When the University of Houston announced its signing class for the 2015-16 basketball season this spring, coach Kelvin Sampson knew he would have some questions to answer. Among the Cougars' signees was Damyean Dotson, who had been kicked out of Oregon at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season for his role in an alleged brutal sexual assault that implicated Dotson and two of his teammates.
Dotson was never charged with a crime due to what prosecutors termed a "lack of evidence," but the university found enough evidence in its Title IX investigation to conclude that Dotson and his teammates, Dominic Artis and Brandon Austin, would be suspended from campus for four to 10 years. Despite conflicting statements from the victim that contributed to the lack of criminal charges, the district attorney noted that "there is no doubt the incident occurred," and everybody involved with the situation acknowledged that Dotson made a mistake. Knowing the implications of signing Dotson, Sampson released a preemptive statement:
"After speaking with Damyean, his family and former coaches, I feel confident in Damyean's abilities to be an outstanding person on the University of Houston campus and a great representative of our program. He has learned from previous experiences in his life and has shown himself to be worthy of a second chance. I am certain that he will make the most of this opportunity."
This is a response that often rings hollow for fans whose teams are simply looking for a competitive advantage. It also rings hollow for sexual assault victim advocates and activists, who know that many universities have a terrible track record of dealing with sexual assault. Last year, the US Department of Justice announced that 55 universities—including Ohio State, Michigan, Harvard, and Florida State—were under investigation for their handling of Title IX cases.
"[Schools] need to stop looking the other way and burying their heads in the sand," said Title IX and civil rights attorney Tom Newkirk. "The answer is that we devalue the sexual assault of young women and we end up protecting the males even when they engage in behavior that is so far over the line."
So why should Houston be trusted to claim Dotson's rehabilitation has been sufficient, especially after such a serious allegation? A brutal police report makes that question even more pressing. The report notes that Dotson said he could "kind of tell" that the woman was drunk, but maintains all the activity was consensual.
When Houston first entertained the possibility of signing Dotson, Sampson said he brought the police report to the athletic director so that everything was on the table.
"I went in and talked to them and I explained to them and I told him to pull up the police report and read it so you can see everything that was alleged, and it was important for us to read it," Sampson said. "We saw those details and those details are what they are."
This wasn't the first time Dotson had come to Sampson's attention. He had reached out immediately after his dismissal from Oregon, but at that point, "obviously I wasn't going to go down that path." Houston needed some sort of proof of rehabilitation, proof that this was not a pattern, but perhaps the biggest thing playing in Dotson's favor was an article in the Oregonian that contained a statement from the attorneys for the players, who claimed that the woman made up the story to "reclaim her dignity."
This type of victim-blaming is alarming for sexual assault victim advocates, and that the article played a role in Dotson's signing is suspect. However, to his credit, Sampson did not blame the victim and noted that assigning blame was not appropriate.
"Anything that you say is going to be disrespectful to the young lady that was involved in this ... [she's] somebody's daughter," he said. "When I answer things and say it was okay, it wasn't. He made a bad decision, what happened that night."
While Sampson did not get into any additional information he may or may not have, an open records request found that Sampson did email one angry fan to say that "there is a lot of information that was not made public that made me take a different stance." What information, be it from Dotson's lawyers or elsewhere, opened Sampson up to the idea of recruiting Dotson is unknown, and it will undoubtedly continue to be the subject of criticism. But once the door was open, the focus then switched to Dotson's attempt to rehabilitate himself.
The question for Houston became whether Dotson had done enough to show he had learned from his mistakes. Dotson had put himself through counselling with John Lucas—who Sampson spoke with numerous times—and he put himself through junior college to get his academic credentials in order. Sampson also spoke with players who knew Dotson, and all-in-all, he was comfortable, provided Dotson continue counselling.
"He's a very serious young man, and this destroyed him in a lot of ways," Sampson said. "It wasn't, 'Hey he's a good player, what'd he do? That's cool, let's sign him anyways.' It wasn't anything like that. That was the furthest thing from my mind."
Of course, basketball did play a part in this as Dotson is considerably better than many of the recruits Houston gets. But even though it appears Houston did what it felt was due diligence—whether it made the right decision is another matter—the problem with these cases is that there is little oversight, and schools can put their students at risk with few consequences.
"Either they want [the accused's] tuition or his athletic ability, so they will give him any kind of a benefit," Newkirk said, speaking generally of schools' willingness to sign players who have done wrong. "It's really kind of a Wild West situation out there where you end up protecting a male who has engaged in wrongful behavior."
However, the risks are starting to become more apparent for these schools, beyond the moral obligation—or lack of one—that they have to protect their students. The alleged victim in the Oregon case is suing the school and basketball coach Dana Altman for putting her at risk, as one of the men who she alleges assaulted her, Austin, was previously suspended at Providence for a sexual assault accusation.
"This is a very important case that needs to be litigated," the woman's lawyer, John Clune, said in a statement. "It is time for athletic departments to stop trading the safety of women on campus for points on a scoreboard. UO is a good school with a great community and they deserve better."
This could potentially set precedent for schools in the future as they make their decisions on who among the accused is worth the risk. By signing Dotson, Houston is putting itself and its students at a calculated risk. If a similar incident were to happen involving Dotson, Houston would potentially be to blame, especially considering that Dotson was found to have participated in wrongdoing by Oregon's Title IX office. That was not the case in Austin's incident at Providence.
"You don't have to believe that these kids are predators," Newkirk said. "A lot of young men engage in behavior that is [inappropriate]. Sometimes they engage in that behavior because they believe that they have a right to do so. It can be a situation where they can learn from their mistakes."
Sampson believes Dotson has learned, and he knows the risk he and Houston are taking on—and the risk they're potentially placing on Houston students—by making this decision.
"Are we going to allow that bad decision to define that kid the rest of his life?" Sampson asked. "Does he not get the opportunity to go to college, get a degree, and play basketball? That was the question we worked from."
It's a question with an impossible answer, and one that requires a great degree of nuance from case-to-case. There will never be any sure-fire formula, but it's up to the schools to know just how risky it is if they get it wrong.