Two days before my 16th birthday, a girl from West Virginia just barely older than I woke up with no memory of how she got there. She was in a room in an unfamiliar house in Steubenville, Ohio, the town across the river from her home.
Witnesses, through social media posts filled with mentions of “rape,” helped her piece together what happened. The girl got drunk the night before at a Steubenville High party. While obviously intoxicated, with impaired motor skills and slurred speech, she was harassed by various athletes. About midnight, she left the party with some Steubenville High football players, including up-and-coming stars Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. That night, she was raped by Mays and Richmond.
The girl and her parents collected all the evidence they could from various social media platforms used by witnesses and went to the police. Shortly after, many witnesses deleted the posts, pictures and videos they had taken. Many began to doubt that the assaults actually occurred. Others touted the classic victim-shaming mantra that by getting drunk, she put herself in a position to be raped. Important officials didn’t act. A coach even announced he would testify in support of the players, regardless of evidence proving otherwise. The town could not admit anything that would sacrifice the success of the team on which it prided itself.
Steubenville’s resistance to acknowledge the crime is simply a reflection of a society-wide phenomenon that elevates athletes to a demigod status. With such idolization, we ignore misconduct. Accepting rape culture goes beyond small Midwestern towns whose pride rides on their local high school’s teams.
This trend also exists in professional sports. In 2003, Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault. The charges, however, were dismissed, and his alleged misconduct very quickly took a back seat to his basketball prowess. His stardom was not only his savior but a driving force behind the victim-shaming smear campaign that helped his case. Any evidence was irrelevant. The defense flooded the case with personal attacks that the public and the judicial system quickly embraced to more easily justify supporting Los Angeles’ golden boy.
In recent years, sexual assaults committed by college student-athletes have saturated the media, showing that collegiate sports are impacted by the same chilling pattern of deifying the accused at the cost of the accuser. Schools are reluctant to prosecute athletes for fear of destroying their athletics programs, despite presented evidence. A U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing in 2014 found that 20 percent of NCAA schools oversee sexual assault cases involving their own student-athletes.
Last week, an ESPN “Outside the Lines” report announced that Baylor was found to have not upheld its federal obligation to investigate sexual assault claims by failing for two years to address one made against two of its football players in 2013. Despite the fact that Baylor has a history of mishandling sexual assault cases involving its student-athletes, this story received relatively little media attention. The claims were doubly ignored, first in initial stages and later when the story of that negligence was broken by the national press, primarily as a result of the public’s worship of athletes. It was published the same day as Kobe’s last game and the Warriors’ 73rd win, and therefore received frustratingly little attention.
Even the venerable UC Berkeley has proven that it is not immune to upholding lower standards for those in athletics who commit egregious crimes. Cal head basketball coach Cuonzo Martin’s alleged failure to report sexual harassment claims against assistant coach Yann Hufnagel implies that the program, like many others, may have consciously turned a blind eye. Nevada’s decision to hire Hufnagel illustrates how sports programs continue to put success ahead of the safety of other individuals.
As a sports fan, I understand how this world and all it entails can be so seductive. Watching prodigal athletes perform is exciting, especially when they are playing for a team whose losses you feel as sincerely as if they were your own. This allure, however, cannot excuse any criminal or unethical conduct. It perpetuates rape culture and acceptance of reprehensible actions.