On November 3, Harvard University cancelled the remaining regular season games of its men’s soccer team because some members of the team created and maintained sexual “scouting reports” on the members of the women’s soccer team. These reports assigned numerical scores to the women on the basis of their sex appeal, and included photos of the women accompanied by vulgar descriptions associated with hypothetical sexual positions for each.

In announcing the cancellation of the remaining games, Harvard Athletic Director Bob Scalise stated “We strongly believe that this immediate and significant action is absolutely necessary if we are to create an environment of mutual support, respect, and trust among our students and our teams.… Harvard Athletics has zero tolerance for this type of behavior.”

Harvard President Drew Faust supported the decision to cancel the season, stating that the actions of the students involved “are completely unacceptable, have no place at Harvard, and run counter to the mutual respect that is a core value of our community.”

Freedom of speech?

I have a feeling that this action by Harvard will give rise to another round of debate over the proper scope of freedom of expression in the academy. Critics will assert that, regardless of how offensive their conduct may be, the members of the Harvard men’s soccer team are being punished purely for what they said and wrote.

Supporters may point out that as a private university Harvard is not subject to the restrictions the First Amendment places on state universities. Hence, it is entitled to curtail the free speech rights of its students to the extent it believes necessary to advance its institutional values (as long as it does not misrepresent its commitments). Both sides will soon be arguing about the proper mission of a university.

And that would be unfortunate because it would cause us to overlook a much more troubling aspect of this incident — the casual ease with which Harvard’s administration employed collective punishment.

Harvard punishes the innocent along with the guilty

It is, of course, possible that every member of the men’s team was an active participant in creating the scouting reports and hence is deserving of blame. If that is the case, cancelling the season punishes only the guilty, and is not inherently objectionable. But I find that scenario to be exceedingly unlikely.

I played soccer in college. And even in those ancient days when vulgar, sexist expression and conduct were rampant, not all the members of our team acted like misogynistic jerks. Many of my teammates did indeed frequently indulge in the crude, sexually demeaning characterization of female students, but most of us were, like me, fairly naive teenagers who were embarrassed by such talk and did not engage in it.

If Harvard’s soccer team is anything like mine was, then Harvard’s administration decided to punish the innocent along with the guilty without a second thought.

This is interesting because collective punishment is inherently unjust. That is why it is a human rights violation when employed by governments (Article 5 of the American Convention on Human Rights) and a war crime when employed by militaries (Article 33 of the Geneva Convention).

It produces howls of protest from progressives whenever Israel employs it against Palestinians. It is pretty much the essence of illiberalism. And yet, it was Harvard’s first reaction to news of the “scouting reports.”

Was there some reason why it was impossible to punish only the individuals involved? Did Harvard even inquire?

Did the individuals who created and maintained the scouting report violate any of Harvard’s rules governing student conduct? If so, they could be sanctioned without punishing those who were not involved. If not, then on what ground is the university punishing the team?

Virtue signaling

Harvard is well within its rights to disavow the “scouting report” and condemn the conduct of those who created it in the strongest possible terms. However, it is far from clear that Harvard is acting properly in applying collective punishment by cancelling the rest of the soccer season. This looks more like virtue signaling at the expense of the innocent members of the men’s soccer team.

Imagine that a group of Harvard’s male physics majors created and maintained a “scouting report” on the female physics majors. Would anyone think that an appropriate response to this would be to declare that no male physics majors could graduate from Harvard that year?

And please don’t argue that no member of the team is really innocent because they failed to report the activities of their teammates to the university authorities. Punishing those who have not engaged in wrongdoing for failing to inform on their friends is what one would expect in the Soviet Union or East Germany, not the campus of a leading university in a liberal society.

Why it matters

But why should we care? Harvard is not saying that the soccer players cannot graduate, nor is it imposing any other academic sanction. All it is doing is cancelling a few games and depriving the soccer players of the opportunity for post-season play.

We should care because participating in competitive college sports can be extremely meaningful to the participants, and a proper regard for individual autonomy requires us to be sensitive to this.

Playing soccer was important to me when I was in college. I was not that good when I was a freshman. But I worked hard to develop my skills, ran the wind sprints and “perimeters” in practice every afternoon, studied the strategies and tactics of the sport, and devoted a great deal of my limited time and energy to improving my performance.

I rode the bench most of my sophomore and junior years, waiting anxiously for the rare occasions when I would get into a game. I finally cracked the starting lineup in my senior year. I played every game that year knowing that it would be the last time in my life that I would get to play competitive soccer.

I have no difficulty imagining how I would have felt if my senior soccer season had been cancelled because of the moronic behavior of the more boorish members of the team. I would have been devastated. And I would have been incensed that the college had punished me for the wrongdoing of others.

Collective punishment is unjust. This is the case whether it is employed by governments, corporations, teachers, or parents. It is even the case when employed by elite private universities. Harvard’s collective punishment of its men’s soccer team in order to publicly display its commitment to maintaining an inclusive academic environment is merely the latest example of the contemporary academy’s willingness to sacrifice its liberal values to its social ones.