The current sexual assault case involving Jameis Winston has brought back memories of the Kobe Bryant case. They are both famous, elite athletes who are lauded for their physical ability. They have fans who will defend them beyond reason; in Bryant’s case, literally to the point of threatening death to his accuser. The media coverage of the Winston case, especially sports media, has been extensive. As the case progressed, I started thinking about differences and similarities in how the cases are reported and discussed, and whether anything has changed.
Ten years ago, Kobe Bryant was arrested for sexual assault. The ensuing media coverage and widespread discussion had a huge negative impact on sexual assault survivors, on advocates who respond to survivors, and on educators talking to the public about the problem of rape and sexual assault. The most damage was the silencing of survivors who were surrounded by media discussions and common conversations questioning the validity of the report and the integrity of the survivor.
The overarching theme from that coverage was Bryant’s fame and ability as an athlete. That’s why the case was important. That’s why the enormous amount of coverage and discussion. The same is true of the Winston case. It’s only important because his team was ranked number one in the country, and he was a Heisman trophy candidate. Students at Florida State University who agreed to be interviewed after the announcement that no charges would be filed were relieved because now he could get back to playing football.
The sports media emphasis was, in both cases, on legal technicalities. Reporters and commentators interviewed legal experts who know very little about sexual assault cases. They rarely interviewed anyone knowledgeable about these issues or these cases. Although there seems to be more recognition in the Winston case that these are difficult cases to investigate and prosecute, there is virtually no informative discussion about why they are so difficult, including no conversation or commentary about consent, which is the heart of the matter as well as the most common and effective defense.
Sexual violence is not a problem that can by solved by lawyers, and sexual violence isn’t really the topic in these cases. The important questions for mainstream sports reporters and the majority of fans commenting on those reports are: will he be kept off the basketball court or football field or baseball field and will he receive Heisman votes?
In the ten years since the Bryant case, the use of comment sections after articles and blogs has increased so it’s possible to spend many hours reading opinions. However the current level of discourse isn’t encouraging if you’re looking for signs of a deeper understanding of sexual assault. Here’s some succinct examples from the comment section following the Daily Beast article:
Michael Christensen: Ok let me explain how it works. If your a high profile athlete, you can get away with rape and if your lucky sometimes murder. Its been proven over and over. I not saying this guy did it. But look at big Ben. [sic]
Jacob Fisher: Also if you are a high profile athlete, you get targeted by people looking for “hush money”. Im not saying she did it, but look at Kobe. [sic]
During the Bryant case, Charles Barkley said star athletes are in a position to be maliciously, falsely accused. He didn’t point out that stardom also surrounds them in a sphere of entitlement. I have had a few chances to talk with young men accused of sexual assault. Several of them couldn’t believe it, were convinced they did nothing wrong even though they admitted to behavior that was clearly an assault. Why? Because they think that what they did is what every man does; they think that’s what sex is, and what women—or some women, THOSE women—are for.
Images and ideas that merge sex and violence, something that happens often in the world of sports, contribute to the confusion about what is sex and what is sexual assault. Think about the language that little boys hear early in their lives as athletes. Sexual terms are tied to scoring, to overpowering, to winning, and they’re all used to define a real man. That’s the only sex education some boys ever receive.
I’m hoping for the day when consent, entitlement, and how we teach young people about sex and gender are part of the discussion any time a high-profile athlete is charged with sexual assault.
Director, We End Violence