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Who We Talk About When Athletes Are Accused of Sexual Assault

Every time the sports media centers athletes in discussions of sexual assault, we move one step further from interrogating the system that guarantees more sexual assault.
Photo by Tallahassee Democrat/USA TODAY Sports

Last week saw the latest high-profile college football sexual assault case come and go. On Monday, the University of Florida's freshman quarterback, Treon Harris, was under investigation by the UFPD for allegedly sexually assaulting a female student. He was immediately placed on an indefinite suspension from the team and barred from the school's campus.

But within hours of the suspension, a local college reporter was tweeting damning rumors about the alleged victim using an anonymous source. On Thursday, Harris' lawyer, Huntley Johnson, released a letter detailing Harris' side of the story, in which Johnson called the alleged victim a "sexual aggressor" and chronicled her supposed interaction with Harris leading up to the incident in question. On Friday, the victim dropped her complaint (which tells us nothing about the case at hand, Harris' innocence or guilt, or what the truth is in this particular case). And by Sunday, Bleacher Report was asking "Can Treon Harris Save Will Muschamp's Job?" while wrote that Harris is "looking to move on."


Read More: The NFL's Domestic Violence Problem and Our Race Problem

So it goes. When cases like this—athletes accused of committing violent crimes against women—come to their legal end, we hear a lot about the need to move on, and a lot of speculation about what the case will mean for the player, his team, his school, his league. For example, hours after Florida State Attorney Willie Meggs announced that he would not be pressing charges against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston last December, Gregg Doyel, a national columnist with CBS Sports, posted a piece titled, "After state declined chance to judge Winston, time for us to follow suit." Doyel opened the piece with these bold, unequivocal statements:

"The state of Florida did its job in the Jameis Winston case. Interviewed the victim, tested DNA, talked to witnesses. The state of Florida did its job and concluded that it doesn't have enough to charge the Florida State quarterback with rape. Now it's our turn to do our job — and respect that decision."

It's a good guess that when Doyel wrote "our job" was now to move on and "respect that decision," he was probably directing his remarks to journalists and media pundits, though possibly the public at large.

Photo by Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

The Winston case is relevant here because it's easily the biggest college football sexual assault case in years (though it is, in no way, the only one) and it remains an ongoing case. It is ongoing despite the fact that Meggs' announced no charges, in large part, because Walt Bogdanich of the New York Times has continued to pursue it and didn't heed Doyel's request. On April 16, 2014, Bogdanich penned a long, damning piece about the poor job the state of Florida did when it came to interviewing the victim and talking to witnesses. Then, just this past Sunday, Bogdanich and Mike McIntire published a deep dive into the tangled and alarming relationship between the Tallahassee Police Department and the FSU football program. It's the kind of reporting that could, maybe, force accountability and lead to changes that actually have to do with obtaining justice rather than propping up a sport.


The fundamental difference between the "let's just move on" camp and the camp led by reporters like the ones at the Times is who is centered in each story. One focuses on the athlete, the other focuses on the victim. Consider Doyel's piece on Winston, or the endless articles about Ray Rice that were written in the months leading up to the release of the video of him committing domestic violence, or those that chronicled in detail Roethlisberger's return to the field following allegations of sexual assault against him and the announcement of his suspension, or any that waxed poetically about how the Kansas City Chiefs pulled through following the murder/suicide by Jovan Belcher: What we see at the center of these stories is the athlete or his team.

The alleged victims, meanwhile, are ignored, their names almost never spoken unless it is to shame them. And almost nothing gets written about the larger systemic powers that enable and coddle this destructive behavior. This is such an acute problem that following Belcher's murder of his girlfriend and subsequent suicide, David J. Leonard wrote a piece titled, "Kasandra Michelle Perkins: We Must Say Her Name."

Meanwhile, Sayreville War Memorial High School's football program has had its season canceled as a result of an investigation revealing horrible hazing practices that include sexual assault. Zach Schonburn's report for the Times is primarily concerned with how this cancellation of the season will affect the players trying to secure university scholarships. It is as if there is only space to tell one story. And that means no space to discuss the people who are at fault for creating the atmosphere under which such behavior goes unchecked, and no space for the alleged victims of the behavior fostered in that space.


At its most basic level, sports media has pundits so that they can analyze players and teams, make predictions about upcoming games, and explain the sport to a lay audience. In this context, the desire of sports media to quickly move back to sports after these cases fold is understandable. That, after all, is where most sports media is most comfortable.

