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National Media Jumps On Men’s Soccer Story For Harvard Ties, ‘Locker Room Talk’

By Derek G. Xiao, Crimson Staff Writer

During a fall in which so-called “locker room talk” dominated national discourse, Harvard had its own story on the thread: the men's soccer team's annual lewd “scouting reports,” which ultimately led to the cancellation of their season.

The Crimson broke the news of the practice occurring in 2012 last month, and after Harvard found the "scouting reports" continued through 2016, the University cancelled the rest of the team’s season. Local and national press covered the developments closely—with journalists saying the story garnered headlines for both the Harvard connection and its relevance to broader national conversations over sexual harassment.

The evening news of the cancelled season broke, a local CBS affiliate dispatched a van to campus to interview students. Larger media outlets—the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and the New Yorker—followed with stories and commentary in the following days. After first reporting on the University’s decision to cancel the team’s season on Nov. 4, the New York Times ran another version of the story on its Saturday front page.

“The soccer team story gained more traction than others of its ilk for two reasons—because of Harvard’s swift response and because of the timing,” Katharine Q. Seelye, the New York Times reporter who authored the front page story, wrote in an email. “The Crimson broke the story in the midst of a presidential campaign in which Donald Trump had already if inadvertently elevated the topic of sexual assault to a campaign/character issue.”

The Crimson reported the University had cancelled the men’s soccer team’s season on Nov. 3, after an Office of General Counsel review found the team had continued to rank women’s soccer recruits by perceived physical attractiveness and sexual appeal through 2016. The Crimson first reported on the practice occurring in 2012. Even during academic year that has seen a historic dining hall workers’ strike and the first recruitment season after the University announced penalties against unrecognized single-gender social organizations, it was reports of the soccer controversy that perhaps gained the most traction with outside media.

The initial story on the “scouting reports” produced by the 2012 men’s soccer team has so far been viewed more than 300,000 times on The Crimson’s website, and the followup story on the team’s season being cancelled has been viewed more than 200,000 times.

“A bright light shines on Harvard at all times because of its status in higher education,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter who covered the story for the Los Angeles Times.

Other journalists also noted that Harvard’s name made the story more salient.

Nicholas Lemann ’76, a former dean of the Columbia Journalism School and staff writer for the New Yorker, agreed that the fact that “it’s Harvard” gave the story more prominence, though he offered an alternative explanation for why that increased the story’s significance.

“[The New York Times] is a publication whose top editorial positions are filled with Harvard graduates, and lots of media take their cue from the New York Times,” said Lemann, a former Crimson president. “Harvard gets more coverage, rightly or wrongly.”

The story came out several weeks after President-elect Donald Trump was embroiled in controversy over a leaked video from 2005 in which he made lewd comments about women, and called the incident just an example of “locker room talk.” The Washington Post was first to report this story.

Seelye suggested that news of the soccer controversy was particularly relevant given Trump’s rhetoric, and showed that kind of language pervaded even Harvard.

“The story is significant nationally because Harvard is supposed to be a beacon of enlightenment and equality,” Seelye wrote. “For [readers], it confirmed that ‘locker room’ behavior occurs pretty much everywhere.”

Pearce placed the controversy within the context of another story thread, that of sexual assault on college campuses.

“The idea of a grotesque document where men were putting together reports about fellow Harvard athletes speaks directly to the conversation about sexual assault on campus that has been intensively covered the last few years,” he said.

Lemann agreed with Pearce’s assessment, adding that the widespread coverage plugs “into an already-existing big story.”

After the University cancelled the men’s soccer team’s season, The Crimson reported that past men’s cross country teams produced yearly spreadsheets about members of the women’s team, sometimes writing explicit comments about the women. Shortly afterwards, Harvard’s Athletics Director asked the Office of the General Counsel to review the team. At Columbia University, the wrestling team is also under investigation after racially and sexually explicit group messages were made public, according to the Columbia Spectator.

—Staff writer Derek G. Xiao can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @derekgxiao.

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