The Difficult Truth of Athletics and Sexual Assault

Courtesy: Mona Shafer Edwards

Athletes are some of the most influential figures across the world, serving as heroes and providing endless inspiration for many. So when we learn that our heroes are capable of horrible acts it’s difficult to accept. In most cases, involving athletes with crimes of sexual and domestic assault fans own an option to just never accept it. 

We live in a society where the reputations of our heroes are more vital than justice for those they harm. Any party involved, aside from the victim, wants imputations of rape and assault swept under the rug and for us regular folks to never know about it. Thankfully, social media provides an outlet for us to become aware of these heinous happenings and forces action and attention onto those committing the crime. 

However, there will always be an easy out for the defendant in these cases: the notion of victim blaming. Leigh Gilmore’s book “Tainted Witness” exposes how the court of law means to portray these female accusers as greedy, attention seeking and out for vengeance, when in reality this is a simple strategy of manipulation. 

“Victim blaming seeks to degrade individual women’s capacity to receive sympathy, understanding and justice by shifting focus and responsibility away from perpetrators and onto the victims,” writes Gilmore. “Asking of women ‘what did you do to deserve this?’ falsely represents a woman’s vulnerability to harm as willful choice or risk-taking behavior.” 

Given this notion, there are plenty of cases of fable in these sorts of accusations. I myself have been in a relationship where my partner began spreading lies that I abused and assaulted her, and the reactions were devastating. There are plenty of innocent men in jail cells over false rape accusations, it is a side of this spectrum that we cannot ignore. 

What we cannot allow is acting like the women are constantly lying, these instances are too sensitive and all circumstantial. Evil comes in many forms however there are blanketed cases such as Lizzy Seeberg. In 2011 this St. Mary’s college student was raped by a Notre Dame football player. Lizzy went to the police to report the crime, and a friend of the player sent her a series of texts saying “Don’t do anything you would regret, messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea,” according to the Washington Post.

Ten days after reporting the attack to campus police, Seeberg committed suicide. Investigators never interviewed the accused player until five days after her death, yet they were relentless in investigating Lizzy herself, going as far to debrief a former roommate at another school. Her close friend that inevitably found her was reportedly too afraid to even tell anyone, after witnessing what the university was putting Seeberg through in those ten days. The player was never convicted and never sat out a game.

Thankfully the media has done its part in exposing, and in some cases reminding us, that this is something that is just allowed to happen, that priority number one with these crimes is not to seek justice but to prevent exposure of it’s happening. Because of this, those with appellate power bring war to these victims, excused by the notion that these situations are too catastrophic for the legacies of these celebrities and the organizations. But is it really?

Two well-respected and well-recognized figures in the game of basketball, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Michigan State head basketball coach Tom Izzo, are guilty of covering up harassment and assault in their organizations. An investigative report done by Sports Illustrated revealed an ongoing-series of workplace misogyny in the Mavericks organization. Then team President & CEO Terdema Ussery was exposed getting in elevators with female staff and uttering claims such as “You’re going to get gang-banged, you’re definitely going to get gang-banged this weekend.” 

The team’s beat-writer at the time pleaded guilty to eventually dropped charges of beating his girlfriend to a pulp, never faced punishment from the team, dated a female colleague years later and eventually assaulted her as well, to which he still continued working for the team after. These were far from the only examples, with former employees labeling it “a real life Animal House” and having to accept that men in the organization were given the leeway to do whatever they pleased to these women.

Michigan State athletics are now notorious in this regard because of Larry Nassar, but he was far from the only spot of filth in the school’s athletic department. Tom Izzo, who has won championships and is a deity of that campus, in 2011 was made well aware of a staff assistant named Travis Walton belligerently assaulting his partner numerous times and two of his players raping a freshman at her orientation. Nobody was executed from the program and both of those players, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling, spent time in the NBA before the Detroit Free Press exposed them.

The final point I want to make in terms of damaged reputation is a tale of the friendship between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson, who grew a great bond after Jackson got Kobe’s number and reached out to him after being drafted. Both would face sexual abuse allegations around the same time in the early 2000’s and we have believable evidence that both were likely innocent. This didn’t change that the public perception of both was destroyed, and the world saw the King of Pop go off the deep end as a result. Kobe on the other hand, took the hate he knew he’d inevitably receive and became the Mamba. He embraced being hated, dedicated himself to self-improvement and became a cultural hero off the court and a true advocate for women’s athletics. 

If you take away anything from this, simply be aware that this is a legitimate issue in the world of sports and culture and the fact that these organizations will go to no end to make sure you’re oblivious to it should feel like a slap in the face. Treat every instance of this kind as its own case, and don’t let anything aside from your interpretation of the occurrence affect your thoughts on it. There are too many women falling helpless to the power of men because they are convinced that the truth will do nothing for them. We cannot tolerate domestic and sexual assault being treated as anything other than a purely inhumane crime suitably punishable by life in a box. 



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