If you were to get all of your news from the sports sections of newspapers and blogs, you’d be forgiven for thinking that sexual assault and rape are merely examples of naughty boys making risky decisions that could jeopardize their careers and cost them sponsorships. Now the last time I checked, the ability to throw a football or dunk a basketball doesn’t give a person carte blanche to perpetrate. But maybe I missed the memo.
Last week, a 20-year-old woman accused Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who’s 28, of sexually assaulting her in the bathroom of a college bar in Milledgeville, GA. The national sports media overwhelmingly has responded to this allegation—the second such leveled against Roethlisberger in less than a year—with one question: How can Big Ben, as they affectionately refer to him, overcome this latest hiccup?
I’d like to guide you quickly through the irresponsible reportage of this event and, in doing so, demonstrate how unapologetic if subtle victim blaming is among American sportswriters. The gold standard for journalistic integrity, this is not.
Lester Munson of ESPN queries, “Can Garland and his team of expert investigators put together enough evidence to show that the accuser was lying and confabulating when she told them that Roethlisberger attacked her?” It’s not enough for Munson to imply that the unnamed victim might be lying. No, the writer further states that she also could be confabulating, suggesting a psychological disorder that implicitly undermines her credibility and sheds light on Munson’s overriding loyalty to either the sport or the athlete. It’s important to note that, in the same article, Munson follows this loaded question by offering a strategy to beat the accusation, going so far as to to question the accuser’s sobriety before even mentioning the fact that, in July, another woman sued Roethlisberger for raping her in 2008. (The civil case surrounding the alleged rape is ongoing.)
Michael Silver, a blogger for Yahoo! Sports, titled a recent post, “Give Big Ben Benefit of the Doubt.” After chastising “the morality police [for] rushing to judgement,” Silver goes on to minimize past examples of Roethlisberger’s questionable choices as regular-guy behavior. “If going to a bar with your boys and cavorting with attractive women is inherently stupid,” Silver begins, “Then there are a lot of idiots happily getting ready for the weekend all over the free world right now… Shockingly, many of the NFL players you root for on Sundays are likely to end up chilling in the VIP area of a hotspot full of suggestively dressed women hours later.” My question for Silver is this: If you want to say that girls who dress slutty are asking for it, then just say it. But don’t try to minimize what might have happened as misunderstood flirting. There’s no grey area between sexual assault and spitting game, Mike.
Over at NFL FanHouse, an online site for all things football, a blog post titled “Roethlisberger ‘Is at Least Guilty of Stupidity’” by writer Terrence Moore calls Roethlisberger “dumb” and questions how he could “possibly put himself in a position to face another allegation of sexual assault within two years.” The phrasing of the question sets up the rest of Moore’s argument—positioning Roethlisberger as a victim of his own fortunate circumstance, a target for greedy women looking to cash in. Never does the writer acknowledge that two allegations leveled within the same year might mean that the Steelers hero could be a perpetrator. Not once. He just name calls, tossing around “stupid,” “reckless” and “silly” in the manner of a friend riding his buddy who defaults on his student loan and then wonders why banks won’t approve his mortgage application.
In Pittsburgh, Ron Cook of the Post-Gazette echoes the “poor judgement” chorus. Cook goes deeper (or shallower, depending on your view) in his analysis of Roethlisberger’s situation, unintentionally calling into play socialized gender roles. Silver paints Roethlisberger as a target, one who needs constantly to be on top of his surroundings, and states, “There’s always the change of running into a guy who, bolstered by alcohol, is willing to challenge his toughness. There’s also the chance of meeting a woman who is looking to capitalize financially on his fame.” So to sum up Silver’s point: Men fight, women scheme, and therefore poor Big Ben shouldn’t mix with the plebeians. Cook continues to comment on the shame this situation has brought to the Great and Mighty Steelers, as well as on the potential career backlash Roethlisberger could face. But never, as seems to be the custom with many sportswriters, does Cook offer any empathy for the potential victim.
In USA Today, writer Mike Lopresti spends a few paragraphs encouraging readers to consider Roethlisberger’s potential innocence and then offers the following caveat: “Before anyone rushes to judgment, here are three words to remember. Duke lacrosse team.” Sure, Mike, the accuser in the Duke case proved to be a drug addict and potential arsonist. But that doesn’t change the fact that some of the accused are, in fact, hate criminals. And it doesn’t change the fact that false reports of rape occur at the same rate as false reports of any other crime. Lopresti turns Roethlisberger into Johnny Depp, going on to call Roethlisberger a “swashbuckler” and “basically a decent guy” in the same article. He finishes his love letter to Big Ben with the following bit of advice: “You’re a pretty lucky man. Try not to blow it.” I’d like to add to that: “You’re a man. Don’t be a rapist.”
Howard Kurtz, a known apologist for sexist statements, in the Washington Post comments only on Roethlisberger’s poor judgment and ponderously submits, “As a hugely successful football star, Roethlisberger must have women hanging on him all the time. Why can’t he pursue his love life without getting sacked by these accusations? Is this another Kobe situation?”
Ah yes, Kobe Bryant. I wasn’t going to bring him up, but I’m glad you did, Howard. In 2003, Bryant was accused of raping a woman in Colorado. But the case never made it to trial, because his accuser, for her own reasons, decided she couldn’t testify. The result was that Bryant issued the following statement: “Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure. I also want to apologize to her parents and family members, and to my family and friends and supporters… Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual… I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.” Among the many problems with the outcome of this case—including the fact that Bryant remains one of the most celebrated athletes in his field while his potentially violent past has been relegated to a footnote on Wikipedia—is the fact that Bryant, a possible perpetrator, was able to use his national platform to promote the fallacy that rape and miscommunication are synonymous.
To be honest, I am not a fan of professional sports. But I am a fan of accountability and a fair and free media. In researching this post, I’ve grown really disheartened by the state of sports journalism in this country. An eighth-grade vocabulary is not a very good mask for violent misogyny. The writers to whom I’ve referred and countless others I couldn’t include in this post should be ashamed for allowing their own lack of talent to be co-opted by athletes who offer little to society other than the ability to throw a ball.