The Vanderbilt Rape Convictions Bucked The Status Quo

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The following is excerpted from Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus, which is available now.

According to Heather McCauley, an assistant professor teaching human development at Michigan State, data conflicts about whether athletes overall (the track team, volleyballers) are more likely to offend than the rest of the student population. Two sports stand out as exceptions: basketball and football. There’s a duh factor here, I know. Amy Schumer made this point best in her popular 2015 parody of TV’s high-school-football drama Friday Night Lights; in it, an upstanding coach declares a new rule of “No raping,” prompting cries of outrage at this attack on football tradition. The coach insists football is not about rape. “It’s about violently dominating anyone that stands between you and what you want,” he yells.

I spent three years investigating sex and sexual assault at American colleges. Both the most vicious and the saddest case of rape I came across—somehow emblematic of the whole issue—occurred in 2013 at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University among four Commodores football players and an unconscious student who’d passed out after a night of heavy drinking. These post-adolescent men transformed into monsters, ruining their lives and their victim’s in the process.

Being unconscious, the woman, whom I’ll call Lisa, shared a characteristic of gang-rape victims: they’re usually passed out, underage, or mentally disabled. This case also defies standard assumptions in ways I’ve explored, suggesting the messier, more confounding reality of college assault. The boys committed these acts not because they were serial predators (at least, that evidence hasn’t come to light), and not because of volatile norms of post-adolescence. The acts happened as result of coincidental factors that exist only on a college campus, with its ritual camaraderie and peer pressure. It wasn’t the beginning of the semester, but it was another beginning: the football team’s summer practice session, which included the arrival of new students. All involved may have been completely blotto. The boys also expressed uncertainty in the moment or afterward about what had happened and whether a line had been crossed.

Vanderbilt, which is nicknamed the “Harvard of the South,” isn’t a football school. For years, it ended its seasons at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference rankings, but in 2010, the school hired coach James Franklin, who brought ferocious recruitment efforts along with him. The year before this June night, the team had had its most wins since 1915.

At Vanderbilt’s Gillette Hall, the dorm where football players were bunking, Brandon Banks, Jaborian McKenzie, and Cory Batey—​three African American redshirted freshmen, now on their way to becoming sophomores—were hanging out. The youngest son of 13 children, Batey, the main actor in the unfolding events, was an uber-playful player, a handsome boy with dreads and dreamy eyes on whom many girls caught crushes. He was raised by a phlebotomist mom who had worked at Vanderbilt’s clinic for over 30 years. After losing his father to cancer at nine years old, he excelled in football, track, and basketball, winning scholarships to a Nashville prep school and, later, Vanderbilt. Batey was the first member of his family to attend college. “We were best friends,” McKenzie said of the trio. “Whenever you saw one of us, you saw all of us.”

These three had been joined on the team by someone they knew only by reputation: Brandon Vandenburg, an immense 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, who had just landed at Vanderbilt from the California desert. ESPN had him pegged as the nation’s top junior-college tight end. On a social media account, Vandenburg introduced himself thus: “Honors Student. Aspirations to go to the NFL. Praise God! #IAMSECOND #GODFIRST.”

These four men had never interacted other than on a football field before this night in late June, when the first three began their evening by drinking honey Jack Daniel’s and “going with the flow, just drinking, wherever the night was taking us, that’s where it was going to go,” according to Batey. He was well on his way to getting wasted, consuming, by his (perhaps inflated) count, six to eight shots of the whiskey, four to six shots of vodka, and four to six Bud Light limeritas, or “beer margaritas.”

Meanwhile, Vandenburg and Lisa were at the Tin Roof bar in town, enjoying a tab a football booster had opened for the team. They’d met when Vandenburg was recruited; she was one of the pretty girls on the pep-rally dance team to whom he was introduced. A neuroscience and economics major with an infectious smile, Lisa wore her black tank top bearing Vanderbilt’s white starburst V with pride. “Hostess programs,” wherein pretty girls on pep-rally dance teams are specifically selected for introduction to recruits, are not permitted in college football, but was Vanderbilt running an official hostess program? Certainly not, said Coach Franklin when asked about this.

