April 19, 2013

Sport and Sexual Assault

Outside the court house of Steubenville, Ohio several activists from the online group Anonymous protest as charges are laid against two football players for sexually assaulting a 16 year old girl. Some of the activists wear the iconic Guy Fawkes mask, which has become a symbol for social justice and change.  One of the protesters holds a sign exclaiming “rape is not a sport.” Indeed rape is not a sport, but what this sign exemplifies is how sexual assault is rabid within sporting institutions and that little is being done to tackle it or to give justice to the survivors.

Over the past year we have seen several high profile cases involving sexual assault within the sporting community, most namely football. This summer in Ohio a 16 year old girl was raped whilst passed out after drinking at a pre-football-season party. The assault went viral over the internet with videos of the survivor being carried around by her wrists and ankles whilst unconscious. The video shows the perpetrators laughing and saying ‘she is so raped right now’. Despite various forms of online evidence the case has been moving at an agonizingly slow pace, with the trial having ended in March 2013. The trial ended with the two defendants being found guilty, one with a penalty of only 1 year imprisonment and the other for 2 years. Compared to the maximum sentence of 25 years for aggravated sexual assault, it seems they got off pretty lightly.

Yet the reaction of the Steubenville community is shameless to say the least, with locals defending the perpetrators and slandering the survivor. The survivor received hate mail, yet the perpetrators (even after being found guilty) were met with support. The small town who names the local football team ‘Big Red’ gave clear statements of victim blaming and protested that the ‘poor boys’ shouldn’t have to suffer. Many media outlets including CNN used images of the perpetrators crying onto their parents shoulders, because ‘their life is ruined’. Not to mention the trauma that the victim has faced and the backlash she has received, but just grief for the offenders of this crime.

So why is sexual assault so prominent within sports teams? Anti-violence educator Jackson Katz argues that the outbreak of male violence that plagues American sports obsessed society needs to be addressed as part of a larger cultural crisis in masculinity. He believes that male violence, misogyny, and homophobia are linked to how we define manhood as a culture. Katz does outreach educational pieces with sports teams across the globe including the BC Lions, yet the coaches themselves need to understand that sexual violence and rape culture has to be addressed. The Penn State scandal in 2011 highlights that the root of rape culture trickles down from those in power.

 If sexual assault isn’t covered up then sporting institutions blame the victims of the crime and support the perpetrators. Only last week in Toronto two Philadelphia Flyer prospective players walked away scot free from charges of sexual assault as the Crown stated that there was ‘no reasonable prospect of conviction’. Because it’s simply not ‘reasonable’ that a perpetrator of sexual assault should be incarcerated, especially one that has a promising sporting career. 

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