Opinion: #MeToo, sexual violence and our sports heroes

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Opinion: #MeToo, sexual violence and our sports heroes

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Gus Ruelas/AP
In 2003, L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant was charged in Colorado with raping a 19-year-old hotel employee. He denied the rape, but said they had had consensual sex. His wife, Vanessa (left), supported him in public. The rape charge was eventually dropped.

I was 10 years old when Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant was accused of rape.

I didn’t understand what it meant at the time. I just knew someone accused Bryant of doing something wrong and never thought of it again.

Nearly 15 years later, Bryant’s jersey numbers were retired. I am a sports writer and a vocal feminist, but somehow, I had forgotten all about this asterisk that should be attached to Bryant’s name.

It seems everyone else has, too.

In a year where the Silence Breakers are the Time magazine Person of the Year, Hollywood and Washington, D.C. are beginning to hold those accused of sexual assault accountable and the voices of victims of sexual violence are finally being heard regarding past offenses, why was Bryant’s past not called into question?

My goal in bringing up this long-settled case is not to vilify Bryant or tarnish the retirement of his jerseys, but to ask why is the sports world so resistant to calling out those accused and holding them accountable?

There has been some progress recently when Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson elected to sell the team after news broke of several accusations of sexual harassment and discrimination against minorities in the workplace, but Richardson is an easy target.

Panthers fans don’t wear “Richardson” jerseys to games, ask for his autograph or angrily tweet at him when he costs them their fantasy matchup.

Influential men whose work is beloved, such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Mario Batali and Matt Lauer among countless others, were held accountable when accusations arose, but we clearly aren’t we ready to give up the athletes whose posters hang on our walls.

Athletes such as Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, Jameis Winston, Greg Hardy, Rodney Anderson and countless others have been accused of sexual harassment and violence, yet these men kept playing long after there was knowledge of any incident.

We are far more concerned with perception, Super Bowl dreams and our fantasy teams than doing what’s right.

What’s to blame?

One part of the problem with the sports world’s silence on sexual violence is that many leaders are permissive, demonstrated by the shamefully lenient punishments, if the team or league chooses to acknowledge the incident at all.

The NFL continually is a culprit in privately handling accusations of sexual violence against its players in an attempt to save face.

Former New York Giants kicker Josh Brown was given a one-game suspension to start the 2016 season after he was arrested, but not charged with abuse of his then-wife. It was reported the NFL and team knew of Brown’s “domestic issues” since a Pro Bowl incident in January 2016, but the pressure wasn’t felt to suspend Brown until September 2016. One month later, Brown was released.

Similarly, the University of Arizona fired football coach Rich Rodriguez on Tuesday after an investigation into sexual-harassment claims of a former university employee concluded. The university said there was no sufficient evidence Rodriguez was guilty of exposing himself to the former employee in private among other accusations, and then blamed the alleged victim for not cooperating with the investigation. 

The university cited concern over details discovered during the investigation as reasoning for firing Rodriguez after six seasons.

The alleged victim’s voice had an impact because it eventually led to Rodriguez’s firing, but the university refused to admit any truth to the former employee’s claims and blamed her for the outcome. 

It’s impossible to know what happened behind closed doors, but a familiar narrative re-emerges: a woman used her voice to stand up for herself and was shut down by leadership.

Fans also are to blame for the passive treatment of sexual violence in sports. Some fans think it cannot be viewed as a serious offense without turning their backs on the fandom, but ironically, they will acknowledge other behaviors as at least unethical.

Look at Alex Rodriguez. He was both beloved and hated by millions for his success, but there’s an asterisk by his name because doping is intolerable.

How about Tom Brady? Possibly the greatest football player of all time, but Brady will never live down Deflategate.

When Michael Vick’s name is mentioned, dogfighting comes to mind. Ironically, the sports world sees violence against animals as more serious than any violence against women.

Pete Rose was even banned from baseball because of gambling in 1989.

Why are the violent accusations of sexual assault, harassment and rape treated so differently?

Here’s where it gets personal

My hero, Peyton Manning, also was accused of sexual harassment. A Title IX suit against the University of Tennessee, which included an accusation against a college-aged Manning, broke in 2015 between Manning’s Super Bowl 50 win and when he announced his retirement.

When USA Today’s Lindsay Jones asked Manning if he would like to respond to allegations at his retirement news conference, initially I, like many Manning fans, was floored as Manning denied allegations at the climax of his career.

Nothing came from the allegation, but nevertheless, Jones had to ask. She sought the truth and held my hero accountable for something that he may or may not have done because this is the necessary path if sexual crimes and violence are to be taken seriously: No one is too accomplished or essential to be above this standard.

As Bryant saw his jerseys at the top of the Staples Center, initially I was happy for him, but the shame of how he got there, the woman he hurt and how society turned its head even in 2017 eclipsed the moment.

If fans are truly disgusted by sexual violence, admiring and cheering for those accused will be difficult, but I think it is possible both love the person and make it clear that sexual violence is unacceptable no matter who they are.

We act or action will be demanded of us

The pain of victims cannot be taken away. The damage is done, but their stories, whether spoken or unspoken, still matter.

While the NFL and NBA are among the leagues working with players to right social injustices such as police brutality and criminal-justice reform, the social injustice on which they’ve stayed silent is sexual violence.

Why are violence against women and sexual crimes any less appalling than injustices against minorities?

With the #MeToo and #TIMESUP movements influencing Washington and Hollywood, sports fans, leaders, media and athletes have an opportunity to join in and label sexual violence for what it is — violence.

The slate is far from clean in 2018, but the sports world has a chance to do what is right rather than what’s convenient.

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