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Sportswriters: Don’t Let The Facts Get in the Way of Your Victim Blaming

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.

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Posted by Tommy

Tommy formerly served as a volunteer with BARCC's Community Awareness and Prevention Services program. He has cotaught a course on sexual violence prevention at a local charter school. A former newspaper critic, he now focuses on playwriting and blogging.


  1. Food for thought:

    Why is it so easy for people to question whether a rape victim is lying? Or to blame her for being assaulted?

    I think it's because we want to believe that we (and our wives, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, daughters, etc) can control our own safety and that only women who make the "mistake" of drinking, flirting, etc (or even wearing a suggestive pin as included in the police report Java mentions) are victimized. However, when someone is raped, there is only one person who is at fault: the perpetrator. And I would hope that we all know that no amount of flirtation or provocative dress is a substitute for consent.

    Secondly, why are some people so hesitant to see "Big Ben" as a perpetrator of sexual violence?

    I think it's because it's easier to think that only monsters are rapists, whether because that idea makes people feel safer or allows people to justify our own previous questionable behavior. Sadly, as you'll see in the post Shira linked to, rapists don't fit into this profile of a scary, imposing-looking assailant.

    I commend Tommy on his wonderful post and for starting discussion.

  2. Excellent post, well said. Thank you!

  3. Obviously, no one has read the actual reports. I was against him with the media reports, but read the record and you will be much more informed on what did and did not happen at that bar.

  4. Thomas Macaulay Miller has an excellent post here:

    Regarding how closely the evidence in Roethlisberger's cases maps to established research on the predatory behaviors of serial rapists. Highly recommended reading!

  5. Additionally to James Gunn:

    I found your claim about the 5-year old girl rape dismissal outrageous so I had to do some research to see if such a thing could really occur. Here's what I found: Judge William Reinecke (not Orton) did not dismiss a rape case of a 5-year old girl. There was no rape and the accused (the boyfriend of the girls mother) was found guilty by a 12-person jury of sexual assault. Judge Reinecke made comments years after the trial that the girl may have been "sexually promiscuous" (he later said he should have said "sexually curious") because she may have seen her mother and her boyfriend having "sexual contact". The judge never "blamed" the girl for what happened to her, never dismissed any charges and instructed the jury before their deliberations that the girl was too young to give consent.

  6. To Chad: While the article never states "100% accurate", I believe the tone in the writing implies that assumption. That, admittedly, is an assumption of my own. Sadly, you're right, sexual assault victims are often victimized further in the court system by being blamed for the incident, but that is nothing new, like you said. It doesn't make it right, but there is no revelation there.

    To Shira: While the % of false reports may be low, it does show that it does happen. This case could be one of the 1.6% or one of the 98.4%. My point is only that no one really knows with the evidence presented thus far.

    To James Gunn: another reason a woman might "back down" after making a rape claim is that the emotional stress of dealing with the public scrutiny on top of already dealing with the immense emotional trauma of having been raped might just be too much for her. Have you considered that?

  7. Great post, Tommy.

    Here are some interesting impromptu (and anecdotal) evidence of media bias from a few google news queries:

    Search Term : Results

    "Roethlisberger" : 5,379 hits

    "Roethlisberger + assault" : 2,793

    "Roethlisberger + sexual assault" : 2,662

    "Roethlisberger + raped" : 657

    "Roethlisberger + accuser" : 888

    "Roethlisberger + victim" : 524

    "Roethlisberger + survivor" : 3 (all irrelevant)

    "Roethlisberger + attack" : 51

    "Roethlisberger + rapist" : 18

    "Roethlisberger + prison" : 155

    "Roethlisberger + jail" : 215

    "Roethlisberger + 'serial rapist'" : 1

  8. A few points of consideration for those who seem to take issue with Tommy's tone and the bias they see running throughout this article

  9. Tommy - As much as I'm with you that rape and victim's rights must be taken seriously, I agree with some o the other cooments here that this post does a bit of a diservice.
    I've some of Michael Silver's work inthe past, and found him to be fairly reasonable, so I went and read his story.
    What I read was that his point was with some of the media that crucify such public figures without due process haven taken place, not to excuse such behavior. In fact, the next line after the quote you used was - "None of this is meant to in any way to trivialize the specter of sexual assault or to minimize what is at stake. If Roethlisberger is found guilty of such a crime, I

  10. ESPN thinks he is basically a "decent guy". Decent guys don't ply underage women with alcohol in order to take advantage of them. What are they thinking??

    I hope this guy gets help or we will have a serial rapist to deal with later. This kind of behavior doesn't just go away, it escalates.

