Please, by all means, let's keep talking about the catfight between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. It appears in danger of fading just two days into Wimbledon, and we can't have that. Here's hoping those British tabs relentlessly prod each player to talk nasty about the man in her opponent's life.
The tawdriness would be balanced by the fact that, as they embarassed themselves and rewrote the tired narrative of women hating other women, they would be discussing a topic they understand and hurt no one but themselves. Petty gossip seems very much inbounds compared to Williams' commentary on the Steubenville rape, which she eventually -- in her second attempt at an apology -- admitted to knowing very little about.
She should have had some idea that she had gone astray, since the murder of her half-sister 10 years ago prompted a hint of the victim-blaming that the Steubenville rape produced. Yetunde Price was shot to death in her SUV while riding past a house linked to gang and drug activity, with her boyfriend, a parolee, at the wheel. Initial reports indicated Price and the boyfriend might have been involved in an argument with people outside the suspicious house; that information was later contradicted.
Imagine if another prominent athlete had discussed the case by saying, as Rolling Stone quoted Williams on the Steubenville victim, "She shouldn't have put herself in that position." Such cruel comments did appear in the predictable places about Price, with equally predictable anonymity. "… she put herself in the line of fire. These young ladies need to be more careful who they choose to lay up with," a person named "Kelly" wrote on one online forum, referring to Price's choice of companions.
Part of Williams' first apology stressed her commitment to women's rights, because excuse-making for perpetrators of sex crimes tends to come across as un-sisterly. Her remarks were dissected by the women on "The View'' and, far more intelligently, by the posters and commenters at Jezebel.
At about the same time, Bloomberg News released a story about other high school athletes committing a sexual assault, this time in a Colorado town. It illuminated, more completely and disturbingly than any of the Williams-related commentary, the injustice that these victims endure even after their attacks. The Colorado victim didn't consume alcohol before the assault, didn't pass out and didn't express interest in one of the attackers beforehand. The enablers still went after him. They'll always find a way.
And yes, "him" is correct. The victim was a 13-year-old boy working as a wrestling team manager, and according to the story, three older boys cornered him on a bus after it had cleared out, "bound him with duct tape and sodomized him with a pencil."
His father, the school principal, reported the attack to police after the school board's superintendent opted for a light penalty. He was ultimately forced out of his job, and the family had to leave town to escape harassment, according to Bloomberg.
Students protested against the victim at school, put "Go to Hell" stickers on his locker and wore T-shirts that supported the perpetrators. … "Nobody would help us," said the victim's father.
The story went on to describe an increase in sexually abusive hazing rituals by boys' sports teams. In one case, an Illinois team allegedly sodomized players with sticks and their fingers with the support of their coach, who has been arrested on three misdemeanor charges.
These cases, including the one in Steubenville, all center on sadistic expressions of power and bonding through antisocial behavior. The worst enablers respect the perpetrators as winners, and see the victims as weak, unable to protect themselves and, if they speak out, as whiney threats to a competitive culture.
The girl in Ohio and the boy in Colorado were treated very similarly. Shortly after the guilty verdicts came down in Steubenville, two girls were arrested for threatening the victim. In Norwood, Colo., a mother of one of the accused allegedly paid to print up T-shirts supporting him and his cohorts. A waitress interviewed in the town told Bloomberg: "How you going to be tough if you don't get bullied sometimes?"
All of it sounds reminiscent of the rape case in Glen Ridge, N.J., where a group of football players assaulted a mentally impaired girl with a broomstick and a baseball bat. She was maligned as promiscuous. One athlete, who did not participate, was labeled a snitch after hearing about the rape and ultimately reporting it.
The Glen Ridge rape occurred 24 years ago, and the convictions came down almost 20 years to the day before the Steubenville verdict. It's tempting to say nothing has changed, but that's probably not true. If Bloomberg's research is accurate, the problem has expanded. The girl in Steubenville found justice fairly quickly, but only because her assailants performed for a camera.
Williams surely doesn't want to be one of the enablers, using her enormous influence to bully victims into silence. Since the Rolling Stone interview went public, she has contacted the Steubenville victim and her mother, whose family spokesman praised the tennis star for apologizing and for her interest in speaking out against rape.
We could parse her two apologies endlessly, the flaws of the first one clearly necessitating the second. We could demand to know what exactly she plans to do to speak out against rape, other than to make statements that protect her marketability as an athlete and preserve her image as a strong woman.
But, as the Bloomberg report shows, this issue requires a lot more than scrutinizing celebrities, and it is not even exclusively about women. It demeans the topic to keep discussing it through the prism of a tennis star.
If the thirst for women tearing down women must be satisfied, then let's fill up on the boyfriend gossip. It can all be found in the shallow end of this information pool. There isn't a deep end.