Oxford Accused of Covering Up Allegation of Sexual Assault Against Star of the Boat Race Team
An Oxford women’s rowing team member says she was not protected from her alleged assailant on the men’s team by university officials more concerned with their reputations.
A star student athlete from Oxford University’s Boat Race squad was pulled from the team just days before the world’s most famous rowing race following allegations of sexual assault made against him by a female rower, according to recorded phone calls heard by The Daily Beast.
The allegation was leveled in October last year but university authorities said they were powerless to act and the male-dominated, 200-year-old Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC) chose not to take any action against the accused athlete until last month. An investigation by The Daily Beast suggests that some university officials and members of the club may have been more concerned about protecting the reputation of the boat club than the interests of the young woman in question.
To protect the alleged victim, we have changed her name and honored her wish to also change the name of the alleged perpetrator, who we are calling Mike. The Daily Beast was given hours of recorded phone calls, dozens of emails, and several documents by Jessica, who now wants to share her story of an elite institution struggling to deal with allegations of sexual assault.
In a recorded Zoom, Sir John Bell—a consultant to the British government on the pandemic and the OUBC’s academic adviser—told Jessica that he had no power to remove Mike from the team, although he admitted there was some history of serious issues among the male rowers. “You give those guys a couple of pints of beer or too much to drink and they behave unbelievably badly,” Bell said. “To be clear, we’ve had guys go to jail for stuff they’ve done.”
Mike did not offer any on the record responses to the allegation. But according to a December email containing notes from a virtual meeting between Jessica and OUBC officials, Bell had spoken to Mike about the matter, and he did “not feel that he sexually assaulted [Jessica] and, indeed, is confused and upset by the current position.” He has not been approached as part of the formal disciplinary process at the university, nor has he been questioned, arrested, or charged by the police.
Phone recordings between Jessica and the OUBC president, a Canadian graduate student at Oxford named Alex Bebb, revealed that he only instigated the removal of the alleged assailant, Mike, from the team after finding out he was likely to lose his seat in the boat race to him—almost four months after Bebb learned that Jessica reported the incident to the club.
The Oxford v. Cambridge race is Britain’s most famous student sporting event, drawing a quarter-million fans—including a rowdy contingent of “hooray Henrys” in boater hats and blazers—to the banks of the Thames in West London on the first weekend of the summer social season. After last year’s race was canceled due to the pandemic, the 166th race will take place on a more COVID-secure stretch of river in Cambridgeshire this Sunday.
Jessica, who is slated to compete in the Women’s Boat Race, says she first reported the incident in October 2020—two days after the alleged assault—to officials at the OUBC, which boasts on its website that it was established with the sole objective of beating Cambridge in the annual varsity race.
Several days after she reported the incident, Mike sent her a letter of apology. “I sincerely apologize for my actions,” reads the letter. “It was wrong of me to cross that boundary... I am going to read more about consent to make sure I understand it properly.”
The Daily Beast has not investigated the veracity of the allegations.
Since then, Jessica has continued to train for the Boat Race, at times in close proximity with the person she had accused. The OUBC allowed the male student to remain a member through March 2021, approximately five months after Jessica made the boat club officials aware of the allegations.
Jessica said she chose not to contact the police after the alleged attack because the successful prosecution rates for sexual offenses are so low in the United Kingdom—for example, it is well known that only 3 percent of rape cases reported to the police end up in court. But she sent multiple complaints to Oxford officials after she felt her first report of the incident fell on deaf ears.
In November 2020, Jessica took the apology letter from Mike and filed a formal complaint with Oxford University, and a similar one in December with OUBC, in which she stated, “To date, no action has been taken by the Clubs to protect my welfare.”
In order to continue her training without having to see her alleged attacker, which she found to be traumatizing, Jessica asked for Mike to be removed from the rowing team. Oxford University’s disciplinary body, the Proctors’ Office, told her that she should notify the police as it was not their job to investigate such incidents—while the OUBC insisted that all they could do was try to keep her and Mike separate.
