Every spring, one poem resonates with students more than all the rest in my intro to literature course. That poem is A.E. Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young,” an elegy that commemorates a young runner who, after formerly being “chaired. . . through the market-place” after a big win, is later carried down the same road in a coffin. Everyone sits up a little straighter in their seats, chilled by the image of the boy dying in his prime and living on through his achievements.
Housman’s premise—the glorification of young athletes—is nothing new, particularly in small towns. High school and collegiate sports, like the annual “North-South” rival football game in my hometown, foster local pride and allow older generations to wistfully revisit past glories on the field. When our young heroes win, we celebrate. When their lives are cut short, we mourn, having lost one of our own.
And when our student athletes break the law, we are disappointed. But only sometimes.
Other times, like in Maryville, MO, we defend and even wear shirts in support of alleged rapists. We suspend the victim from her cheerleading squad, while the perpetrators go on to play for collegiate sports teams. We do all of these things because there is another side to the coin of jock worship—the surge of entitlement that grips hometown heroes and college sports stars, cultivating their belief and ours that certain rules weren’t made for student-athletes.
I wrote a piece for GMP last month on domestic violence in the NFL, working from the statistic that 21 out of 32 teams carried at least one player with DV charges on their roster last year. A few readers were correct to point out that the ultimate culprit behind domestic violence is mentality, and that changes to such attitudes should start much earlier at the high school and college levels. I got to thinking about jock mentality as a contributor to other forms of degrading behavior—in other words, the societal beliefs and assumptions known as “rape culture” that normalize and excuse sexual violence. So how does rape culture in sports manifest itself so early? There’s a lot to explore once we peel back the layers.
Verbal Abuse Among Coaches and Athletes
Images of ranting and raving coaches are nothing new in American jock culture. And they don’t seem to be going anywhere soon, what with the five New Jersey high school football coaches placed on administrative leave and the firing of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice over allegations of hate speech just this year. “Come on, work through the pain!” and “Don’t be a sissy/pussy/faggot!” are both familiar warrior cries, but while the former is motivational, the latter is abusive. Furthermore, insults constructed around femininity and homosexuality are designed to make the recipient feel like “less of a man” by aligning his characteristics with demonized softness or emotion. The subliminal message at work? Femininity and softness are bad. Less than.
Verbal abuse breeds on campus practice fields and locker rooms until it finally erupts in places like NFL rookie Jonathan Martin’s voice mail. In addition to calling Martin a “half-n***** piece of shit” and threatening to kill him, Dolphins teammate Richie Incognito (whose coaches reportedly ordered him to “toughen up” Martin) and another unidentified player threatened to slap Martin’s mother and rape his sister. Specific insults laden with sexual violence toward Martin’s female relatives perpetuate the idea of rape and sexual dominance being representative of manliness, and that, by violating the women most precious to a man, you can cause him great pain.
Pain, of course, is sissy. Just ask the NFL players and staff who chastised Martin for not “manning up” and dealing with the situation on his own. Even among an all-male cast, victim blaming is alive and well.
Broken Lines of Communication Between Students and Staff
In an October 2000 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Kansas staff members Barbara Ballard and Amy Perko uncovered that the athletic department downplayed a female soccer player’s alleged assault by two male football players. After the victim sought help from her soccer coach and then the football coach, she found that the two players were “merely [made] to do extra running” as punishment. “The coaches did not inform administrators at the time that they had knowledge of the incident,” Amy Perko says.
A year later at the University of Colorado (Boulder), four football players were accused of raping a woman at a party off campus. No charges were ever filed, and the men were permitted to play in the Fiesta Bowl the following month.
University of Connecticut student Rose Richi contacted campus administration last spring after being overpowered and raped by a football player in his dorm room, but the office never followed up with her.
Even more disheartening are the results of a campus survey Amy Perko conducted among female athletes, who overwhelmingly “said they would go to a coach if they had personal concerns or if they were abused by another athlete.” So what happens if the coach is one who jokes about rape?
Citizens’ Defense of Perpetrators
Nothing feeds a sexual assault cover-up quite like the pervasive idea that women are crazy for addressing bad behavior. Students in Maryville were quick to tell Charlie Coleman (the older brother of one of the victims) that his sister and mother were “crazy bitches” for reporting the rape. Among other messages sent to Daisy and her family: “Our boys deserve an apology,” “That’s what you get for being a skank,” and a hope that Daisy “gets what’s comin.” According to Daisy’s mother, one female student wore a shirt to a school event reading “Matt 1, Daisy 0.”
The underage victim in the similar, and much-publicized case in Steubenville, received similar messages, including death threats from angry classmates on the Internet. A female relative of perpetrator Ma’Lik Richmond tweeted, “You ripped my family apart, you made my cousin cry. . . so when I see you. . . it’s gone be a homicide.”
The backlash against these victims wasn’t exclusively local. It soon spread through national news outlets like CNN, when reporters Candy Crowley and Poppy Harlow bemoaned the “two young men [with] such promising futures. . . [who] literally watched as they believed their life fell apart” during the Steubenville conviction. Crowley and Harlow repeatedly referred to the perpetrators as “football stars” and “very good students,” cited the involvement of alcohol (because rapists don’t rape; alcohol does?), and shared video footage of Ma’Lik Richmond collapsing in tears at the trial.
Rape apologism at its finest, brought to you by “The Worldwide Leader in News.”
Rape culture is all about directing focus away from the root of the problem and shifting it to other places. Here are two of my favorite recent “proposals” to combat sexual violence:
1. Tell college girls to stop drinking. Yes, Emily Yoffe believes that the matter of rape prevention lies with the victims and not the perpetrators. But whether she knows it or not, Yoffe’s idea is not revolutionary—it’s merely an extension of our existing tendency to place the burden of rape upon the victim while ignoring the root of the problem. Walking alone at night? Didn’t bring your pepper spray? Forgot to put on your anti-rape underwear? Well, what did you expect?
2. Deny that rape culture exists and shift sympathy to the falsely accused. While false rape accusations can and do occur, using this issue to circumvent the much larger problem of actual rapes being covered up as “proof” that rape culture is a myth is a red herring at its absolute worst. Caroline Kitchens also demonstrates that she does not understand what rape culture actually is—not just rape itself, but the downplaying of street harassment, the underreporting of sexual assault, the media-perpetuated myth that all rapists are strangers in dark alleys, and so much more.
“[Winning] your town the race,” as A.E. Housman describes, epitomizes the communal nature of high school and collegiate athletics—if the team wins, the town or university wins. Failure is also a communal effort. Cases like the Steubenville rape and its aftermath—coaches discreetly “taking care of it,” students posting disgusting commentary on YouTube (Warning: this video is graphic and may be disturbing to viewers.)—are a result of not only the abuse of power by violent perpetrators, but the refusal of witnesses, coaches, and administrators to seize their own power when necessary. Jock and rape cultures fuse together when young men come of age in a climate of “specialness,” leading them to dismiss basic boundaries like consent, prompting an outcry from victims, and thereby generating backlash from a community out to protect its heroes. The problem is cyclical. And shared.
After Steubenville last spring, Dave Zirin asked “whether jock culture. . . was a catalyst for this crime.” And then came Maryville. And then came the allegations against Florida State’s Jameis Winston along with the subsequent Twitter reaction: tasteless rape jokes and laments over squashed Heisman dreams.
How many times does Zirin’s question need to be answered before we get it?