After midnight, the couple left the bar together, both profoundly drunk. The two of them stepped out of a cab at Lisa’s apartment complex, and she lost a single black high heel, then couldn’t figure out how to unlock her front door. Vandenburg, who allegedly had a mix of alcohol and cocaine in his system, fared little better with the key. Locked out, they climbed in Lisa’s black Mercedes, and Vandenburg piloted it to Gillette Hall. By the time they arrived, she was passed out in the passenger seat.

By coincidence, the three friends, two of whom had walked to Qdoba to pick up Mexican food, were passing through the parking lot at that moment. Vandenburg called out, laughing, and showed off the drunk girl in her car. He hefted Lisa’s dead weight on his shoulder and carried her to the elevator while they followed. As this new crowd exited on Vandenburg’s floor, he let her inert body slip out of his grasp. Her skirt rode up, exposing her underwear-clad butt. The boys snapped photos of the spectacle on their phones. Then, in an ominous move reminiscent of the Steubenville football players, two of them picked her up, not by her waist, but hands and feet, like hunters bearing a piece of fresh game. They dumped her in Vandenburg’s room, and the selfie-snapping took a turn toward Abu Ghraib.

Unlike most rapes committed during the course of history, the following events have not have been lost to the creaky mechanism of human memory. The perpetrators, true millennials, documented most of it themselves on their cell phones. According to news reports, which chronicled the movements of the actors in the room without establishing an exact sequence of events, as Vandenburg’s roommate pretended to be asleep in the top bunk, they took Lisa’s clothes off. A boy took close-up pictures of her vagina. Vandenburg took out a box of condoms and handed them around. Batey took off his jeans, stripping to his boxers, which were patterned with the American flag. “You’re not even hard, bro,” Vandenburg told him while surfing Internet porn. He was allegedly coked up and didn’t achieve an erection. Instead, when someone inserted a water bottle into Lisa’s anus, Vandenburg egged him on, giddily laughing, saying, “Squeeze that shit, squeeze that shit” in a hoarse whisper.

According to the Tennessean, Batey also stuck his fingers in Lisa’s vagina and his penis in Lisa’s mouth, sat on her face, and raised his middle finger. And after he and Vandenburg slapped Lisa’s face to see if she’d come to, Batey peed on her hair, reportedly announcing, “That’s for 400 years of slavery, you bitch.”

“I Think We Messed Up”

Of all participants, Vandenburg was the first one to realize that a serious line had been crossed. That same night he sought advice from the team’s wide receiver and other players; the next day, he told his roommate that what had happened wasn’t funny, and it was best if all involved tried to put it behind them. He’d texted photos to a friend in California, whom he’d previously texted thoughts to under the hashtag #penisproblems; his friend, appalled, told him to stop immediately—or, more precisely, to “drop kick that bitch out of the room.” (Soon, Vandenburg would fly to California to try to destroy photos and videos by tossing a friend’s phone into a lake.)

The day after the incident, he strove to reassure Lisa, inviting her back to his room and painting another version of the night. She had woken up at eight the next morning, feeling rough and hungover, plus something was off with her hair: “I knew immediately that my hair had been wet the night before,” she explained. “I know my hair.” She stumbled across the hall to the room of a football player she’d dated a while before, crashed there for a few hours, then hit the Pancake Pantry with friends for brunch. Later, Vandenburg invited her to his dorm room, the site of the attack. “He told me that I had gotten sick in his room, and he had to clean it up, and that it was horrible, and he had to spend the whole night taking care of me,” Lisa said. “I apologized. I was so embarrassed.” The two of them talked for a while. “He was extremely kind, nicer than usual,” Lisa recalled, and initiated sex.