The Daily Beast has reached out to all relevant entities mentioned in this story. In a statement, an Oxford spokesperson declined to give specific details about the case, but wrote that the university offers “full support for students who report incidents, including guidance on the options available to them in taking the matter further, which may involve reporting the matter to the police.”
With regards to the team adviser’s handling of the case, the spokesperson added that “Sir John has been very concerned about this case and active in ensuring that all disciplinary and support processes are in place.”
Despite efforts to stagger the training sessions for the men and the women, the separation plan devised by the OUBC was not successful. In a document shared among the team last month, the OUBC president said, “It’s true that she has had to be within a couple meters—routinely—of the man she maintains assaulted her.”
Jessica said that the OUBC also failed to implement her request to create a policy on sexual harassment, train coaches and staff on responding to harassment and bullying, and have the team sit for a class on the law regarding sexual consent.
The stalemate continued until last month, as the club prepared for team selection ahead of the race, which is the biggest prize in British student sports. Past participants include the actor Hugh Laurie, who was in the losing Cambridge boat in 1980, and America’s Winklevoss twins, who were in the losing Oxford boat in 2010. The billionaire twins’ cryptocurrency company is sponsoring this year’s race.
When the boat club made the pick of the eight-man team that would compete against Cambridge this year, Mike was in, but Alex Bebb, the team president, was not, according to phone recordings between Jessica and senior OUBC members.
After the team had seemingly been selected but not publicly announced, Bebb suddenly spoke out on the subject of the allegation. He first sent the coaches an email, and then called a team meeting and described the allegations, explaining that the way the university and the boat club had handled the situation was likely to go down badly with the public.
“Let it be known that I believe we’ve acted correctly and within the bounds of what the Club is meant to do,” he wrote to coach Sean Bowden and the OUBC chair Seb Pearce on March 17 before his announcement to the team. “Unfortunately, I don’t think many others will. While I’ve never perceived it to be, this will undoubtedly be the story of a cover-up or silencing of someone by an elite organisation.”
He attached a summary that he had asked a law school friend to write.
“You noted that there has been no prosecution… police involvement or charges pressed. That makes your life easier, at least from a top-down perspective,” reads the advice from an unnamed law student. “The legal implications should be one of the least of your concerns if the victim in question does decide to come forward.”
The memo continued, “I need not draw your attention to the swift progression of society, especially that of Millennials/Gen-Z, to reflect on and be cognisant of sexual assault.” In bold font, he urged Bebb to “acknowledge the immensity of the societal shifts toward accountability and sexual assault.”
After the March 17 email to the coaches, the team president held a meeting with the male athletes to inform them of some of the details around the alleged sexual assault and explained how the incident could harm the Oxford rowing team and all of their futures if it became public. Bebb said in a recorded call that he had warned the team that Jessica or someone else might go to the press imminently if they didn’t take action.
The meeting greatly expanded the number of people who knew the names and details of the assault—which had previously only been discussed in confidence by a handful of coaches, university staff, and students.
Men on the team then held several meetings and finally reversed course last week, removing Mike from the upcoming race against Cambridge. But Jessica, who had already spent months feeling forced to see Mike in practice, felt the decision came too late.
When Bebb, the rowing club president, called Jessica to tell of the decision, she recorded the call. “As a woman, I spoke up and nobody listened to me,” she said. “But as a man, the moment you opened your mouth apparently, they all care.”
She added on the call, “I don’t think that anyone at any point has thought about me.” Later on the phone, the president said that Bell, the OUBC adviser, had removed Mike from the club because he wanted to make sure “we’re controlling this thing so that it doesn’t get completely out of our hands.”
Jessica now wonders why Bebb had apparently taken a sudden stand after learning that he was not going to be in the team.
“You lost your seat race to [Mike] the day before you brought this all up?” Jessica asked Bebb, to which he said, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” She followed up with another question: “And you went to the coaches and said I was going to do something, or someone was going to do something, and they had to act?” Bebb responded: “Yes.”
“Announcing it the day after you lose your seat race to him. I’m sorry, that looks quite bad for you,” said Jessica on the call. “In fact it looks awful because it looks like you’re using rape as leverage to get selected for a sports team.”
