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Bystander Intervention: Can College Athletes Prevent Assault?

NCAA funds SED grad student’s research on stopping sexual violence


On campus, college athletes can be role models, beacons of school pride, and central players in the social scene. Because of their visibility, athletes can spread positive messages that benefit all students, like when Stanford University student-athletes stood up against sexual assault in a 2014 video ad. Chelsey Bowman believes that educating student-athletes about sexual assault is an important part of preventing it. In November 2016, the School of Education PhD candidate in counseling psychology with a concentration in sport and performance psychology received a grant from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to study the role of student-athletes as bystanders who are willing to prevent and report assault.

“The majority of people are not survivors or perpetrators of sexual violence…can we train those people to see the signs and to intervene?” asks Bowman (SED’15,’20). Her project, funded by the NCAA’s Graduate Student Research Grant Program, with additional funding from an SED Graduate Research and Scholarship Award, will survey student-athletes about their campus experiences and attitudes regarding sexual violence. The data she collects may then be used to create a bystander intervention training program tailored specifically to athletes.

Bystander training programs, such as the Men’s Program, a nonprofit dedicated to the prevention of rape, have been used effectively with college-age men, combining education and interactive workshops to teach them how to intervene in sexual assault scenarios. These training programs vary in scope, but often teach participants how to recognize when a situation could become violent—when people are drinking heavily at a frat party, for instance—and how to step in to try and stop it, by, say, distracting the possible perpetrator or through other techniques. Some programs also teach how to be a good friend to a survivor of sexual violence, and most provide information on counseling services, medical resources, and any organizations that could help deal with sexual violence.

“The majority of people are not survivors or perpetrators of sexual violence…can we train those people to see the signs and to intervene?”

Bowman’s interest in student-athletes started when she played lacrosse as a Harvard University undergraduate. From there, she earned an SED master’s degree in counseling psychology with a concentration in sport and performance psychology. She works with athletes on how best to enhance their performance with regard to mental well-being. Using strategies like goal-setting and relaxation techniques she can help them return from injuries or reduce anxiety during games.

Bowman is also currently a Glenn Fellow and lab manager of the SED Social Adjustment & Bullying Prevention Laboratory. Working with Melissa Holt, an SED assistant professor of counseling psychology and lab cosupervisor, Bowman has studied victimization in many contexts. Holt has evaluated bullying-prevention programs for students from late-elementary age through high school, and one program in particular—Second Step—includes lessons for adolescents on what constitutes sexual harassment and dating violence. Holt says that studying sexual violence at the college level can be challenging, “is a very sensitive topic,” and navigating different universities for research can be difficult. However, she says, Bowman is pursuing her project with passion. “She’s very committed to thinking about what programs might be best for the student-athlete population.”

Bowman’s survey will be given to male and female college athletes at two large universities, although she has yet to determine which schools. One question she’ll explore: to what degree are student-athletes different from other college students in their willingness to stand up against sexual violence? Student-athletes differ socially in that they spend large amounts of time with their team—does their connectedness to their team, their team culture, and coach play a role in this issue? Do coaches speak to their students about the signs of sexual violence? Does the team foster a sense of belonging?

Another important factor Bowman hopes to examine is athletes’ attitudes toward rape myths—misogynistic ideas that hurt both women and men by fostering acceptance of sexual violence. These include the beliefs that victims are at fault for being raped and that men cannot be raped. Belief in, or failure to refute, rape myths may make someone more likely to blame the victim and less likely to report a sexual assault. A team’s acceptance, or rejection, of these myths might therefore have a large impact on an athlete’s inclination to be a responsible bystander during sexual violence. “The idea has been that by decreasing acceptance of rape myths, we might be able to increase willingness to intervene,” she says.

The survey will also assess student-athletes’ attitudes and behaviors about alcohol. “Alcohol is a huge part of sexual violence, particularly on college campuses,” Bowman says. A National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report indicates that half of sexual assaults involve alcohol use by the perpetrator, the victim, or both. Because drinking is a common social activity on campus, and because it is so closely linked with sexual violence, how student-athletes behave when drinking could be a big factor in how they perceive sexual violence.

“I hope that schools, and specifically athletic departments, can use this research to learn more about their students and tailor their programming in the future.”

Bowman’s study draws on and furthers the NCAA’s own investigations into the intersection of athletics and sexual violence. In 2014, the organization published a report on sexual violence prevention. The report states that student-athletes reported feeling that safety was a community issue, but several factors, including fear of bodily harm or censure by teammates, lowered willingness to intervene in a violent situation. “[A] feeling of responsibility to maintain safety is fairly strong among student-athletes, but they need to know how to do so without putting themselves at increased physical or social risk,” the report concluded.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, about one in 4 female undergraduates and one in 20 male undergraduates experience rape or sexual assault. There has also been an increase in reported assaults over the past decade, according to a 2014 report by the US Department of Education; however, this may indicate that survivors are more willing to report assaults rather than an increase in sexual crimes. Regardless, sexual assault continues to be a prevalent campus issue.

Bowman hopes that the data she collects about college athletes’ beliefs and behaviors will allow her to understand how best to teach them about preventing sexual violence. “The educational piece is very important,” she says. After all, stepping into a dangerous situation is only possible when one knows what to look for and what to do. The best way of teaching this to athletes may be to involve their coaches, foster team belonging, refute rape myths, or all three. The aim of Bowman’s survey is to create a starting point to develop such a program. “I hope that schools, and specifically athletic departments, can use this research to learn more about their students and tailor their programming in the future,” she says.

Caitlin Bird can be reached at cfb14@bu.edu.


One Comment on Bystander Intervention: Can College Athletes Prevent Assault?

  • Katharine on 05.12.2017 at 8:03 am

    Thank you for doing such important work, Chelsea!

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