  11. I found this to be quite thought provoking. The writer alluded to a trend in media coverage and had space constraints to consider. In Wisconsin's Grant County late 1970's, Judge Orton blamed a five year old for her own rape saying she acted & dressed provocatively.He basically claimed her family had no morals to begin with and dismissed the case, this decision caused a big stink but he was reelected anyway because they have a good old boy system down there. So I believe in a cultural bias to blame the victim first. I also believe that she should stand up for her rights and not back down if she is right. If she backs down then she is either unsure or lying, or she is gutless and setting somebody else up for another rape or worse, (violence always escalates. You can't put the cat back in the bag, so if your gonna pick a card you better play. Clich

  12. In a world full of 15 minute royalty, there's always a pile of people who are ready to hang one of the privileged, under the mantra of 'where there's smoke there's fire.' And then another pile who are more than willing to bend over backwards for the royalty to get a fair shake, considerations that are never extended to the peasantry.

    On this idolization of sports icons, I'm sure the nauseous feeling in me is equal to your own.

    However, as you condemn the sports writers, you're sitting on a hill in a big glass house yourself. Where is the presumption of innocence in your piece, in which from the outset you refer to the 'victim' in a fashion that takes it for granted that there is indeed a victim?

    I'm sorry, but I can't see your evident contempt for the accused as being anything less than the flip side of the very coin you are criticizing.

  13. Steve R.:

    Just want to touch briefly on the "may be lying" comment.

    Quoting from the St. John's Law Review (Hecht-Schafran, L. (1993)):
    "When the Portland, Oregon police department examined the 431 complaints of completed or attempted sexual assault in 1990, 1.6% were determined to be false. This was in comparison with a rate of 2.6% for false reports of stolen vehicles."

    Essentially, false reports of rape are on par with false reports of murder and other violent crimes. The "lying" mindset stems from a culture that doesn't want to talk about or deal with the realities of rape and sexual assault; the culture is very invested in treating rape as a misunderstanding or a flaw in communication rather than as a premeditated violent crime, which it almost always is. Good article here:

  14. Steve R,
    Where in the article does Tommy say the alleged victim was 100% accurate?
    What I do agree with you is this; how much better is this article than the others? We're given a snippet of someone's writing and then we hear what Tommy thinks they were saying.
    I do think this article is on to something though. How many VICTIMS are viewed as the GUILTY party in cases involving high-profile individuals?

  15. Tommy, you call this article responsible journalism?

  16. I disagree about this being a "nice article". The article assumes the ALLEGED victim's account is 100% accurate. That indeed MAY be the case, but neither the writer of this article nor anyone else commenting knows for sure. Not one of the writers criticized is assuming the guilt or innocence of Roethlisberger, unlike the writer of this article. The women making these accusations may indeed be true victims. They also may indeed be lying (sadly, it DOES happen sometimes). We just don't know for sure. None of us, at this point, should jump to conclusions either way.

  17. Great article. Nice to read reality. I don't understand why her account of what happened is thrown out because she had been drinking. A woman has too much to drink and she automatically gives up her right to feel safe and secure in this country. Give me a break. The two clown off duty officers that were with Roethlisberger should be ashamed to call themselves law officers. I hope they sleep well at night. Thanks again for the article.

  18. Thank you so much for this article. I know people who read the police reports and initial response was "she shouldn't have been in the bar." or "where were her friends." It seems so easily in our culture, especially when celebrity or sports players are involved, to quetsion the victim's motives and actions. This piece made me feel comfort that some people are seeing this case and the reports for what they truely are.

  19. You're right, but poor decision to include Lester Munson. As a legal analyst, he's only commenting on the argument the defense must make to support their client, not his personal opinion or perspective on the matter. Sadly, there are plenty of other examples supporting your argument, but including Lester is inaccurate.

  20. Tommy,
    This is probably the best thing I've read on rape in the media in a long time. As disheartening as the classic "what was she doing" victim blaming we see in the media is, it is that "let's get behind our boys" lack of accountability (that goes hand in hand) that has the ability to totally knock me off my feet. Sexism (and fame-ism) doesn't even have to attempt subtlety. Thank you for putting this together.

  21. As I was channel surfing, I caught a brief snippet on ESPN on "How Sports Stars Threaten Their Endorsement Deals By Acting Stupid", and they were comparing Roethlisberger to Tiger Woods.

    Strictly speaking, the comparison could have been valid, given the topic. But at no time did they distinguish between sleazy but consensual behavior on Woods's part and the outright criminal behavior on Roethlisberger's part.

    I do not expect Pittsburgh football fans to jeer their own quarterback this coming football season, but if he isn't brought to trial, I want every away game he plays to shower him with signs and chants of "RAPIST".

  22. Thank you. Thank you so much for this. So much.

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