Sexual assaults on college campuses have reached alarming levels and the issue has drawn the attention of Congress and even President Obama himself. The latest research indicates that one in five college women will be sexually assaulted and as many as 90% of reported assaults are acquaintance rapes. It is believed that more than 100,000 college students will be sexually assaulted during the current school year. Nowhere is the deck stacked more against sexual assault victims than in college athletics. In just the last few years alone there have been cases at Florida State, Michigan, Oregon, Vanderbilt and Missouri.
All of this is a backdrop to a harrowing new film that premiers in theaters on Friday in New York City and Los Angeles. The Hunting Ground is a jarring exposé that shines a bright light on the epidemic number of sexual assaults taking place on college campuses each year.
The Hunting Ground features a group of survivors who faced harsh retaliation and harassment for reporting that they had been raped. The film focuses on institutional cover-ups and the brutal backlash against survivors at campuses such as Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USC and the University of California-Berkeley, among others.
Some of the most vexing stories featured in the film involve women who were assaulted by athletes. While The Hunting Ground isn’t all about sports, the most dramatic moment in the film occurs two-thirds of the way through when the woman who accused former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston—who after a strong showing in last week’s Combine is projected by many to be the No. 1 pick in this spring’s NFL draft—appears and tells her story publicly for the first time. The woman, who is named in the film but SI.com has chosen to protect her identity, is shown on camera and gives her life-changing account of what she says happened the night in December 2012 she left a Tallahassee bar with Winston.
A high school honor student who planned to attend medical school, the woman is articulate and attractive. She looks like the girl next door, a person you would trust to babysit your children. It is uncomfortable to watch—yet impossible to look away—when she describes being beneath Winston on his bathroom floor, repeatedly telling him “no” before being physically overpowered.
“We’re grateful it’s the first time people will get to hear [her] story,” said The Hunting Ground director Kirby Dick. “It’s her first-hand testimony. Up to this point it hasn’t been in a public space.”
The woman’s parents also appear in the film. Her father talks about driving to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital with his wife to be with their daughter hours after the incident.
There is nothing easy about retelling these stories for the world to see. But the attorney for the woman who says she was raped by Winston, John Clune, said his client decided to break her silence in the film because she felt it was the right venue to tell her story.
“The film was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Clune said. “The work by these filmmakers is nothing less than groundbreaking. It took tremendous courage, but our client and all of the incredibly brave women in the film have advanced the cause of rape survivors everywhere.”
The Hunting Ground also examines a sexual assault accusation against a Notre Dame football player in 2010. Tom Seeberg, whose daughter committed suicide after she says she was sexually assaulted by a Fighting Irish starter, tells a heartbreaking account of school officials thwarting the investigation into his daughter’s complaint. A former Notre Dame police officer reveals that he and his colleagues were not allowed to approach or question an athlete on athletic properties.
The film also mentions rape cases involving football players at Missouri and Vanderbilt, as well as basketball players at Oregon.
The testimonials of rape survivors are wrapped between raw footage that is both gut-wrenching and disturbing. A small mob of unruly fraternity pledges at Yale are captured on film outside a freshman dorm for women, chanting: “No means yes. Yes means anal.” All the while a guy with a bullhorn is shouting: “Louder.”
In another scene we see drunken frat boys spilling out of a house where there is a sign out front that says: “THANKS FOR YOUR DAUGHTERS.” It’s enough to outrage any parent with a daughter heading off to college.
The film is directed by Dick and produced by Amy Ziering, the team behind the Oscar-nominated film The Invisible War, which revealed systemic sexual assaults and cover-ups within the U.S. military. That movie prompted Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to announce significant policy changes and inspired the passage of the Military Justice Improvement Act.
Dick and Ziering started looking into the situation on college campuses shortly after the release of The Invisible War. “We were astonished that the problem was as serious in higher education as it was in the military,” Dick said.
Full disclosure: I appear in The Hunting Ground as an expert. Two of the cases in the film—Lizzy Seeberg’s alleged assault at Notre Dame and running back Derrick Washington’s sexual assault of a student at the University of Missouri—are featured in my book The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, which I wrote with 60 Minutes correspondent Armen Keteyian.
Some of my research is also featured in the film, including the statistic that student-athletes are responsible for 19% of the reported sexual assaults on campus, despite the fact that they comprise just 3.3% of the male student population. Those figures arose from a first-of-its-kind study I conducted with researchers at the University of Massachusetts in the mid-90s when we were granted access to judicial affairs records and police reports at colleges across the country.
Over the past 20 years I have researched hundreds of cases of sexual assault involving athletes. During that time I’ve interviewed countless sexual assault victims. The thing I found most telling was what prosecutor Willie Meggs did not say in the film. Meggs was asked if he thought a rape took place in Winston’s apartment. It was a perfect opportunity for the man who chose not to prosecute Winston to say no. Instead, he said something “bad” happened in that apartment that night. He just didn’t have sufficient evidence to prove it.
That’s not unusual. That’s typical. Only about 20% of rapes reported to the police in the U.S. are prosecuted. Yet at least 92% of reported sexual assault claims are found to be true. The problem is that date rape cases are very difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, especially when alcohol is involved and the incident occurs in the perpetrator’s apartment, dorm or hotel room. The doubts raised by those factors are amplified when the accused is a star athlete.
The greatest achievement of The Hunting Ground is that it empowers rape victims to team up with each other and come forward. It’s fair to say that for the first time in many years, women like Jameis Winston’s alleged victim have powerful allies.
By the time the NFL draft takes place in May, the film will be in theaters around the country, the name of Winston’s accuser will be everywhere and more details about the night in question will likely come out. All of this brings to mind the legal maxim caveat emptor, which essentially is a warning that means let the buyer beware.
Jason Licht, the general manager for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ultimately has to decide whether to use the first pick on Winston. He’s on record saying: “This is the most important pick, potentially, in the history of the franchise.”
Memo to Licht: Watch The Hunting Ground.
The ramifications in this instance are equally big for the NFL, whose image took a beating over the last year after Ray Rice was caught on tape knocking out his then-fiancé in an elevator. The controversy erupted after Commissioner Roger Goodell imposed a two-game suspension without bothering to obtain and watch the video.
Memo to the Commissioner: Watch The Hunting Ground.
No matter what happens with Winston, the film succeeds in its main goal: to shine a light on sexual assault on college campuses. It’s an important issue that isn’t going away, and if something drastic isn’t done immediately, it will only get worse.
Jeff Benedict is a lawyer and has written five books on athletes and violence against women, including Public Heroes, Private Felons: Athletes and Violence Against Women, and Out of Bounds: Inside the NBA's Culture of Rape, Violence and Crime.