James Franklin would probably like to stop talking about rape allegations against four of his former players at Vanderbilt and actions he took there.
But Penn State’s new football coach, just a week into the job, has a responsibility to engage in the dialogue about what happened at Vanderbilt in June 2013, and also about controversial comments he made a year earlier.
So says Kristen Houser, vice president of public relations with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape in Harrisburg.
Houser, a State College native, hopes Franklin will turn his own experiences into a platform to help prevent sexual assault — at Penn State and beyond.
“This is a conversation that should be going on in every community,” Houser said. “One in four college-age women is experiencing rape or sexual assault. We need to talk about this until that number is down to zero.”
Of Franklin, she wondered: “Will he use that opportunity to make a difference on this issue? We need that, because it is an issue on every campus.”
Franklin quickly suspended the Vanderbilt players accused of raping a fellow student last summer, and the Nashville district attorney’s office said it had determined he was not involved in any attempts to cover up the allegations.
That response helped ease the minds of the Penn State search committee members, Director of Athletics Dr. David Joyner and President Rodney Erickson said at the Jan. 11 press conference where Franklin was introduced.
Franklin said dealing with the case involving his former players was “the most challenging thing I’ve ever been through personally, as the father of two girls, and professionally.”
Houser said her organization contacted Penn State with its concerns when Franklin’s name emerged in media reports about the coach search. She said the university responded, explaining its findings and vetting process.
“They gave us a heads up that Franklin was a viable candidate and that they were aware of the circumstances,” Houser said.
PCAR also had concerns about an incident in 2012, when Franklin went to Twitter to address sexist statements he made during a radio interview. Franklin apologized for joking that he recruits assistant coaches who have attractive wives.
Joyner said his team grilled Franklin on that issue, too.
“Having a coach joke about the objectification of women is problematic,” Houser said.
She said a “rape culture” often includes a willingness to accept such attitudes, and comments intended as humor.
“It might seem minor, but it’s part of a larger problem,” she said.
“We would want Coach Franklin to use his experiences of being called out in public for sexist comments as an example to his players,” Houser said, “to show them that’s not appropriate, that it’s not funny.”
Anne Ard, executive director of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, said Penn State has made an institutional commitment, especially since the Jerry Sandusky scandal hit, to work to prevent sexual violence or at least to react appropriately when cases emerge.
Ard had an interesting seat for the coaching search. Her husband, Tom Poole, is a university administrator and served on the search committee that recruited and vetted Franklin.
She said they never directly discussed the search or candidates, but she was confident a sound choice would be made.
“We’ve had sexual assaults in the past that were ugly, but it was not always clear that the football program and the university were willing to come down on the side of the victim and take action,” Ard said.
Ard noted that there have been many allegations involving Nittany Lions players over the years, well before charges of abusing children were brought against Sandusky in 2011.
“What I found most promising (in the Vanderbilt case) is that both the football program and the university reacted quickly and decisively,” Ard said. “Our history of that at Penn State has not always been what we would hope.”
Houser graduated from State College Area High School in 1989 and headed to Penn State, where she became an advocate for the protection of women and the prevention of rape.
“Real prevention is about changing the norms around sex,” she said, and promoting “enthusiastic, mutual behavior.”
And getting young men, both athletes and others, to think, talk and act differently concerning women.
“It doesn’t rest solely on athletics, but that’s where the community eyeball is now,” she said. “We need to get coaches involved in recognizing the warning signs, and having a toolbox for how you should intervene in those situations.”
Houser noted that “a lot of good came from Sandusky, even though it was a very trying situation for the community.”
She pointed to greater understanding of victim grooming patterns, more awareness of an adult’s responsibility to report incidents of abuse, and enhanced programs to protect children and to serve those who become victims.
“That situation changed the national conversation around child sexual abuse,” Houser said. “There’s no reason that can’t happen for adult sexual assault as well.”
She added: “This is not unique to football. It’s not unique to Coach Franklin. And it’s not unique to Penn State. But it is important that when these things are out in the community, that you use it for good.”