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January 23, 2013

Rape in High School and College Athletics: Why do we settle for the explanation that boys will simply be boys?

By Angela Hattery

College and professional athletes who engage in violence against women are often protected from prosecution.


During the past few months several athletic programs have made the news not so much for the rapes that have occurred at the hands of their athletes but moreso for the ways in which athletic programs and communities have reacted to these allegations.  Though the types of events vary what they all share in common is a willingness to excuse the behavior at the very least and protect the athletes from facing consequences at the most severe.

A caveat:  I am completely aware that some of the events and cases I'm going to highlight did not ultimately end up generating criminal charges and in some cases trials failed to garner a conviction.  It's not the legal outcomes that are my concern.  My interest is in the way in which parents, communities and athletic departments seek to excuse athletes from serious misbehavior and in some cases protect them from consequences be they legal or internal, including campus judicial systems.  Furthermore, I'm deeply perplexed by our society's unwillingness to have serious conversations about the interwoven cultures of masculinity, sport, and violence against women that allows too many young men to behave in ways that are troubling and too many women to become sexually victimized by these young men.

Steubenville, Ohio is merely the latest of these cases, and in many ways it is not all that unusual.  It only seems so today because of the impact of social media. Today bloggers and hackers like the Anonymous Group-- that called for the young men to apologize to the victim-- can see evidence of a rape and the culture in which it occurred displayed on social media--including instagram, twitter and facebook--and share that with the world.  Watching a youtube video of a young man from Steubenville talking about the victim as being  "dead as a doornail" made many ask why the police department was moving so slowly and the high school working so hard to protect what appeared to many of us to be a clear cut case of rape.

I wonder what we would have seen if a cell phone user had videotaped the strippers the night of March 13, 2006 at the Duke lacrosse house. Would we have had a similar response?   

Or, during the gang rape of a developmentally disabled young woman in the basement of a home in Glen Ridge, New Jersey (March 1, 1989) when the members of the football team raped her with a baseball bat?

Would we have patently accepted the explanation by their fathers and communities that boys will simply be boys?  The reader will recall that in the case of the Duke lacrosse team one of the fathers indicated that he didn't see what the issue was, he and his Wall Street colleagues routinely unwind together at the end of the day at strip clubs. 

Really?  This is supposed to make me feel better?

What conclusions might we have come to if we had been inside that Colorado hotel room with Kobe Bryant and the woman who accused him of rape? 

Or the hotel bathroom where a young Wake Forest woman who played in the band claims she was raped by two of the most prominent players on the basketball team in the wee hours of the night just hours after losing an embarrassing tournament game to Cleveland State.

Would we have reacted with public outrage to the response by Wake Forest officials that the young woman was lying and that she had no business being in a room with these young men when it was after curfew?  Really?  It was her bad choices that led to this?  What about the curfew for the basketball players?

It is my hope that the case in Steubenville, Ohio and our ability to see the context of the alleged rape with our own eyes courtesy of youtube, twitter, instagram and facebook, will cause us to pause and begin to have serious conversations about the ways in which we are teaching our young men to behave.  Even if their behaviors are not criminal they are embarrassing.  If I were to have to watch a video of my son, who is 22, behaving in this way I hope I would be as mortified as I am watching a Steubenville mother's son.  If I had to watch the scene play out in a basement in my community--a drunken party where the alcohol was provided by the football coach-- and watch my own teenagers and their friends behaving this way I hope I would be mortified enough to ask some tough question.  Of myself first, and then of my community. 

We cannot protect our young daughters as long as we continue to allow our young sons to behave in these ways and excuse their behavior as normal.

To read more about this issue see my book The Social Dynamics of Family Violence

Authors Bio:
Associate Director of Women & Gender Studies, George Mason University, author of African American Families: Myths and Realities (2012), the Social Dynamics of Family Violence (2012), Prisoner Reentry and Social Capital (2011) and several other books and articles.