About a week ago, I got an email from my dad with the subject line ‘you called this one early.’ The email contained a link to an ESPN article detailing how Jameis Winston, quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had grabbed the crotch of his female Uber driver while stopped at a drive through. Winston continues to deny the allegations.
It was the first time I was not pleased to have proved my dad wrong about something—but I had called this one. Winston, while playing college football for Florida State University, allegedly raped a fellow student. Three years later, Florida State settled with the woman for $950,000, amid numerous reports of police misconduct. CNN released a documentary called The Hunting Ground (despite threats by Winston’s lawyer), alleging that the Tallahassee Police Department had intentionally covered up Winston’s conduct to allow him to continue playing football. Winston went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 2013, lead his team to a National Championship in 2014, and be the first overall draft pick in 2015.
The message sent by the response to Winston was both clear and well-established: if you are good enough at sports, you can get around the law. Winston’s case joined a long line of similar instances, where sexual assault and sexual misconduct by athletes is pushed aside so they can remain in their sport.
Brock Turner is the most obvious example: the Stanford swimmer served only three months after sexual assaulting an unconscious woman after a party. Many of the defenders of Turner’s brief sentence focused on the impact a longer punishment might have on his swimming career. But Turner’s situation is not alone. Oregon State baseball player Luke Heimlich pleaded guilty to sexually molesting a six-year-old as a teenager. Although he went undrafted after the story broke, Heimlich will likely be able to return to the team this season. Jon Krakauer’s 2015 book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town describes the backlash against women who accused football players of rape and sexual assault, as well as how frequently these cases are dismissed; reports about former Baylor head coach covering up sexual assault allegations against his players followed in a similar vein. This attitude towards victims of sexual assault by athletes goes back all the way to 2003, when Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant was accused of rape by a 19-year-old concierge at his hotel. The media portrayed Bryant’s victim as fame-hungry and manipulative; despite bruises around her neck, tears in her vaginal wall, and blood on both her underwear and Bryant’s shirt, the sex was declared to be consensual.
The recent responses to sexual assault and harassment allegations against prominent male media figures have been a shift, and a good start. Refusing money from Harvey Weinstein, firing Bill O’Reilly and Charlie Rose, and calling for Roy Moore to step out of the Senate race prove that, at least in some instances, fame and status will not excuse inappropriate and illegal conduct. But the way we treat athletes also needs to change.
Athleticism is frequently seen as the ultimate display of masculinity. Male athletes gain celebrity status because of their power, strength, and dominance in an athletic field—all stereotypically masculine traits. Ignoring sexual assault allegations against athletes does more than silence women who have been wronged but refuse to speak out, fearing the mudslinging and onslaught of attacks we throw at female accusers. Ignoring sexual assault by athletes also sends a message to men and boys: if you are talented enough, athletic enough, dominant enough—in short, if you are “man enough”—your conduct will be excused. Because, after all, boys will be boys.
Professional and college athletes are often the first role models boys and young men have, outside of their families. Ignoring accusations against male athletes teaches these boys that your athletic talent gives you free reign to treat women like objects, like property, like something to which you are entitled. We excuse athletes—not politicians, newscasters, directors, comedians—and we tell the men that masculine talent will protect you, that athletic ability can lift you above the law.
This also sends a message to women: if your attacker is an athlete, tough luck. If your attacker has enough athletic ability, if they are man enough, we do not want to listen to you. We do not want to hear your story. We do not care. We are content to sit back, to let cover-ups and media and unethical investigations do their part, to shield our eyes and pretend we do not see because we do not want to know. We tell women that the identity of their abuser can outweigh their experience, that their trauma is mitigated because of their attacker’s free throw percentage or ERA. We say that because “boys will be boys,” girls must be objects. And then we turn a blind eye, turn the volume back up on SportsCenter, and forget.