Content warning: This story contains references to intimate partner and sexual violence.
Jenna Berman thought the University of Pittsburgh took her experience with intimate partner violence seriously. The campus police and Title IX office got involved. She was offered protection, including a no-contact order.
Though she was hesitant to deal with the incident at the time, she said Pitt was there for her regardless. But now Berman, a senior, said the university’s response to a high-profile domestic abuse incident is “almost sacrificing” the beliefs and practices she thought Pitt held.
In late December, the university announced that it had reinstated freshman and four-star recruit Dior Johnson to the men’s basketball program after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanors for strangulation and simple assault. The charges, along with three others that were dismissed, came after a domestic assault in September. The incident did not involve sexual violence, according to the criminal complaint.
Several students, advocates for domestic and sexual violence prevention and attorneys who have represented college survivors criticized Pitt’s decision in interviews with PublicSource. They argued that the choice to reinstate Johnson — which came just months after a reported sexual assault in the Cathedral of Learning prompted student protest and calls for change — prioritizes athletic prowess and profit over survivor support and student safety.
“I think that Pitt’s decision to reinstate Dior Johnson sends a message to everyone at this university that his position on the team matters more than the woman he assaulted,” Berman said.
Johnson was sentenced to one year of probation and is required to successfully complete batterer’s intervention, among other requirements. His attorney, Robert Del Greco Jr., declined to be interviewed with or without Johnson, stating in an email response that, “There are legal aspects of Dior’s situation that make it advisable for us not to discuss his matter.”
Jared Stonesifer, a university spokesperson, said in a statement that “the University does not make a distinction between student-athletes and the larger student body in disciplinary cases.
“All students must adhere to the same set of institutional standards regardless of their extracurricular activities,” he said.
The case against Johnson
According to the criminal complaint, a woman alleged that Johnson slapped her across the face the evening of Sept. 5 after she got him and his phone wet. She reported that Johnson began an argument the following morning that became violent, and Johnson punched her repeatedly and pushed her head into the bed, making it difficult to breathe.
The woman received medical treatment for bruises and a concussion, according to the criminal complaint.
Del Greco told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the factual basis for the simple assault charge was “an argument between Johnson and his victim had got physical where Dior hit and struck her … causing bruising.” For the strangulation charge, he said, “Dior pushed her head into a bed making it difficult for her to breathe for a few seconds.”
The survivor in Johnson’s case is not listed in Pitt’s directory. If she is not a student, that would likely prevent her from pursuing recourse from the university through Title IX, according to experts. Pitt’s spokesperson declined to state whether the university initiated a Title IX investigation alongside the criminal proceeding, citing federal privacy law, and did not confirm whether the survivor was or is a student at Pitt.
The spokesperson, though, said Pitt’s Office of Compliance, Investigations, and Ethics and Office of Civil Rights and Title IX were involved in the university’s investigation and disciplinary proceedings. He added that “these impartial judicial procedures are administered outside of the purview of the athletic department.”
During a post-game press conference on Dec. 28, Pitt men’s basketball team head coach Jeff Capel said the decision to reinstate Johnson to the team “was a process that our athletic director and I talked, we met, met with [Dior], felt good about where everything is right now and giving the kid another chance.”
Even if recourse through Title IX may not be applicable to the survivor in Johnson’s case, Daniel Swinton, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators, said universities like Pitt can and should reference their conduct policies to make decisions about discipline.
Pitt’s spokesperson declined to state which specific university policies or protocols it followed in Johnson’s case but said its conduct code outlines the disciplinary process for students charged with crimes off campus.
The code states that off-campus conduct may be subject to university action if it “is considered by the University to be a serious offense that would negatively reflect upon the Student’s character and fitness as a member of the Student body.”
Students and advocates react
Sophia Wegrzynowicz, a sophomore, was sexually assaulted during her first semester at Pitt. While Johnson’s case is different, experiences of abuse are “life-altering events,” she said.
“They impact emotional health, mental health, physical health. And the fact that Pitt would willingly bring back a student who has pled guilty to these counts, I think really says a lot for Pitt as a whole,” she said of his reinstatement to the team.
In her view, Pitt’s decision sends a message that the university may not protect survivors if they report. That’s a significant deterrent, she said.
Rhonda Fleming, chief of prevention, intervention and outreach at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, said the university can support Johnson in learning and making changes without condoning his behavior. She said she doesn’t believe that removing him from the university or athletic program would provide the support needed for growth.
“In all these cases, we have to stay on the side of, ‘We want to give you an opportunity to show you can do something different,’” Fleming said.
But Katherine Redmond, founder of the organization formerly known as the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, said Pitt missed an opportunity to condemn domestic abuse and make clear that it will hold athletes to the same standard as other students. In the 1990s, Redmond accused a freshman football recruit at the University of Nebraska of assaulting her. The Title IX lawsuit settled. She has since made the issue of athlete violence her life’s work.
She noted that the sports environment is all about discipline: Coaches can train their players to show up to practice at a certain time, eat certain foods and exercise a certain way. But when it comes to tackling domestic violence, she’s found a lack of accountability that reflects larger societal attitudes.
“Here’s the thing: There should never be a time when a player is more afraid to come to practice late than to strangle a woman. But that’s what happens,” Redmond said.
It’s unclear who made the decision for Johnson to redshirt, meaning he sits out the season. Head Coach Capel said at the press conference that he didn’t make the call, prompting speculation that Johnson had a say.
“Any discussion of a student-athlete’s team status will remain between the director of athletics, head coach and that individual,” the university spokesperson told PublicSource in a statement.
Redshirting will allow Johnson to maintain four years of eligibility for intercollegiate competition.
