As a second-generation Pittsburgher who bleeds black and gold, my favorite time of year is the six-month block when I can cheer on the Steelers. It’s early August, football season is just around the corner, and recently I had the pleasure of attending my first Steelers training camp practice. The best part about the practice, other than meeting the head coach and getting him to sign a pair of black and gold knee socks I bought earlier at the merchandise tent? The complete absence of Ben Roethlisberger rape jokes.
I should explain. My father, a Pittsburgh native, relocated to central Maryland many years ago, where I now live—about an hour west of Baltimore. Baltimore is home to the Ravens, and the rivalry between the Steelers and the Ravens is one of the most heated in the NFL. Living in an area where fans of both teams mix and mingle (sometimes hospitably, sometimes not) means there is plenty of opportunity for heckling the opposition, and the “incidents” of 2008 and 2010 involving quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have given Ravens fans no shortage of fodder.
In July 2008, Andrea McNulty of Lake Tahoe, Nevada, claimed that Roethlisberger had raped her in his hotel room and decided to file a civil suit against him. Despite the fact that McNulty’s co-worker delivered a statement swearing that McNulty bragged to her about having consensual sex with Roethlisberger, the insults from Ravens fans began to fly. “Rapistberger!” they shouted. “Stay away from my daughter!” “No means no!” The second sexual assault accusation against Roethlisberger in March 2010, which allegedly took place in a nightclub bathroom in Milledgeville, Georgia, added even more fuel to the fire.
A friend of mine, who is a die-hard Baltimore Ravens fan, made me a T-shirt for my birthday adorned with the phrase “No Means No,” and placed Steelers emblems inside the letter O’s. There is a photograph of me after I slipped the shirt on that night, grinning from ear to ear and giving the camera two thumbs-up. I was 21 years old at the time. Five years later, at 26, I am embarrassed by that picture.
I find that picture embarrassing because, at 21, I had not yet left my college dorm room to give my roommate and a boy I had assumed was her date some privacy. I had not yet come back to the room hours later to discover my roommate missing, and I had not yet been questioned the following morning by a detective from the city police.
At 21, I had not yet heard the shocking and painful stories of sexual assault from female friends and family members. I had not yet been in a situation where I was drunk and could have, depending on the setting and circumstances, been taken advantage of. I had not yet pushed a guy off of me who wanted to go further than I was comfortable with, and I had not yet felt the anger and helplessness associated with having to say “No” many, many times over before he complied.
But at 26, I have.
According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every two minutes. Many American football fans—jersey-donning, face-painting, chicken-wing-guzzling football fans—are women. So when you see the hulking 6’5” Steelers quarterback parade across your television screen and hurl phrases at him like “No means no!”—phrases often linked to a painful past for many women—whom are you really hurting?
Five years after the first incident, Roethlisberger rape jokes are still everywhere. Hopping off the stool at a sports bar where the Steelers game is being shown, I am often told to “be careful in the bathroom” by male friends who cheer for the opposition. Before trips to Pittsburgh to see my family, I am cautioned to “watch out for Rapistberger—avoid the public bathrooms up there,” especially if I’m “wearing a skirt.”
The fear of rape, assault, and harassment is a constant reality for many women. Dark parking lots, street corners, and enclosed spaces—like public bathrooms—are spaces that carry a threat for women that men simply do not experience. The advice “Don’t get raped,” passed off as a joke all in good fun reflects the central problem with our culture’s treatment of sexual violence: Rather than teaching boys not to rape, we teach girls not to get raped. It’s victim-blaming concealed as playful Sunday afternoon banter.
If the football fans who hurl taunts like “Rapistberger” are truly outraged by rape, they would take a stand against a serious issue, choosing to donate money or volunteer their time at CASA, Inc. (Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused) or to join an organization like MAVAW (Men Against Violence Against Women). They would not use sexual violence as material to propagate a sports rivalry.
I don’t know if Roethlisberger raped those two women; he was never convicted, and I was not personally there to witness the alleged assaults. But one thing is clear to me five years after lightheartedly donning that “No Means No” shirt: Professional sports are not platforms to reinforce sexual objectification, victim-blaming, or other misogynistic points of view. Professional sports should provide occasions for both men and women to socialize and entertain, and to feel safe and comfortable while doing so.
So once football season starts this year, you can find me in a black and gold jersey, cheering for my home team. And if you’re genuinely concerned about what may or may not happen to me in the public bathroom, feel free to walk me there yourself.