The memory is oddly fresh. Avery Rape is a freshman at Duke, getting ready for soccer practice. She walks to her locker and takes a deep breath. She pulls her hair back, slides up her socks, tucks in her shin guards and slips on her cleats. Then she takes one more bite of her granola bar and heads for the turf.
But instead of focusing on the practice ahead, Rape remembers something that happened to her outside her dorm room the other night, when she was “grabbed by the pussy” by a football player, wrote the former Duke University soccer player on a blog post published in October. In the same post, Rape goes on to reference other negative interactions with male athletes–a basketball player, a lacrosse guy–that she experienced while she was an undergrad at Duke from 2010 to 2014.
Rape, now 25, is not alone. As the national conversation has turned to what is or isn’t considered “locker room talk,” spurred by the allegations involving Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Rape and many other female athletes are now opening up about their experiences with sexual harassment and how they’ve dealt with them.
“Women in general, but especially female athletes, get used to being treated a certain way—at least in college you believe that it’s normal,” Rape told Excelle Sports in an exclusive interview the week after her post received media attention. “You hear comments from both men and women about ‘she has this [physical attribute], she has that [attribute], look at her blank’. In many ways athletes become numb to criticism whether it is about their physical appearance or on-field or court performance, etcetera. We begin to think that we can handle anything.”
Perhaps one of the most publicized examples of “locker room talk” in college sports of late comes from one of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions: Harvard University. In October, the Harvard Crimson broke the news that the school’s 2012 men’s soccer team created a scouting report that scored female soccer recruits based on their physical appearance–an annual tradition apparently, according to the Crimson.
Yet the report, which was maintained by players on a public, Google-hosted website, didn’t surprise the women listed on it. “The sad reality is that we have come to expect this kind of behavior from so many men, that it is so ‘normal’ to us we often decide it is not worth our time or effort to dwell on it,” the victims of the report wrote in a follow-up article published by the Crimson. The article continued:
“We feel hopeless because men who are supposed to be our brothers degrade us like this. We are appalled that female athletes who are told to feel empowered and proud of their abilities are so regularly reduced to a physical appearance.”
Those who’ve played for university teams likely know that college sports can bring together male and female athletes in very intimate ways: Teams interact in dining halls, weight rooms, physio centers and on empty campuses during the summer for preseason training. In part for this reason, female athletes say it can be easy to shrug off player comments as “it’s just the lax team” or “all football players are like that.”
“Emotionally, [college is] a hard place to be for a young female athlete,” Rape said. “You’re already in a place in life where you are learning how to build self confidence while under pressure to perform to your best ability on the field, which affects that level of confidence. So adding in pressure to ‘look good’ for guys can really get to women mentally. I think a lot of times female athletes put up walls to always look strong, confident and tough when, really, we deal with the same emotional and mental issues as any other 20-something-year old trying to find their place.”
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Former Providence College soccer player Katherine Creamer, 23, adds that there’s an expectation in college athletics to be robotic—to train, play, win or lose and get good grades without showing emotion, staying immune to your surroundings, which, unfortunately, includes disrespect. “It’s important for college athletes to remember that they are humans, not machines,” Creamer said.
Her former Friars teammate, Jenna Donahue, 23, says that women don’t need to be directly affected by harassment to know it exists. “Although I never really experienced verbal abuse throughout college, there are many women out there who deal with that on a regular basis and think it’s a normal part of being a college athlete,” she said.
Kim Vandenberg, an Olympic bronze medalist who swam at UCLA, said her experiences with “locker room talk” and disrespect became more pronounced after she started training overseas.
“I had a coach in Europe who was very verbal about my body,” said Vandenberg, 32. “If I had added even a few pounds, he would comment on it in a negative way, and some of my male teammates would also make comments about my body. If I had a bad swim and was unhappy with my time, one of my male teammates said to me it was probably because I had gained some weight … It was very upsetting having my teammates and coach point out my flaws, especially when I was swimming in a suit where you are very exposed.”
Vandenberg, who won a bronze in Beijing and has continued to swim competitively since, said she has never tolerated disrespect from male coaches, players nor fans.
“I have always expressed my frustrations with people who have made inappropriate comments about my body,” she said. “It didn’t always go well but I don’t think it is right to talk negatively. I think in sports like swimming, when everyone can see everything about your body, it is difficult to grow up in an environment like that.”
Jennifer Lapoint, who won a full scholarship to play basketball for Georgia Tech in the early 1980’s, said the culture of sexual harassment in college athletics has always been there, but that it’s become more acute today.
“I do remember sexual comments in the dining hall from male players, but nothing too terribly. The world has changed since the 1980s,” said Lapoint, 52, who went onto win world records in waterskiing in 1985, 1986 and 1987 after her collegiate basketball career. “I feel that American culture has gotten less respectful in what people find acceptable to say or to wear publicly.”
Perhaps the difference today, though, is that more female college athletes like Rape and those on the Harvard women’s soccer team are speaking out about their experiences with sexual harassment.
The solution? For Rape, it’s not an immediate one, but it’s worth the effort.”The more support on women’s athletics given by male athletes, universities and media outlets, the more respect will be garnered for women overall,” she said.