Column: Harvard Punishes Wrong IndividualsNovember 10, 2016

Column: Harvard Punishes Wrong IndividualsHarvard University recently suspended the men’s soccer team for the remainder of the season after it was revealed that the 2012 men’s soccer team published a “scouting report” on their counterparts on the women’s team. The nine-page report had nothing to do with the women’s soccer ability; it was based on their sexual attractiveness and perceived sexual interests.

In an email announcing the suspension to Harvard student-athletes, athletic director Robert L. Scalise said, “We strongly believe that this immediate and significant action is absolutely necessary if we are to create an environment of mutual support, respect, and trust among our students and our teams.” While the goal of his message is certainly important, the action designed to accomplish it - suspending the team - was wrong on a number of levels.

At the time of the suspension, the team was undefeated, sat in first place in the Ivy League standings with a clear path to the league title and an opportunity to participate in the NCAA tournament. On the surface it seems patently unfair to punish the 2016 team for unsavory actions perpetrated by members of the 2012 team. However, in his email justifying the suspension, Scalise said that the online practice of men rating women players on their sexual attractiveness appeared to “be more widespread across the team and has continued beyond 2012, including 2016.”

Harvard’s President, Drew Faust, supported Scalise’s actions. “The decision to cancel a season is serious and consequential, and reflects Harvard’s view that…the team’s behavior…(is) completely unacceptable, (has) no place at Harvard, and run(s) counter to the mutual respect that is a core value of our community,” she said. It’s impossible to argue with Faust’s comments in the prior sentence. The players’ actions are unacceptable and forfeiting the team’s remaining games certainly has serious consequences to Harvard. However, it could also have serious consequences to the other teams in the Ivy League. If a team wins the league title by virtue of a Harvard forfeit, that hardly seems fair to the teams that played and lost to the Crimson.

Punishing innocents – making them collateral damage - is never appropriate. That’s the same position taken by the International Olympic Committee when they suspended the entire Russian track and field team – guilty and innocent alike - from the Rio Olympics because of the doping scandal engineered by doctors and administrators in Russia.

Harvard’s actions are reminiscent of Duke University’s rush to judgment in 2006 when it suspended the men’s lacrosse team after allegations of rape against certain team members, a rape that a thorough investigation determined never happened. It’s obvious from its actions that Harvard didn’t learn anything from Duke’s experience. What’s education for if you can’t learn from past mistakes?

Let’s be clear on one thing: The comments contained in the scouting report are indefensible. They are crude, obnoxious, disrespectful, and contribute to a climate that is contrary to Harvard’s, or any educational institution’s mission. However, canceling the team’s season is an inappropriate and ineffective way to address the issue. The best way to deal with the guilty is through education. And the guilty include the players, the coaches and athletic administrators who turned a blind eye to the shenanigans. It’s obvious that none of them were sensitive enough to the issue of respect, dignity and equality which should be the hallmark of not only education but society as a whole. For that, the punishment should not be solely on 18-22 year-old young men and the team’s opponents.

The scouting report went undetected for years even though it was posted online and available to the public at large. Whether the soccer coach or the athletic director had actual knowledge of the report is irrelevant. They should have known of its existence – it’s their job - which makes them, as adults, more culpable than any of the players. If you’re cited for speeding, it isn’t a defense that you were unaware that the posted speed limit was 20 miles-per-hour below your actual speed.

One of life’s most valuable lessons is to take personal responsibility for your actions. Harvard’s administrators could have done that in this situation by resigning. Instead, they chose to absolve themselves of all liability. Shame on them for taking the easy way out and saving their own skin in the process.