But Bogdanich and McIntire's work shows that when we de-center the athlete, we find that these stories— while they might appear to be about individual players—are, in fact, about larger issues of justice and accountability, and power within communities. We live in a society that has a plethora of systemic issues that surround these cases. Race matters when we discuss this topic because of the long, horrible history of false allegations of sexual assault against black men used to punish those men for their skin color. That coupled with the over-representation of black men in college football and the NFL, and the criminalization of black men in general means we must always take race into account we tackle sexual assault in sports.

Consent, the central legal concept around which these cases are built, is so vastly misunderstood that it has become a source of constant confusion. One of the witnesses, a high school football player, who took the stand in the Steubenville trial (a trial that ended in the conviction of two other high school players for sexual assault), when asked why he didn't try to stop what was happening, said "It wasn't violent. I didn't know what rape was. I pictured it as forcing yourself on someone." We can forgive his confusion, considering the FBI has only recently figured out that men can be victims of rape and we, as a society, are still having arguments over "legitimate" rape.


At the same time, we, as a society, "dramatically overestimate the percentage of sexual assault reports that are false," though we often operate under the assumption that the alleged victim is lying or we are admonished to assume the possibility of her deception for the sake of "fairness." The best estimates on false reporting for sexual assault put it at two to eight percent of all cases. Still, sexual assault is a notoriously difficult crime to quantify. Few victims feel safe enough or trusting enough of the criminal justice system to report sexual assault (and no wonder). This fear is the result of how seriously, or unseriously, the crime is handled by the police and criminal justice system. According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, only 40 out of every 100 rapes are reported. Only a quarter of those reported cases lead to an arrest. Overall, 8 percent of rapes make it to trial and, in the end, 3 percent of rapists serve jail time.

Yet, there is space to talk about victims compassionately and that space also exists in sports media. On September 30, CBS Sports Network debuted We Need To Talk, a horribly-named show with a stellar premise: allow a diverse, women-only cast to talk about sports for an hour on a weekly basis. They opened the show by addressing what was then the biggest ongoing sports story: multiple NFL players accused or arrested for domestic violence, including former Ravens running back Ray Rice and Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, among others. About 20 minutes in, veteran sports journalist Dana Jacobson led a discussion on what all of this coverage means to victims of domestic violence, which was a rare consideration among the countless hours devoted to the topic across sports media in the previous month. Sitting on the couch with Jacobson were Lisa Leslie and Swin Cash, former WNBA stars and Olympic medalists, and Dara Torres, an Olympic swimming champion. All three of these women announced that they had been either physically or emotionally abused in past relationships. Here's the hard truth about all of this: if you get a few women in a room, the odds are high that among them will be a victim of violence at the hands of a partner and/or a victim of sexual assault.

The discussion was intense. Swin Cash talked about dealing with her own violence privately and she wondered aloud about Janay Rice and the impact of the coverage on her life. Leslie challenged that all women should up and leave the first time violence happens in their relationship, but Cash countered, noting that much of the abuse is psychological. That prompted Torres to explain that it took her a long time to realize that she had been in an abusive relationship because it was emotional, not physical. Finally, Cash just went in on the powers that be, saying "Not just the players—the owners, administrators, agents… everyone that is making money off of the NFL needs to be held accountable for domestic violence. If they start there, everyone else will fall in line because they have that much power." Such words spoken by a survivor in a conversation about victims, as opposed to the usual one focused on perpetrators, made for a powerful and important moment in what had been a rather homogenous discussion within sports media.


Treon Harris will, undoubtedly, move on. But that doesn't mean the questions are all answered. If Harris is no longer the center of this story, we might instead ask: What do we know about how the University of Florida treats sexual assault victims? How does racism function in Gainesville, a city in the center of a state where Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis were both murdered? What relationship does the UF athletic department have with the UFPD, if any? (Especially considering the way things have gone at rival FSU.) Who is Huntley Johnson and why has Mike Bianchi called him "the 1972 Dolphins of criminal defense attorneys when it comes to erasing potential legal problems for University of Florida athletes"?

It is hard to imagine a sports media that does not always focus on the athlete. But it is an intriguing idea, a goal to work towards perhaps. Because, in the end, de-centering the athlete is not only more fair to alleged victims, it is more fair to the players, as it draws attention away from the individual and instead forces us to interrogate the system itself.