brief Report of Sexual Violence among Universities with NCAA Division I Athletic Programs. Behavioral Sciences, 9(2), 17.

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