The incident might well have been written off as another blasted night if campus police hadn’t been looking into which group of athletes at Gillette Hall, doubtlessly also wasted, bent a set of doors off their hinges. They reviewed the evening’s security video, and their jaws dropped when they saw the football players carrying a comatose girl into a room and shutting the door.

In the days that followed, stories started flying around the Vanderbilt football scene that a few players might be in terrible trouble. Batey texted his brother: “I think we messed up and I think they’re going to charge us with rape.” The boys were most afraid of losing their scholarships: “My scholarship put a roof over my head, food on my table,” Vandenburg explained. “It’s basically my job, my livelihood.” Of the friends and classmates who worried this might cost the boys their scholarships, one of the most concerned was, of all people, Lisa. To her mind, these boys faced dire consequences for no reason—​nothing had happened in that room that night other than her embarrassing herself by getting too drunk.

Some texts:

Lisa: are you okay I’m worried?

Vandenburg: No I’m not . This is all so messed up, I didn’t do anything and I feel like I’m getting blamed for stuff that didn’t even happen. I just want to cry.

Vandenburg: Me and a bunch of my teammates are probably going to get kicked off the team unless something changes.

Lisa: I don’t want anyone to get in trouble because of me.

Lisa: I’ll do everything I can to clear your name.

When Nashville’s deputy district attorney Tom “the Thurmanator” Thurman wanted to indict the boys on multiple counts of aggravated rape, Lisa still didn’t think anything had happened. But the pictures told the story: a penis in Lisa’s mouth, fingers near her butt. “Image after image of my genitalia covering the entire frame on the screen” is the way Lisa described it later. “These stark, alien-looking fingers all over the flesh were moving from frame to frame, with multiple hands reaching in.” As she scrolled through, she saw herself. “At one point I saw what I first thought was a dead woman’s face. I was suddenly overwhelmed by my memory of a family member’s corpse, and then I realized that it’s me. They had taken a picture of my face during the rape.”

These men would not be among the large majority of rapists who remain uncharged, though black men (and there were three of them here; Vandenburg and the victim were white) are much more likely to be prosecuted. What kind of defense could be brought? Not much, and when Vandenburg and Batey went on trial in January 2015, in a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled courtroom—a painting of a bald eagle draped in the American flag in one corner, TV news crews staking out their positions on the perimeter—the jurors appeared aghast from the beginning. Still, for nine days, the jury watched a parade of perfect specimens of humanity, these gorgeous American heroes (Vanderbilt football players, Vanderbilt cheerleaders), give their testimony about an unconscious victim, lack of intercourse, racial overtones, a boy who allowed others to assault his own date while abstaining from sexual contact himself, whether other men in the room were homoerotically performing for him, and the production of “rape selfies.”

One side of the gallery was packed with supporters of the accused, their family members clucking and grimacing at each piece of evidence. Most benches on the plaintiff’s side were empty, apart from the one where Lisa sat stone-faced between her mother and a few victims’ advocates, one of whom had a book, Managing Cultural Differences, open on her lap. Lisa was now studying neuroscience in a graduate program in Houston, taking time off to fly to Nashville for the trial. Her hair was darker and lightly styled. She wore a boxy black business suit.

On the stand, the boys minimized the act. “It was funny at the time,” Mc-Kenzie said. “But looking back on it, it wasn’t funny.” Batey’s texts to a friend show no sign of remorse, lumping the event into a string of academic and personal failures. He texted his friend Tiny, a 300-pound football player, “Over the past year I’ve just been fucking up, I failed a drug test, missed class, and now they tryna say I raped a bitch with some other teammates.”

