Staff Editorial: Cheer for GW athletics’ commitment to sexual assault prevention

Basketball season hasn’t started yet, but GW athletics is already making winning headlines.

The University recently joined the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign, pledging alongside hundreds of other colleges and organizations, including the NCAA, to step up bystander intervention training and improve on-campus support for sexual assault survivors.

Athletics director Patrick Nero was one of the top University officials to attend the launch, where he threw the department’s support behind the campaign. The same day, GW athletics released a video in which six star male athletes vowed to intervene before sexual assault happens.

We’re thrilled our Colonials are taking up such an important issue. It will be crucial, though, that the University carries this momentum through the rest of the season, the academic year and beyond so the message reaches as many people as possible.

GW athletics has taken progressive stances on contemporary issues ever since Nero arrived in 2011. The department joined the “You Can Play” campaign at the start of the 2012-13 academic year, which promoted an inclusive culture for LGBT athletes, and played a video featuring student athletes from 10 different sports at basketball games. Athletics also partnered with the Global Women’s Institute to bring attention to domestic violence with a video in December 2012.

We’re excited the “It’s On Us” video is already getting a fair amount of play – as of Sunday afternoon, it had over 720 views on YouTube. Brian Sereno, executive director of GW’s athletics communications, told The Hatchet on Friday that the video will appear on the scoreboard during sporting events in the Smith Center this year, and will air during men’s and women’s basketball games during regionally televised broadcasts, too.

Katherine Hull Fliflet, the vice president of communications for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, said that these kinds of videos can effectively show an organization’s commitment to sexual assault prevention. “Anytime you can get placement for a PSA in such a high visibility or high-traffic area, that’s a great thing,” she said. “It goes to show the backing of the school and athletic department.”

Some may be concerned that a sports game isn’t the right place to broach such a sensitive subject, and worry it might make the folks who just want to watch the game uncomfortable. That’s understandable.

But for every few people who squirm in their seats at having to confront the harsh realities of a pervasive campus crime, many others will be exposed to a message they may not have seen or even thought about yet. It’s a great way to appeal to thousands of students who might never have known they could do anything to help prevent a sexual assault.

Hull Fliflet noted in particular the PSA’s line, “If I saw it happening, I’d help, not blame.” That type of positive message, she said, would go a long way in showing that a campus puts safety first, “and for some people, may make survivors feel supported.”

Beyond spreading this positive message, Sereno also said student athletes will continue to learn about bystander intervention this year. That means access to about 450 students, many of whom are household names on campus with potential megaphones for their opinions.

That said, they’re still students like us, and we can’t ask them to do anything more than what they’re already expected to do: practice close to 20 hours a week, cope with the pressure to win games, complete mandatory community service hours – all while keeping up academically. GW does not necessarily need to turn them into ambassadors for a cause like sexual assault. (Those who noticed stiffness in the athletic department’s PSA will do well to remember: Student athletes are not trained public speakers.)

But the athletics department can still keep this issue on people’s minds during the season without requiring athletes to do more.

Back in 2012, to complement the “You Can Play” campaign, the women’s basketball team hosted members of LGBT campus advocacy groups to show support for that community. Representatives from Allied in Pride and the Association of Queer Women and Allies received a signed basketball at halftime.

GW could hold the same type of event for campus groups that align with the goals of “It’s On Us,” like Students Against Sexual Assault and the Feminist Student Union. The University could help publicize those groups’ efforts among a group of students who might not have heard of them.

Then there are opportunities for promotional offers or giveaways. That could mean agreements like making a donation to an organization such as RAINN, the D.C. Rape Crisis Center or Men Can Stop Rape every time a player dunks, for instance. GW could flash graphics on the jumbotron with those organizations’ logos, as well as information about campus resources like HAVEN and the Sexual Assault Response Consultative team. Put “haven.gwu.edu” on T-shirts and pass them out at games, or put the phone number for the SARC hotline on bracelets and give them to fans in the stands.

These tactics might sound hokey, but anything that can draw attention to campus sexual assault resources, increase bystander intervention and educate more people about the issues is worth it.

The only impediment here could be money, of course, and Sereno declined to comment on whether these promotional ideas are financially feasible. But GW is about to kick off a hotly anticipated season with a record number of games on national television. We’d hope that added revenue from a boost in ticket sales might be funneled into such an important campaign, if possible.

We can be proud of the Colonials for more than (what we’re sure will be) a winning season. As campus leaders and sources for bringing together students, they can help raise awareness of an issue that affects every member of the GW community and show peers what they can do about it.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Robin Jones Kerr and contributing opinions editor Sarah Blugis, based on discussions with managing director Justin Peligri, culture editor Emily Holland, copy editor Rachel Smilan-Goldstein and design editor Sophie McTear.

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