The “R” Word

In light of Greg Hardy’s suspension for domestic violence and the University of Tennessee having yet another young man investigated for rape/sexual assault, I feel that this post I wrote in January for another blog is particularly salient. 

If we want to change the current culture regarding women in men’s sports, we must take the development of the young men in sports more seriously. 

I’ll focus on a men’s sport that is a universal revenue driver–Football. Whether considering professional or collegiate levels of this game, both have underpinnings of a rape culture in need of change. There are many questions that need addressing, but we will start first with several definitions as they will be used in this post.

Privilege: an unearned “perk” associated with belonging to a specific cultural group

Preference: a cultural consensus regarding the “proper” outcome on a particular issue—e.g. how privilege is enacted

Victim Blaming: the despicable act associated with shifting blame for a heinous crime onto an alleged victim due to societal preference or the privilege of the accused

Extraneous Attribute: circumstance or detail inserted into an argument which derives from privelege or preference and seeks to deflect responsibility away from the privileged

Victims in sexual assault and domestic abuse cases already have an uphill climb associated with their pursuit of justice. However, these alleged victims in so-called high-profile cases face extensive victim blaming and public vitriol when they pursue their allegations. This “whack-a-mole” approach to victims discourages many not to come forward—according to RAINN, roughly 7 in 10 rapes go unreported.

Furthermore, victims are blamed or, at very least, doubted from the outset despite current law enforcement estimations that only 1.5% to 8% of reported sexual assault cases are false accusations. Keep in mind as well that this includes cases that are dropped and not pursued further. The number of actual false statements is likely much lower. But, for the sake of argument, we will use 5% (rounded integer midpoint) for our anchor. Our current cultural preference on this matter is that victims are lying until proven truthful—this goes double for high-profile cases.

So, what do we do? How do we stop blaming the victim? What can we do to muffle preference and excise privilege from these proceedings? How can we destigmatize rape reporting? Peculiar to athletics, how do we handle the accused at the beginning of an investigation? What is the best way to eliminate extraneous attributes? What standards or expectations should we have for the coaches? The administration? The sport’s governing body? Finally, how do we make it clear that rape is disgusting, amoral, and unacceptable?

There are many more questions about this. I cannot answer them all, but I will try to answer these.

Let’s start with the victim blaming. To recap, 3 in 10 rapes are reported and only 5 in every 100 accusers knowingly make false allegations. Mathematically, the odds of a brought claim being false are quite long—1 in 67 (again, these are the odds of a reported rape claim being fabricated). 

For perspective, let’s say you have a hat holding the names of all 50 states on pieces of paper. Now, let’s say you need to draw a specific state—like Nebraska—out of the 50 in the hat. The odds of you reaching in and retrieving Nebraska on one try are 1 in 50! Consider how unlikely this is, now consider how much more unlikely it would be if we added 17 states to the union. Based on these odds, the likelihood that a victim is telling what they sincerely believe is the truth is a whopping 98.5%! The odds do not support the narrative of victim blaming. It’s time we stopped pretending they do. 

Moreover, societal preference dictates that we warp and twist facts to meet conclusions instead of the contrary. When news of a rape allegation breaks, many immediately find ways to dismiss the allegation as something precipitated by the victim. Let’s be clear: rape is never the victim’s fault! Rapists rape. They are always at fault, and they are never induced by a victim’s behavior, state of dress, etc. This may come as a bitter pill to some, but there is not a more steadfast pillar in these encounters than the victim’s status as a victim and not a co-conspirator in their own rape. 

We are culturally being brought to bear on this issue more regularly it seems than in the past—perhaps because more victims are feeling empowered to come forward, which is a good thing. What’s not as good, is how we react. The most vocal within our sports communities resort to vile remarks about the alleged victims and rebuke anyone who questions the integrity of the accused. These people must be shouted down and educated by the decent among us. We find ourselves favoring our teams’ successes at the cost of supporting an alleged victim of a violent crime. I will say it again: we are choosing to care more about our football teams winning than rape victims.

This. Cannot. Happen.

Several teams this season suspended privileged players at the onset of investigations—whether sexual assault or otherwise—with their final statuses pending the outcomes. This isolated the accused athlete from the team, thereby making it exclusively about the accused and the allegation. By creating this dichotomy, schools were able to stifle the potential outcry from the despicable but vocal fringe of victim blamers.

Isolating the accused pending outcome is a good step, but we must find a way to see these victims as victims without extraneous attributes. This will take more than can be done in sports alone. However, the education of athletes, coaches, and associated members of the teams would begin to bridge the chasm between where victims are now, and where they need to be. However, rape is not universally reviled, nor is it taken seriously enough by administrations. 

Admittedly, most anyone asked would agree that rape is a crime. However, our culture has a disconnect between this assent and the perception of rape as a universally amoral act. These young athletes come from various backgrounds, where they may or may not have been raised with a healthy respect for the rights of women. As a result, we find athletes falling along the entire spectrum of attitudes towards women. This is a problem in need of a solution, which hearkens back to education and leadership. The coaches and the administration must take responsibility for the development of these men. This does not, of course, absolve the athletes of their actions, but makes their mentors more responsible than they have been in the past. Coaches and administrators who sanction this behavior by irresponsibly enabling their players should face consequences for their actions. Those consequences can only come from the top. 

This past season has made it clear that NCAA and NFL governing bodies must be responsible for top-down improvements on this very serious issue. The NFL has amended its player conduct policy to severely punish sexual assault and domestic violence, while also focusing on increasing awareness–Greg Hardy’s recent suspension is the first major step in the right direction. The NCAA and self-regulating conferences will have the opportunity this spring and summer to make changes to their bylaws to take an equally large step in the right direction. The question is, will they?

As mentioned previously, during ongoing investigations, some schools nationally refused to bench their players while others suspended players immediately, pending the outcome. This asymmetric response to these cases all but mandates that the NCAA enforce a new, unifying policy on the issue concerning athletes and open investigations of wrongdoing, including sexual assault. The NCAA needs to rescind, from the coaches, the power to determine athlete suspensions in favor of a blanket rule: open investigation must mean suspension. This cannot be negotiated, appealed, or forestalled. The NCAA insists that players who profit from their own likeness deserve to be suspended, but alleged rapists and abusers currently under investigation are allowed to play at the school’s and coach’s discretion. (If your reaction was, “huh?!” you’re not alone.) The NCAA also contends—sometimes laughably—that their athletes are amateurs and students first. Now is their opportunity to prove that with a policy that prioritizes potential wrongdoing over athletics. This change is needed, but it’s unlikely to be forthcoming. Ever the politician, Mark Emmert will be content to evade and cede responsibility to the members instead of risking any alienation, and that’s unfortunate given the need for improvement. 

We currently live in a culture where rape is marginalized and dismissed. We shame victims, smear them on social media, and protect priveleged athletes with all we can muster regardless of the circumstances. Although we may seldom know what happens between the two parties in cases like this, the patent disparagement of alleged victims has to stop. These are people who have had one of the things they hold dearest ripped away from them. These crimes are unspeakable, but we must speak. We must educate. As a culture, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard and see this heinous crime for what it is—a heinous crime. We must internalize new mores that support women and focus on building them up instead of tearing them down. We have to do better. We owe it to the silent 7.

Winning is never more important than the well-being of even 1 victim. We can improve almost everywhere, there are very few elements of our rape culture that can regress at this point. Improvement begins with bravery and conviction at the top.

This kind of bravery will be a lonely existence, but a necessary one. Being brave is scary, but everytime a victim exposes themselves to public scorn, they display the exact level of bravery required to make a change. 

Can we be that brave?

We must. 


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