YU’s Basketball Stardom Can’t Dazzle Away Assault Allegations

Content warning for mentions of sexual assault.

For students across the nation, the return to campus this past fall has been filled with a profound sense of giddy. Following the year-and-a-half interruption of in-person instruction, friends, favorite professors, and new classmates have eagerly integrated themselves into their collegiate communities; many for the very first time. As a Jewish educator working at Hillel at Stanford University, I have had a front row seat to this excitement as our Shabbat and holiday attendance ballooned past our most ambitious expectations during the fall quarter, before the most recent infection surge.

However, in my conversations with students, this tangible revelry has been voiced alongside concerns of a persistent threat and scourge beyond the pandemic: namely, gender-based violence and sexual assault. Echoing activists nationwide who are expressing alarm over an early uptick in reported assaults on many campuses this year, as a recently graduated campus educator, I look with dismay towards the recent, uncritical glorification of the Yeshiva University men’s basketball team that includes members who were accused, only months ago, of raping and bullying a student survivor.

This serious accusation and the various subsequent statements made by Yeshiva University administrators and students have rarely been mentioned by any national Jewish publication during their  substantial coverage of the team’s recent win-streak. Rather than investigate how one of America’s bedrock institutions of Torah learning and higher education could allow the basketball team, one of its greatest public emissaries, to accept members who endanger their own peers, Jewish communal publications have chosen to portray the team as the protagonist of a new Jewish Cinderella story through softball interviews and glowing reviews. Despite the media’s initial coverage of the rape accusation back in August, recent reports would suggest that the team’s implication in what some students have called the institution’s festering “cultural rot” – represented by pervasive gender-based harassment – can simply be overlooked.

In this respect, little separates this story from abuse scandals associated with other collegiate athletic programs overshadowed by athletic success. Coach Urban Meyer was practically worshiped for his substantial winning record at Ohio State University, despite his own long-documented record of overlooking and perpetrating abuse that most recently marred his short-lived tenure in Jacksonville. Though mounting evidence suggests that legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler either ignored warnings or failed to prevent serial sexual abuse by Robert Anderson, a former University athletic physician who was the subject of over 2,100 sexual abuse complaints, his statue continues to grace the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus.

Recent years have also seen the NCAA roll back the majority of its sanctions on Penn State, not long after the University’s football program was penalized for its involvement in the cover up of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s decades-long tirade of sexual abuse. Similarly, Michigan State officials continue to face scrutiny in the wake of their failure to protect students from longtime University doctor, convicted abuser, and child pornographer, Larry Nassar. Indeed, despite Brock Turner facing a ban from my own campus shortly after his infamous arrest for sexually assaulting a Stanford alumna Chanel Miller outside a fraternity house, media coverage in his trial’s aftermath also often centered on his status as “ a baby-faced…record-setting swimming prodigy,” whose ability to commit a monstrosity was portrayed as somehow standing in contradiction to his record of athletic accomplishment. Taken together, this myriad of scandals suggest that we remain embedded in a culture where sexual assault remains not only pervasive, but is treated as an accepted, if unfortunate, cost of business for universities that maintain a vested interested in offering athletic programs that generate revenue, recruitment, and positive publicity for their institutions.

In this respect, neither Yeshiva University nor this cycle of winning-streak media coverage are unique for failing to give voice to a survivor who threatened the perceived status of a popular collegiate athletic program. However, Yeshiva University maintains a responsibility that few other American colleges hold: fostering a love and understanding of Torah by providing chinuch, education, to future leaders of the Jewish people. In Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, we learn from Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah that “where there is no Torah, there is no derech eretz ( ethical intuition); where there is no derech eretz, there is no Torah.” Rabbi Elchanan Adler, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, understands this to mean that “Torah presupposes a requisite, baseline level of derech eretz. For an individual who lacks even such a minimal standard of derech eretz, Torah loses its redeeming value, and may actually be dangerous, chas ve’shalom. Moreover, a deficiency in menschlichkeit, however slight, may serve as an impediment to the Torah’s ability to ennoble one’s personality.” Coming on the heels of the shameful resuscitation of the reputation of the late author and accused child molester Chaim Walder by Haredi media outlets in Israel, American Jewish publications more than ever have a responsibility to hold our communal institutions, including Yeshiva University, accountable for guaranteeing the safety and ethical upbringing of our next generation.

As neither an alumnus nor affiliate of Yeshiva University, I do not wish to usurp the voice of countless students and campus organizations, such as YU’s Students Against Sexual Assault Club, who have spent years bravely combatting sexual and gender-based violence on their campus. Similarly, I do not claim to know the identities of the accused players in question, nor the ability to pass judgement on each basketball team member’s individual character. Yet, so long as Yeshiva University fashions itself as a vanguard institution of global Jewry – representing the aspirations of generations of American Jews who have been committed to integrating Torah observance, practice, and values into our contemporary society and changing modern world – we must expect the University to hold its emissaries to the lofty ethical standards that Torah and derech eretz demand.

While university administrators maintain a primary responsbility for ensuring that perpetrators of sexual violence are held to account, we too, as Jewish community professionals, are obligated to remain defiant in the face of ongoing injustices for survivors. To “hate evil and love good,” as the prophet Amos states, we must not only take the responsibility upon ourselves to center the testimony of survivors within our campus discourses and media coverage, but also to repeatedly declare that no athletic, academic, or institutional accomplishment can ever justify a college’s dereliction of its most sacred duty: preparing students to pursue ethical lives as contributing members of our shared society.

Writing after the Shoah, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel warns that one “cannot dwell at ease under the sun of our civilization,” when worshipping a God who insists we not conceal ourselves before the suffering of our fellow human being. As Jewish communal professionals, we must demand, unequivocally, that our institutions–too often blinded by the dueling idolatries of award and fame–prioritize the health, safety, and well-being of students over athletic accolades.

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YU’s Basketball Stardom Can’t Dazzle Away Assault Allegations