The Cost of Doing Business: Sexual Violence in College Sports
by Hayden Richardson
Sexual violence in college sports goes further than doctors and college presidents; it’s the cost of doing business in the 18-billion-dollar industry.
The University of Michigan’s recent acknowledgement of wrongdoing is a necessary step in deconstructing systems of sexual violence. Rather than continuing to deny, lie, and cover up sex trafficking, Northwestern University should follow the lead of Michigan to begin to repair the damage they have done. We must hold leadership accountable in instances of wrongdoing; otherwise, it will forever be in universities’ financial interest to exploit their student athletes.
Sex sells, and colleges profit by creating sexually charged atmospheres that put students at risk in exchange for increased ticket sales and donations. My time as a college cheerleader taught me firsthand the business of exploiting underdeveloped women’s bodies.
Northwestern ascribes to the philosophy that sex sells. I fit the image that Northwestern sells about its girls: Northwestern girls are fun girls; Northwestern girls are “nice” girls. I am not allowed to upset you, even if you reach your bony, calloused hand up my skirt or ask me to do a little dance for you.
Northwestern used and abused me to market and normalize Northwestern to their fans. I went into collegiate cheerleading expecting cheer to be even more athletic than high school. I was excited to grow as an athlete; to fly even higher and flip more powerfully. Little did I know that “my job” as a cheerleader was selling the teen girl sex fantasy to fans.
After my rigorous week of classes at a school that prides itself on being “up there with the Ivy Leagues,” I would kick off my Saturdays at 5 am to begin 90-minutes of required hair and makeup to be “gameday ready,” which was coded language for “sexy enough to sell to fans.” I would then get there hours before the football team arrived, not to stretch and warm-up, but to mingle in packed parking lots with our drunken fans.
Mingling meant 50–60-year-old men dragging their hands up my leg during a photo and offers to do lines of cocaine. My Coach told us never to upset the fans; I had to offer a polite “go ‘Cats” or protect myself by moving my pom-poms so they couldn’t fondle me. While my teammates and I would intentionally try to walk in groups because it was safer, our Coach would yell “separate,” forcing us to engage with fans alone and knowingly increasing our vulnerability.
Selling sex went past the parking lot tailgates. The Coach handpicked the most “sexually appealing” girls to attend the high-donor events, reserved for the Board of Trustees, major donors, and senior administrators. There, I was to “shake my pom-poms and make the donors happy.” Making them happy included smiling at the gray-haired men whispering sexually in my ear and having to dance for them.
Why did my Coach smile and promote donor events, even though she had listened through choking sobs as my teammates, and I recounted stories of men molesting us? Not only that, but my Coach also threatened to cut us from the team if we “complained too much,” which meant a loss of scholarship money I couldn’t afford to lose. We went to university leadership and Title IX, expecting the same horror you are feeling as you read this. Instead, we were met with an orchestrated and well-practiced coverup from Northwestern’s leadership: an Associate Athletic Director asking “well, what did you expect as a cheerleader?”, the Athletic Director refusing our meetings, and the Title IX Office using our testimonies to cover up the abuse.
Northwestern knowingly allowed molestation to occur from the fans because it increased the “gameday experience,” and thus profit. I did not know how to stop the well-oiled machine; I just wanted the abuse to stop indefinitely. So, with a poorly written email to the top Title IX attorney, I prayed for a Hail Mary.
I was blessed to receive my miracle in the form of a straight-shooting New Yorker, Andrew Miltenberg, who would go on to become my attorney. He put a name to our abuse — sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is the organization-wide practice of taking individuals across state lines to use their bodies for profit. The case of Northwestern cheerleading is one of a criminal enterprise that profited off trafficking women. My lawsuit to hold Northwestern, its administrators and its coaching staff accountable is currently pending in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.