Bebb denied that this was his motivation for speaking out.
Jessica said the incident that has haunted her took place on a warm autumn evening last October when the OUBC women went out for drinks at Vincent’s Club, whose members have included future prime ministers, royals, and Olympic champions. After a few drinks, the group took to the streets and met up with another group of students. Eventually, Jessica ended up with Mike.
Jessica describes her recollection of the night as blurry and fragmented, but said she “knew something bad had happened.” Jessica does not believe that she consented to Mike’s approaches.
Although U.K. legal precedent clearly states that a person cannot give consent if they’re incapacitated due to alcohol use, Jessica decided against going to the police. “The statistics show that the system doesn’t protect victims,” she told The Daily Beast. “So why would I want to go and essentially put myself through hell?”
But after going through the reporting process at Oxford, Jessica felt she was put through hell nonetheless. After submitting her November OUBC complaint addressed to Bell, she held a phone call with him, during which she alleges that he raised his voice. A second person who was on the call told The Daily Beast that Bell “snapped.”
The next time she spoke to Bell on Zoom, she recorded it.
During the call, Bell felt it necessary to explain to Jessica the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” and said that he did not believe he had the power to remove Mike from the team. Bell told her that he had to wait for the university proctors to act before making a decision. If they called and told him to remove Mike, “he’d be there within a millisecond,” Bell said. “There would be no problem.” But the proctors never did.
“This response is totally inadequate and out of sync with most other universities,” said Ann Olivarius, an attorney representing the alleged victim. “Current sector guidance instructs universities to conduct their own internal investigation even if the complaint describes conduct that is also a crime.”
Olivarius also claimed that Oxford appears to have violated the Equality Act, which requires them to provide an education free of harassment. “These failings are independent of the criminal justice system; they implicate the University’s own commitments which it freely entered into in accepting students, their fees and government funds,” she told The Daily Beast.
The university’s shortcomings when it comes to dealing with sexual assault claims were echoed by other Oxford students. “I’ve heard of people who have been raped here at Oxford and people just accept that there’s not much the university will do to help them,” one of Jessica’s teammates told The Daily Beast. The teammate, who will appear in the Boat Race with Jessica this Sunday, added that “words cannot convey how horrendous [the reporting process] has been.”
After multiple complaints and seemingly futile outreach to Oxford officials over the course of several months, Jessica began seeing a therapist earlier this year, a process that helped her when she was triggered by seeing Mike. Eventually, she said she had reached a point of accepting that nothing was going to happen. “I was trying to detach myself from the event. I wasn’t over it, but I was at a place of acceptance.”
That was until March 17, when Jessica was forwarded an email with the attached legal document the team president had sent to the coaches who then forwarded it to John Bell warning them that the club’s handling of the allegations could be viewed as a coverup. That same day, the president called Jessica to reassure her that the issue would be taken care of.
“If this sort of thing had been aired in the States, it would have been very cut and dried… if this did get out, I don’t think we’ve done enough to ensure that we can say we’ve tried to protect people,” he told her. On the call, he also addressed Bell’s seemingly dismissive attitude toward the incident up until that point: “There’s no teaching an old dog new tricks, unfortunately,” he said of the adviser.
A week later, Bebb called Jessica again to let her know that Mike was out. “I asked for all these things months ago and nobody had any power,” Jessica told Bebb, who now had his seat in the boat race secured. “And then in the last week, when I’m accepting my reality, you decide to bring it back up. And then John Bell has magic powers.”
Jessica told The Daily Beast that she was never officially informed of the decision to remove Mike, and the men had not involved the women in the discussions. She described the final stretch of the ordeal as “retraumatizing,” saying she doesn’t think the OUBC has learned the appropriate lessons about the handling of sexual violence against women.
“It was always about reform, not revenge,” Jessica told The Daily Beast. But the policies she was asking for have not been implemented by the team. “If change happens, everyone will need to want it, and that includes the men,” she said. “And I don’t think the men want a better system.”