Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Case of Athletes and Rape

Reactions to the civil suit recently brought against Ben Roethlisberger by a former employee of Harrah’s hotel-casino in Lake Tahoe illustrate perfectly the inherent biases men and women have towards cases of sexual assault. These biases, and the copious amounts of baggage they carry, too often turn rape cases into exercises in futility—‘he said, she said’ arguments that devolve into hardcore character assassinations (usually it’s the victim’s character that’s annihilated) and, oddly enough, out-of-court settlements. This perverse form of due process becomes magnified when the case involves a professional sports star. Beloved professional athletes possess the double-whammy of seemingly endless means (money, top-notch lawyers, image consultants, spin doctors, publicists, etc.) and the benefits that come with large-scale public opinion. It’s not just the athlete’s family, friends and co-workers that think he is a great guy; the fan-base of an entire professional sports franchise (maybe even the fan-base of the sport itself) loves the guy as well, this includes fans and members of the media.

Interestingly, it’s the athlete’s endless supply of means to defend himself against rape allegations—not the athlete himself—that creates the average fan’s bias against the accuser. As our culture has elevated professional athletes to the status of iconic celebrity, the notion that rich athletes are now targets of exploitation and extortion has been canonized. Of course, there is plenty truth to this idea. Wealthy members of our society have always been and will always be the targets of desperate people. However, professional athletes, because of the attachments they engender amongst legions of people throughout the world, elicit an exceptionalism that isn’t afforded to other members of the high-income tax bracket. If a managing director at Goldman Sachs becomes a victim of identity theft, most people shrug their shoulders. Who cares? In fact, this day and age, a lot of people may even chuckle at the thought of some rich banker having to go through such an agonizing process. If the same situation occurs to a professional athlete, often there is an uproar, outrage, an entire SportsCenter segment devoted to the story. Fans will sympathize and give the athlete the benefit of the doubt (e.g. “Damn, that really sucks for him. All this hard work to get to where he is, and all some people want to do is tear him down.”) A fan’s defense of their favorite athlete is also directly proportional to nastiness of the crime. The more discomforting the accusation, the more staunch the fan’s unwavering support (unless, of course, the crime involves obviously innocent dogs).

Which brings me back to athletes and rape. When Ben Roethlisberger was first charged with rape earlier this summer, I remember discussing the initial reactions (or lack thereof) with Marie. Blogs and news outlets that chose to report the story (ESPN, the largest sports media empire in the history of the world, did not report the story for almost a good week after the story broke) harped on the fact that the plaintiff had filed civil as opposed to criminal charges. Additionally, speculation was already being made about the plaintiff’s past. Marie and I both knew that this was going to play out as predicted. Over the last month, the plaintiff’s mental state has been called into question, she’s been accused of extortion and pretty much all media outlets have written her off as unstable or, of course, vindictive, because ‘she really wanted it all along.’ Meanwhile, Roethlisberger has never been cast in any sort of negative light. He is too busy preparing for the upcoming season and how dare anyone try and distract him from working his job and living his life.

Let me be clear: I am not taking a side here. Like all people not directly involved with the case, I do not know all of the facts. And I have no stake in the outcome whatsoever. I am not writing off Roethlisberger as a rapist and the plaintiff a victim, and vice versa. What I’m pointing out here is the massive hole that comes part and parcel with both investigations of athlete rape cases and media accounts of these cases. As the lives of the accusers in these cases are dissected, deconstructed and judged (the judgment is almost unanimously: she’s crazy), the lives and mindsets of the athletes are not only not dissected, deconstructed and judged, they are always considered ideal. Roethlisberger is just “Big Ben,” the heart and soul of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Kobe Bryant is just a quiet family man who had a momentary lapse in judgment—hey, we all make those.

These idealizations are ironic when one considers the well-documented ego and hubris professional athletes. Ego is the one vital element never considered by fans in cases of athletes and rape. To people like Kobe Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger, they seriously doubt that a woman would ever say no to them. And if she did, she really didn’t mean it, right? She was just playing hard to get. Never once is an athlete’s potential for developing a pathological mental state due to meteoric rises in their fame, money earned and ego—their seeming endless set of means—mentioned or questioned. Never. Women would never say no to the advances of a star athlete, just as fans would never question the star athlete’s word.

The lesson here is that in cases of rape, what we must always call into question are our initial reactions. As cases involving athletes prove time and again, we all have serious biases when it comes to dealing with issues as unsettling as sexual assault. And so rather than deal with these issues, we just write them off in favor of the person we like best. We’ll simply side with the athlete we so know and love, scorching the reputation and credibility of any accuser who comes in the athlete’s path. Rape is no joke. And to treat it in such a flippant fashion is irresponsible and harmful. The moment biases like this creep up in your mind, stop yourself and ask simply, “What about the athlete’s state of mind; what about his credibility?” It’s that simple. More often than not, you know what you’ll realize? Despite your knowledge and passion as a fan, you really don’t know the athlete as a person at all, just as you don’t know the accuser. If we are going to demand that the Justices of our highest court approach each case without bias, shouldn’t we do the same?

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