There was a bumbling attempt by Batey’s lawyer, a friend’s dad from prep school working pro bono, to blame Vanderbilt for the assault, portraying his client as, in a sense, a victim himself of a corrupt American college culture: “A culture of sexual freedom, a culture of sexual experimentation, a culture that encouraged sexual promiscuity . . . [and] social media, like Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat, which glorifies sexual freedom and glorifies alcoholic behavior, and also TV shows like Jersey Shore, and The Bachelor,” he said haltingly. Near the end of the trial, Batey took the stand in an aubergine tie, sweating and trembling and even breaking into tears, The Bible Promise Book with a mahogany-colored cover between his hands, and he blamed alcohol for his actions. “I was drunk out of my mind, and this is nothing I would ever have done in my right state of mind,” he said. “I wish I could take it back.” Later, he called the event an “unintentional tragedy.”

Vandenburg’s lawyers relied on a centuries-old strategy: they prosecuted the victim’s sexual history, assigning behavior to her for which they had no evidence except Vandenburg’s word. “[Brandon] had reason to regard [Lisa] as a party girl,” explained one of his attorneys in a pretrial hearing. In an exchange that defies logic, they also encouraged Vandenburg to claim he had Lisa’s consent.

Vandenburg: Well, while at the bar she [Lisa] was handing me drinks, saying: “You need to relax and get ready for tonight . . .”

Vandenburg’s attorney, John Herbison: And it’s okay to say what words she used.

Vandenburg: Okay. I’ll be as verbatim as I can . . . It is pretty explicit. She said: “I can’t wait to F-you tonight. Your body is so sexy.” She grabbed me in my genital area; she grabbed my butt; she kissed me, all while at the bar.

Herbison: The “can’t wait” comment, did she truncate that word to just the letter F, or did she use just the full word?

Vandenburg: She used the full word.

Herbison: Okay. The word being.

Vandenburg: Fuck . . . She got sexual[ly] aggressive in the cab. She grabbed my hand and placed it on her genital area, started rubbing it. She, basically, said “I can’t wait to have sex with you, I’m so wet,” and “Let’s get back,” like “hurry and get back to the apartment already” . . . walking to her apartment she was grabbing me. She was grabbing my genital area, my butt, and whispering in my ear, kissing my ear, things of that nature; and, saying that she was wet and couldn’t wait to have sex.

The prosecutor began his cross-examination:

Prosecutor Thurman: . . . she said she wanted to have sex with you; right?

Vandenburg: Yes. She said she wanted to have sex all night long. I guess, I could take that as me. She said it to me.

Thurman: Not with anybody else. You . . . Did she consent to sex in that room that night?

Vandenburg: I guess, I couldn’t speak for her. I know she consented to me.

Thurman: To you, when?

Vandenburg: Less than a half hour beforehand. Less than 20 minutes beforehand . . . she told me she wanted to have sex all night long. It’s very ambiguous as to who she wanted to have sex with. She just said, wanted to have sex all night long. That could mean any number of people. Anyone, specifically, that’s ambiguous.

When this scheme didn’t work, Vandenburg’s lawyers stressed that their client never touched the girl; his culpability lay only in inciting, encouraging, and failing to stop the abuse once it began. But when the foreman read his name in the list of the guilty, his father let out a long scream, and Vandenburg’s look of confusion suggested he’d never imagined he’d be severely punished.

After two guilty verdicts and one mistrial, the Nashville judge, an elderly black man with a reputation for even-keeled verdicts, sentenced Batey to 15 years in prison without the possibility of parole. Because Vandenburg incited the crime, he received 17 years. “It is one of the saddest cases that I have ever encountered,” the judge said. “And I have been in the legal business for 32 years.” In a highly unusual move unsuccessfully challenged by a media coalition that included the Tennessean and the Associated Press, certain records related to the case were sealed. No one needed to know anything more about that terrible night.

Vanessa Grigoriadis is a contributing editor at the New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair, specializing in pop culture, youth movements, and crime reporting. She is a National Magazine Award winner and has been featured on MSNBC, CNN, Dateline and Investigation Discovery shows.

Reprinted with permission from Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, and Consent on Campus by Vanessa Grigoriadis. Copyright ©2017 by Vanessa Grigoriadis. Published by Eamon Dolan Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.