By Jessica Luther
It is all too common for sports media to find themselves reporting on sexual assault cases, most often when an athlete is alleged to be the perpetrator of the crime. While sexual assault is a problem throughout U.S. society -- nearly 20 percent of women will be assaulted in their lifetimes -- it often seems to garner the most attention when a sports star is involved.
You don't have to look far to find recent examples. On Monday night, news broke that three Oregon basketball players have been suspended from the team for their alleged participation in a gang rape of a student. There was a report last week that former Vanderbilt head coach (and current Penn State head coach) James Franklin might have contacted the victim of an alleged gang rape by several Vanderbilt players last summer within days of the assault. Chris Boyd, who pled guilty to helping cover up the Vanderbilt gang rape case, is in the upcoming NFL draft. Reds pitcher Alfredo Simon has been accused of rape. Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, is being investigated in connection with a sexual assault case, which his coach recently deemed a "witch-hunt scenario." Several weeks ago, Stacey May Fowles wrote a powerful piece about why the public should continue to note that Josh Lueke, a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, is a sex offender. Darren Sharper, a former NFL safety, is in jail right now and awaiting trial on multiple sexual assault cases across the U.S. Two football players from the University of New Mexico have been arrested in a sexual assault case. And the Jameis Winston case returned to the headlines with a blistering New York Times story outlining how the case was poorly investigated.
There are plenty of reasons why we often talk about sexual assault when it involves a sports star. Because of the money invested in high-profile players and their teams, people can feel a certain sense of ownership. Players are held in high esteem by fans -- or hated by fans of rival teams -- and their off-the-field behavior is, respectively, either a shock or evidence of what we already knew. Players in legal trouble often are not able to play, which affects the team. Many athletes are black -- especially in football, the most popular sport in America -- and the U.S. media and legal system both tend to focus on crimes in which the perpetrators are black. The result: We end up relying on sports journalists, a resoundingly male group, to talk about a crime whose victims are overwhelmingly women.
Victims of sexual assault are often painted as liars, opportunists, confused, vengeful or regretful after consensual sex. This view permeates much of our culture, including media, law enforcement and the legal system (only a mere handful of rapists ever serve jail time for their crime). Of course, there are people who falsely report -- but because women who report are so rarely believed, and their private sexual lives are often put on trial in the public sphere, those numbers are extremely small. Many women never report their assaults, and they may be made to feel that they're at fault for a crime committed against them. Because of this, sports journalists -- whether they like it or not -- have a responsibility to be fair in how they write about sexual assault cases.
To better navigate the often-murky waters of sexual assault cases, I spoke to four experts to see what advice they would give to a journalist who wants to write fairly about this topic. Really, this advice could apply to any cases of interpersonal violence or violence against women where sports stars are involved.
Treat Victims As Human Beings
"Women who are sexual assault victims need to be treated like human beings," says Dave Zirin, the Sports Editor at The Nation. Zirin writes extensively on the intersection of sports and culture; in early 2013, he wrote about sports and sexual assault in a piece titled "Notre Dame and Penn State: Two Rape Scandals, Only One Cry for Justice." Zirin adds that sports journalists need to "talk about [the problem of violence against women] and stop pretending like it isn't there." As well as not write pieces that respond to accusations of sexual assault by asking questions like, "don't you just stop caring whether our athletes…behave?"
Zirin says it's embarrassing how basic his advice is for other sports journalists -- but it's necessary, because there's an "assumption that many sports writers have that there is this line of women looking to trap athletes in sexual assault allegations…. [This] is not only untrue, but I think reflects more the fantasy of overwhelmingly male writers who write about sports as opposed to the reality. Unfortunately, the reality is far more that to be a big-time athlete is to live in a world of entitlement -- and for many big-time athletes, that entitlement extends into violence against women. And many members of the media, I would argue, enable that entitlement." Athletes are portrayed as "macho supergods," and potential victims are portrayed as opportunists. Zirin adds that reports need to "stop speaking about women -- who are brave enough to come forward and raise these issues -- as if there absolutely, positively must be an agenda that is rooted in … a financial motivation or trapping of an unsuspecting male superstar."
This idea that sexual assault or violence against women is not a serious problem bleeds into other sports reporting -- specifically how issues of violence against women rapidly leave the radar and are rarely questioned. "For example," Zirin says, "Jovan Belcher took his own life [after murdering his girlfriend] the month before the NFL playoffs, when Roger Goodell does his round of interviews -- and no one in the media asks him about the issue of violence against women." At worst, violence against women becomes a joke. For Zirin, this is a "little thing" with a big impact, because it maintains a silence around the issue that allows it to go unchecked.
There Is No Right Way For a Victim to Act After an Assault
Julie DiCaro, an attorney and the founder and CEO of Aerys Sports, warns journalists that you can never "assume that you know anyone," even if you have a relationship with them through years of reporting. She also says that people in the media need to stop speculating on whether a rape has taken place based on what the alleged victim does following the assault. "Don't assume that you know how a victim is going to act," DiCaro says. "Everybody reacts differently, and for some women, it takes time for them to understand, 'That's what happened to me.' For me, for weeks, days and months, I was like, 'I put myself in the situation. I was drinking. I left a party with the guy. Would you really call it rape?' It wasn't until much later that I was like, 'It was rape. I couldn't get him to stop. I was trying to push him off me. I kept telling him no. He did it anyway. That's rape.'" DiCaro wrote about being sexually assaulted this past December for Deadspin in a piece titled "Why I Believe Jameis Winston's Accuser."
