Cheering For the Villain: The Skewed National Perspective of American Athletes

Tags: Athletes, Villains, Rape, United States, Marjorie McAtee

Marjorie McAtee by Marjorie McAtee

On Sunday, March 17, Judge Thomas Lipps handed down a verdict in the now-infamous Steubenville rape case. Trent Mays, aged 17, and Ma’Lik Richmond, aged 16, were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl. Mays was sentenced to at least two years in a juvenile detention facility and Richmond was sentenced to at least one year; both boys could remain incarcerated until age 21. Within the hour, Ohio state Attorney General Mike DeWine announced that investigation into the crime will continue, and a grand jury will meet in April to decide if additional charges should be brought against others in the community for failing to report the rape. Accusations of a cover-up to protect Mays and Richmond, who were members of the championship-winning Steubenville High football team, have dogged the case.

In the wake of the verdict, the Internet exploded with criticism of the way major news networks reported the case, especially CNN, who were lambasted for being too sympathetic towards the convicted rapists. CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow’s report focused on the “promising futures” of these “star football players” and “promising students,” in a segment many found unnecessarily supportive of the rapists. The next day, March 18, Attorney General DeWine announced that two teen girls, aged 15 and 16, were arrested for making threats against the Steubenville victim on Twitter and Facebook. The girls have been charged with misdemeanor menacing and aggravated menacing, respectively.

This isn’t the first time that victims of sexual assault have been bullied via social media, and it probably won’t be the last. In the weeks leading up to the Steubenville verdict, 18-year-olds Joan Toribio and Edgar Gonzalez were charged with felony second-degree sexual assault against two separate 13-year-old girls. Toribio and Gonzalez play football at Torrington High School in Connecticut. The Register Citizen, a local newspaper, reported the crimes along with noting that at least one of the 13-year-old alleged victims in this case has borne the brunt of taunting from “dozens of upset classmates” who have called her names and accused her of “’ruining’ the players’ lives.”

America’s love affair with its athletes may be just one of the factors that contribute to such victim-blaming, but it’s often the case that American athletes are sheltered from the worst ramifications of their crimes. In 2003, for example, NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault against a 19-year-old hotel worker. The woman later dropped the charges, although she did file a civil lawsuit and was awarded an undisclosed settlement. Bryant went on to sign a seven-year contract worth $136 million.

Bryant also regained his corporate sponsorship, as did another athlete who ran afoul of the law, Ray Lewis. In January 2000, Lewis was implicated in the murders of 24-year-old Richard Lollar and 21-year-old Jacinth Baker. The two men were killed at about 4 a.m. on the street outside the Cobalt Lounge in the Buckhead Village neighborhood of Atlanta. Lewis took a plea bargain, allowing him to avoid jail time and murder charges in exchange for testifying against Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley, his co-defendants. He pled guilty to misdemeanor charges of obstruction of justice. In addition to a years’ probation, Lewis was fined $250,000 by the NFL. In 2004, he paid a settlement to India Lollar, the daughter of Richard Lollar. Since the murders, Lewis has gone on to build a successful career in the NFL; he’s made a name for himself as a philanthropist through the Ray Lewis 52 Foundation. In 2010, the city of Baltimore renamed North Avenue “Ray Lewis Way” in his honor. These days, there is hardly any mention made of Lewis’s dark past; and even when there is, it’s sharply countered with protestations of his strong Christian faith.

But an American athlete doesn’t need God, a loving family and a son following in his footsteps to earn absolution from the public as Ray Lewis has; he just has to be an athlete. Take Mike Tyson.

Everyone knows Mike Tyson is scary. Even before he was convicted of rape in 1992, it was more-or-less common knowledge that he beat his first wife, Robin Givens, and that this violence led to their divorce. In 1988, Givens and Tyson appeared on TV with Barbara Walters, where Givens candidly discussed the violence she endured throughout her marriage to Tyson.

Tyson was sentenced to ten years in prison for the rape of 18-year-old Desiree Washington in 1992. Four years of that sentence were suspended. Tyson was released in 1995 after serving three years. His comeback fight with Peter McNeeley grossed more than $96 million around the world, with $63 million of that money in the U.S. alone. After a lucrative boxing career, Tyson remains a formidable presence in popular culture, and his former propensity for violence against women is now treated as little more than a joke.

The crimes of American athletes are treated with a degree of understanding that would appear unthinkable if applied to anyone who doesn’t make his or her living in the sports arena. For the most part, athletes are allowed to bounce back from even the most heinous crimes. In light of the successful careers and popularity athletes like Tyson, Lewis and Bryant have achieved, is it possible that a rape conviction is really no setback for the American sports star?

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