The Philadelphia Daily News published a story on Thursday that described the ramifications of a rape charge on a young Flyers prospect. The arrival of that information can only be described as fashionably late. It surfaced in the 14th paragraph, when the young man's exclusion from international events was speculatively tied to his August arrest, along with two teammates, for having intercourse with an unwilling woman.
The story borrowed its structure from so many others like it, stressing not the criminal accusation, but the player's recovery from it. Each sentence built on a theme of redemption, measured by the shoddiest of yardsticks: He led the Ontario Hockey League in scoring.
The writer referred to the incident as an "embarrassment" for the player, Nick Cousins, and his employers. Flyers director of player development Ian Laperriere chimed in with some paternal commentary:
He's got a good heart . . . Let's be honest, stuff like that has been happening forever. You can't get away with anything now. He can't put himself in those situations. He's been in trouble with this stuff, but hopefully that's all going to go away. Part of my job is telling him that he needs to learn from that. You need to be careful what you're doing.
Turns out, one of the things you can't get away with now is an accurate depiction of how professional sports franchises view sexual-assault charges. Online disgust culminated in this remark from Deadspin's Barry Petchesky: "This whole article should never have been written."
As gratifying as the backlash was, this story had unmistakable, if unintentional, merit. It suggested that the charges had cost the player some professional rewards and that they meant something to the Flyers. It demonstrated an executive's rooting interest in a criminal case ("hopefully, that's all going to go away"). Above all, the story illuminated the charges as that great sports demon, the distraction.
Prosecutors and the accuser can take heart from the knowledge that they provided this third-round draft pick with the proverbial wake-up call -- though mercifully, the story omitted that phrase. Left unchecked, the lack of discipline reflected in this "incident" might have prevented Cousins from ever being more than "a talented but mouthy diva.''
And what could be worse?
We can speculate that the woman who accused Cousins and his teammates is not living up to her professional potential at the moment, but how can we know for sure? She is doubly anonymous. Her name has been withheld ostensibly for her own good, and even if we knew her identity, we'd still see her as only the foil for a young professional athlete.
The tone of the Daily News story hit that mark perfectly. Some minor edits would have better disguised the woman's irrelevance to an audience, without changing it a bit.
She doesn't matter. Her effect on the player does.
There is no other substantive way to frame these issues, at least not until we devote entire newspaper sections and websites to covering sexual-assault cases. Advanced metrics for prosecutors, anyone?
Covering these cases, even alluding to them, produces profound vertigo. They are dropped more often than not. How often did the accuser recant or get caught in a lie, and how often did the necessary evidence prove illusory? No one knows.
We're free to interpret the women in unresolved cases as a) predators hoping for a payoff, b) victims of nothing more than speedy rejection after a casual encounter with a pro athlete or c) true victims who lack strong evidence and/or the resources to take on someone famous or almost-famous. There may be a whole alphabet of other options, but those three blanket the general spectrum.
Over the last couple of decades, as these cases became more common or more commonly publicized, the sports machinery wove vague language of disapproval.
Laperriere used a variation on the go-to expression: "He should not have put himself in that situation."
It's a multipurpose phrase with minimal meaning. What was the situation? The sex itself? The choice of partner? The amount of alcohol consumed before making that choice? The failure to get a signed consent form? The failure to recognize that the future accuser was inebriated and incapable of consent?
Or was the situation just a trip to a nightclub that led to a false accusation and, absent any other wrongdoing, embarrassed a sports franchise and therefore had to be addressed with exactly the same phrasing that would be applied to a player who got away with a crime?
I covered, or tried to cover, a case of attempted rape against an athlete years ago, and hit information roadblocks and ethical obstacles that ultimately prevented me from writing a story. I was very young and inexperienced at the time, and a more mature reporter might have done better. But my editors agreed that the information we collected amounted to large swaths of gray that would not translate fairly or honestly into the black and white of a newspaper.
I don't remember every detail or even every name. The case was dropped, and my notes are long gone. But I do remember visiting the judge assigned to the case, which involved a basketball recruit at a major college. The player was accused of trying to rape a female student on his recruiting trip. The judge's office was filled with the team colors and memorabilia. The mat at his door paid tribute to the team.
Rather amiably, as if he were a professor talking to a favorite student, he explained to me that sometimes girls make these accusations because they changed their minds after an encounter or because their fathers found out about sexual activity and insisted that force had to be involved.
I wish I could take a mulligan on that part of the story, quoting the judge and describing his chambers, then getting response from the girl's lawyer. Still, in print, it might have come across as badly as the Daily News piece, an attempt to minimize the accusations and defend a player with a fairly high profile.
After all, I wouldn't have been reporting the story at all if an average high school student had been charged. These stories begin with the players, not with the crime.
I'd like to think we've progressed since Seton Hall recruited, then -- under pressure -- rejected Richie Parker, a player who had pleaded guilty to an act of sexual abuse at his high school. When other schools tried to recruit him and ran into resistance from the public, the coaches often tried to portray him as a victim. One assistant, Donny Daniels of Utah, told the New York Post:
They both made a mistake; they shouldn't have been there. But everyone's worried about the girl. What about him? ... You don't see her name or picture, but Richie Parker is plastered all over. ... She probably will get a doctorate and marry a successful guy and live in the Hamptons. ... Will he ever be able to forget it? ... Who's hurt more for life?
In 2006, 11 years later, Joe Paterno was asked about a sexual-assault charge leveled against a linebacker, A.J. Nicholson, from Penn State's bowl opponent, Florida State. "There's so many people gravitating to these kids," said Paterno. "He may not have even known what he was getting into, Nicholson. They knock on the door; somebody may knock on the door; a cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do?"
These examples are little pieces in a pattern, one that doesn't change easily. Paterno said he was quoted out of context. Daniels eventually said he regretted his comments about Parker. The Flyers' Laperriere came forward quickly Thursday and said his remarks had been misconstrued.
"I would never say that rape happens all the time and that you can get away with it," he told the blog Broad Street Hockey. "Maybe my English got in the way. What I meant was kids putting themselves in a wrong position, a vulnerable position. Now with the money they make and the phones and the Internet, you can't put yourself in that position."
The best part of the quote was the final segment -- "I'm rattled now."
At last, he said something sensible. His mistake had been conflating all the ways a young prospect can derail his career with a rape charge. He made the mistake because he stayed inside the context of the story, which was the player's status. That's always the story.