Read the Police Report
From her experience as a lawyer, DiCaro says that journalists need to "get a copy of the police report and read it, if you can. That's where the police start building their case -- where you are going to start seeing evidence in the case." She also says that there needs to be a better understanding of "the threshold for indicting someone or finding someone guilty in criminal court." People say, DiCaro contends, "'Well, there's no witnesses; if you don't have pictures, it didn't happen.'" But that distorts the reality of what happens in a courtroom and what is asked of the juries by the legal system. She notes that the burden of proof in a criminal case is not that you must prove 100 percent that someone committed a crime. "The standard is 'beyond a reasonable doubt,'" she says. "Which means reasonable people would be, "Yeah, he did it.'"
Know the Facts About False Reporting
Melissa McEwan, founder and editor-in-chief of Shakesville, who has written hundreds of pieces about the impact of rape culture on our society, echoes DiCaro's point about journalists being more honest about how the criminal justice system works. McEwan says that an essential part of writing fairly about sexual assault cases is "familiarizing yourself with rape statistics, especially around false reporting." (Studies have found that the rate of false reports is likely between 2 and 8 percent.) Most specifically, she states that "the lack of a conviction is not the same thing as a false report," though the two are constantly conflated. In other words, in the court of public opinion, a failure to convict is often judged to be a sign of a false report. But as McEwan explains, "a lot of sexual violence and domestic violence does not ever get reported. And [a lot of] the incidents that do get reported … do not result in any kind of charges, and even fewer in prosecution, and even fewer in conviction. Of the many, many, many cases of sexual violence and domestic violence, very few of them result in convictions."
Dr. David J. Leonard, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University, cautions about assumptions in either direction: "Don't mistake a lack of a trial or conviction as exoneration." He points out that the criminal justice system can be "plagued by misogyny, sexism, racism and countless other ideologies that are antithetical to justice and discussion of justice, fairness and combating issues of domestic violence." He goes on, "At the same time, don't take an arrest or an accusation as a conviction."
Beyond statistics of false reporting, McEwan says that for someone to write responsibly on the topic of sexual assault, they must "familiarize themselves with rape culture narratives to ensure that they are not upholding them." In 2009, McEwan wrote "Rape Culture 101," which is one of the best pieces explaining these narratives in detail. "If you are familiar with them," she says, "then you can avoid the pitfall [of using them] in the first place."
Understand the Personal Costs Of Reporting
McEwan also implores journalists to be empathetic when imagining what it is like for sexual assault victims to report a crime in a hostile climate -- especially when the accused is a prominent person. She argues that it's "not just the legal hoops, but also the emotional calculations that people make when they are reporting sexual violence." Not only is your body scrutinized, but so is your sexual past. Every action made by an alleged sexual assault victim -- both before and after the assault -- is put under a microscope and picked apart. They are often vilified, and they go through all of this with a very low chance for conviction. "If people really understand what the personal costs of reporting sexual violence really are," McEwan says, "they would be less likely to make implications, or outright say someone is a gold digger, or say someone is doing it for fame and fortune -- that someone is doing it to just punish someone. If you really understand the personal costs, you are not inclined to make that judgment."
Avoid the Sensational
Leonard often writes about the intersection of sports and race. He is the author of After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness and co-editor of Criminalized and Commodified: New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports. Following the murder-suicide of Jovan Belcher, he published a piece at The Feminist Wire titled, "Kasandra Michelle Perkins: We Must Say Her Name," in which he noted that most media coverage focused on Belcher, the Chiefs and football culture -- but overlooked the victim. When sports, race and gender overlap in reporting on sexual assault, Leonard notes, "There is a tendency to chronicle each incident, each report, in sensationalistic terms that play on stereotypes of athletes, particularly black athletes." Instead, we must provide each story with its appropriate context.
As Leonard suggests, failure to treat each story with the care it deserves means that journalists "contribute to stereotypes and a flattened understanding of the violence…it erases the victims, it erases the culture of violence, and it erases the daily harm."
Sports journalists, therefore, need to be more aware of the assumptions that cloud how people think about sexual assault victims and, in turn, how they write about these cases. We must understand statistics on false reporting, be empathetic about the costs of reporting this crime, and, for the sake of both the victim and the accused, avoid sensationalizing a story that has an impact on real people's lives. How the sports media talks about sexual assault has an impact on society at large, because so much of the national discussion on this issue happens in this arena. And journalists can use those moments to be helpful, rather than harmful.
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Jessica Luther is a writer and journalist who lives in Austin, Texas. Her writing on sports has appeared at the Guardian, the Atlantic, Salon, Think Progress, RH Reality Check and in The Texas Observer. Her site and podcast about sports and culture is Power Forward.