By not counting this season against his eligibility, the university is “kind of giving him a free pass for what happened and setting him up for subsequent athletic success,” said Tracey Vitchers, an advocate for domestic violence prevention who is the executive director of It’s On Us, a national nonprofit focused on reducing campus sexual assault.
Johnson is the highest-rated high school prospect Pitt has signed since Capel began his role as head coach in 2018, according to the Post-Gazette. However, the team has begun the 2022-23 season with a winning record overall and in conference play without his participation.
The university spokesperson did not comment on what the rehabilitative process, if any, will look for Johnson at Pitt, citing federal privacy law. He said the university conducts annual training on consent, healthy relationships and the importance of reporting with the athletic department and takes seriously its responsibility to educate student-athletes on these topics.
Johnson said he regretted his actions and apologized to the woman at a December hearing, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Is there a double standard?
Questions surrounding the treatment of student-athletes in cases of alleged misconduct are not new.
In 2016, an outside law firm found that Baylor University’s football program and athletic department leadership failed to respond to multiple reports of sexual or dating violence, with the findings reflecting “significant concerns about the tone and culture within Baylor’s football program as it relates to accountability.”
And in 2021, a USA TODAY investigation found that officials in Louisiana State University’s administration and athletic department “repeatedly have ignored complaints against abusers, denied victims’ requests for protections and subjected them to further harm by known perpetrators.” The investigation was followed by an independent review and a class-action lawsuit.
High-profile misconduct cases involving the actual or perceived favorable treatment of student-athletes have forced universities to change how they respond. Yet, several experts and attorneys for survivors told PublicSource that disparities in treatment remain between accused athletes and traditional students, despite the general improvement.
When a Title IX complaint is filed against an athlete, the university’s financial and reputational interests often give them a stake in the outcome, said KC Johnson, a professor at Brooklyn College and expert on campus due process. As a result, he said universities tend to be more forgiving of the accused than they normally would.
“Justice, in this subset of cases, is not primary, I think, for universities,” he said. “The self-interest of the university often is paramount.”
B. David Ridpath, a professor of sports business at Ohio University, worked in campus judicial affairs for several years. Whenever an athlete was involved in wrongdoing, attorneys, coaches and university administrators would call him to look into the situation, he said. That never happened with other students.
Ridpath said universities would weigh questions like, “‘Are we going to lose a player who might be very valuable to us athletically? How is this going to damage the institution? How can we keep this contained?’ All those things go into play much more than it does for a regular student.”
While working at one university, Ridpath said he would tell the coaches not to get involved if their players were in trouble. That meant no calls to the district attorney, no calls to the chief of police. But they would try to meddle nearly every time, he said. He recalled one coach telling him: “‘Well, I’d really like to just sit down with this girl and find out what’s going on.’”
“That’s not how it works,” Ridpath said.
At the press conference, Capel said he never spoke with Johnson about the case while it was ongoing.
On the other hand, the high-profile nature of cases involving student-athletes heightens the public’s awareness of the university’s response. “Without more [information], there’s not a basis to believe that they’re actually being more lenient with him than they are with other students,” said Jackie Gharapour Wernz, partner at Thompson & Horton LLP, who has helped colleges and universities address legal concerns.
Peter Lake, senior higher education attorney at Steptoe & Johnson PLLC, said universities’ decision-making in these types of cases is complicated and often not transparent to the public due to federal privacy law. Institutions often weigh whether to provide second chances to students against the risk that positive change won’t happen, he said.
“One thing you’re always hoping for is: Somebody makes a mistake, maybe a big one. Is there a chance to remediate that, pay your price, grow, evolve away from that kind of behavior?” Lake said.
Where does Pitt go from here?
This fall, senior Audrika Khondaker attended a university town hall on sexual violence that came on the heels of the reported assault in the Cathedral. She believes Johnson’s reinstatement is at odds with how university representatives have said they will address sexual and domestic violence.
“Pitt needs to do better at addressing these situations, rather than sweeping it under the rug,” she said. Following the reported Cathedral assault, Pitt’s Student Government Board created the Students Against Sexual Misconduct Ad-Hoc Committee to serve as a liaison between campus activists and administrators.
Junior Dominic Victoria, chief of staff to Pitt’s Student Government Board, has heard of other students who feel disappointed by the university’s handling of their assault reports, and he said problems exist regardless of who the perpetrator is — student-athlete or not.
Victoria, who has not been directly involved with the ad-hoc committee, expressed support for a series of demands students penned following the reported Cathedral assault. Ensuring students feel supported throughout the Title IX process and adopting a stricter policy against students convicted of domestic violence would be positive steps forward, he said.
Pitt and the men’s basketball team should talk to domestic violence experts and reassess their expectations for team behavior, Vitchers said. She added that the NCAA could also do more to hold athletes accountable. While the association has a policy banning the use of performance-enhancing drugs, it does not have any such ban for athletes who commit sexual and domestic violence.
Senior Eva Steele noted that intimate partner violence can impact anyone, even though Johnson’s case is a prominent example. Going forward, she’d like Pitt to take sustained and transparent action, make greater use of community resources and invest further in the Title IX office, among other steps.
An advocate for survivors of intimate partner violence and founder of the organization Project Healing Sideways, Steele said it’s important for Pitt to publicly discuss rehabilitative measures in these situations and evaluate how the university supports survivors.
“It has to be action. It cannot be words anymore,” she said. “I don’t want a verbal confirmation that this has been heard. Because I think at the end of the day, it’s more painful knowing that Pitt has heard how upset students are and chose to do nothing.”
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Sophia Levin.