It’s time to start taking ‘locker room humor’ more seriously
A response to the suspension of the swim team| Mar 12, 2017
As a former swimmer at Princeton (1961-1965), secretary of the Friends of Princeton Swimming (1970-1989), author of a 133-page online history of the program, and winner of the Princeton University Competitive Swimming and Diving Team’s 250th Award in 2015, I have a long view of this incident that others may not have.
First of all, it is important to recognize that, in Bob Dylan's famous words, “the times they are a’ changin.'” Donald Trump's brand of “locker room talk” is no longer acceptable in the way it once was. We do not tolerate philandering in the White House the way we did when John F. Kennedy was president.
In the specific context of the swimming team, I have heard from members of the women’s team from different classes spanning several decades who attested to this behavior as common when they were undergraduates. It made them feel uncomfortable, but they felt too intimidated to speak up, lest they be ostracized for not being willing to allow “boys to be boys.”
We may consider it a sign of moral and cultural progress that women are not so ready to excuse such behavior today and are ready to challenge their male teammates for engaging in it. And the Daily Princetonian Editorial Board needs to be aware that allegedly “private” communications are heard and seen by their female friends, and not just behind their own closed doors.
Because times have changed, not everyone has caught up. I know alumni from my era that think this is all just so much “political correctness” run amok. They think it is merely harmless banter, certainly not deserving of what they consider to be draconian punishment.
There is a legitimate concern about collective guilt. As one who worked at Penn State for twenty years, I know all about the “collective guilt” that Judge Louis Freeh wanted the entire Penn State community to acknowledge after Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse was uncovered and confronted. Each situation needs to be dealt with carefully, lest the truly innocent get caught up in a rush to judgment. But my understanding is that after careful investigation, it was determined that those who may not have directly engaged in this unseemly behavior nevertheless had a bystander responsibility to bring it to the attention of the proper authorities, including the coaches. Remember that Princeton's longstanding Honor Code requires the reporting of cheating. The code governing team behavior operates in a similar fashion.
In a broader context, there is a new level of concern about sexual harassment and violence on college campuses, and actions are finally being taken to acknowledge and deal with the problems. I live not far north of Waco, Texas, where Baylor University is still reeling from the revelations about sexual violence committed by multiple football players. Some of these actions have proven very controversial, such as the use by university disciplinary boards of a lower standard of evidence than courts use in determining guilt. But overall, our country has made great strides in the past half-dozen years.
For those especially interested in the culture of sexual harassment and violence as it pertains specifically to athletic programs, I recommend the reading of two reports recently released by The Drake Group, an organization of primarily college-level faculty who are interested in intercollegiate athletic reform: one concerns the problem as it is created by and affects athletes; the other is about misconduct by coaches. Both reports offer a series of recommendations about how the problems could be dealt with more effectively. And the principles they invoke have wider application beyond athletics, so all students might want to take heed of them and apply these norms in their own lives.
The message as it relates to the Princeton incident is to connect the dots between the kind of culture the swim team’s behavior reflected and the more serious types of harassment and assault that they tacitly normalize by making disrespect toward others seem a natural attitude to have. We have been reminded again just this past week, when the similar online behavior of the Marines United group of 30,000 men was brought to light, that this is a pervasive problem in our society, not limited to college campuses or sports teams.
Sandy Thatcher ’65 GS 67 was a copy editor and editor-in-chief of the Princeton University Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.