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Harvard punishes entire men’s team for ‘crude’ comments made by past team members

What they actually said remains private

The men’s cross-country team at Harvard has been placed on “athletic probation” for comments made years ago about the women’s team on privately circulated spreadsheets.

The university has not made those comments public, with the Office of the General Counsel simply describing them as “crude and sexualized statements” that did not “denigrate or objectify particular women.”

Unlike the Harvard men’s soccer team, whose season was canceled because team members had privately shared “sexually explicit scouting reports” about the women’s team, the cross-country team is being punished only with Title IX training.

Team captain Brandon Price told The College Fix that he brought the spreadsheets to the attention of his coach Nov. 5.

“If anything it was that I didn’t want the school to find [the spreadsheets] on their own before I brought them to the school,” he told The Fix when asked why he turned them over.

The next day, Price was surprised to learn the documents’ existence – but not specific content – had gone public.

Nothing ‘personally denigrating’ by current team

Each year’s team makes a spreadsheet attempting to guess which members of the women’s team will ask particular men to the annual campus dance, The Harvard Crimson reported Friday.

None of the members of the current team had anything to do with the 2014 spreadsheet investigated by the general counsel, Price told The Fix: Those comments “were made by alumni who graduated two years ago.”

MORE: Title IX investigation into ‘scouting reports’ by soccer players

It’s not clear what previous team members wrote in the spreadsheets. The only clues come from a “group message” among current and past members of the team, discussing previous years’ spreadsheets, that was released by The Crimson.

One alumnus said the 2012 spreadsheet included “specific comments about girls weight or appearance,” and another “recent graduate” said 2012 was “the absolute worst I saw.”

The most specific clue about the contents of the spreadsheets referred to the 2014 document. Another “recent [Harvard] College graduate” said that document “talked about a specific person getting black dick a lot,” according to The Crimson.

The most recent spreadsheet does not contain “personally denigrating entries aimed at members of the women’s team,” the general counsel’s office said, yet the current team is still being punished.

Price told the administration about the spreadsheets’ existence and history “in order to continue the cultural reform that had already been happening [on the team] since 2014,” he told The Fix. It was also “the right thing to do in light of what the soccer team had done.”

The men’s soccer team was punished harshly in part because its members had not been “forthcoming when initially questioned” about the scouting reports, Harvard President Drew Faust had said.

MOREHarvard Title IX officer can’t explain sexual-harassment rules

Price declined to share the contents of the spreadsheets with The Fix, saying only that the 2014 document included “inappropriate behavior.”

After Price told his coach about the spreadsheets, he notified his team members that their secret had been shared with the Athletics Department.

A day later, Nov. 6, The Crimson published a full story on the previously private documents without disclosing their contents.

Price claims that a member of the team leaked the documents, emails and group messages to The Crimson, but he declined to name that person.

Regarding the pending punishment of Title IX training, Price said he doesn’t know what that will include. But he’s “looking forward to it … We’re going to serve as a ‘test run’ to see if this sort of training will be useful for the other teams at Harvard.”

The Athletics Department and Crimson did not respond to Fix requests for the contents of the spreadsheets.

MORE‘The Crimson’ staff is exempt from anti-male club rules

Asked for comment on the punishment, Associate Director of Athletics Tim Williamson referred The Fix to an email that current cross-country athletes were sent.

That email credited current team members including Price with being “truthful and forthright about shortcomings in the team’s culture.” It did not explain what “shortcomings” the current team had.

Title IX personnel at Harvard will help determine mandatory “training and educational opportunities” for team members, the email said. The department is also “in the process of engaging an expert to assess the overall culture of our programs.”

The reverse would be considered ‘girls having fun’

For some Harvard students, the punishment is troubling.

“There should be no punishment … why should individuals from a team entering the year 2017 be penalized?” Vladimir Vartanian, who is not connected to the team or athletic department, told The Fix in an email.

Referring to the Office of the General Counsel, which investigated the spreadsheets following The Crimson report, he said: “In an institution where we put trust in the Counsel, we hope that they use judgement on a rational basis.”

MORE: Columbia suspends wrestlers for vulgar texts

The reported purpose of the spreadsheet –  to guess which women would ask which men to the dance – is “innocent,” Vartanian said. It would be considered “girls having fun” if women’s team members commented on “the attractiveness of athletic guys” and guessed who would ask them out.

Student Emily Hall also doesn’t think the team, past or present, did anything to justify the university’s punishment.

“It is a careful line to walk when the University tries to police its students’ values, beliefs, or speech, rather than their actual actions,” she told The Fix in an email.

“The administration has shown that it believes it has the authority to monitor students’ personal and private lives,” Hall said: “I hope that this attitude will not expand to other areas of students’ private lives.”

Student Julie Estrada applauded the action taken against both the soccer and cross-country teams, calling it long overdue on a campus with “pervasive, everyday misogyny.”

“I think the Harvard administration was quite surprised” by the team documents because it “has boiled down sexism on campus to issues of rape and sexual assault,” Estrada said in an email.

MORE: Columbia violates its own rules by punishing lewd private messages

“[T]his violence does not occur in a vacuum,” she said, referring to the unrecognized male-only final clubs that only let in women they consider attractive, whose members will face sanctions under a recent Harvard policy change.

“Harvard, despite what it may tell you, is a place where women are constantly objectified,” Estrada said. She added that she has not seen the contents of the spreadsheets, but judged them based on Crimson reporting and “conversations with students on campus.”

Punishment of male athletes for their private speech is not limited to Harvard.

Earlier this semester, Columbia University suspended its wrestling team – in possible violation of the university’s own rules – after lewd private group messages between members were leaked and published.

MOREHarvard is returning to ‘the Puritan era’

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About the Author
Toni Airaksinen -- Barnard College