Covering Rape.

Samhita is rightly bothered by the unfortunate, predictable response (and ESPN’s non-coverage)  of the lawsuit against Pittsburgh Steeler’s QB Ben Roethlisberger for an alleged rape.

We can still evaluate the way the media portrays women when they bring about rape charges, the extent to which the general public will defend and accept athletes that have been accused (or down right guilty) of sexual assault, sexual abuse and/or domestic violence and lastly, why ESPN has failed to cover the story.

The story has only been out a few days, but people are already asking if she is “woman scorned,” or comments on news sites continue to decry that she is “crazy and imagined it.” Rape apologists will deny anything that makes their heroes look bad, but the evidence is clear, when a woman brings up a rape lawsuit publicly, she is considered guilty of lying or is deemed “crazy,” “delusional” or “money hungry” before given any legal proceedings whatsoever.

Specifically in the arena of sports, rape apologisms permeate in damaging ways. …

Whether ESPN did it intentionally or not, failing to cover this case indicates that they have already taken a side. Let’s not let the American public get away with another butchering of a public rape case.

ESPN’s silence looks especially damning when one considers just how much airtime they typically give to athlete’s legal issues. Still, I wonder if there is a just or equitable way to cover high-profile (or any) rape cases. Obviously, the “accuser is crazy/an extortionist” defense will be made by plenty of fans and people with a vested interest in the suspect’s exoneration, regardless of the facts (or a dearth of them). But the coverage is often unavoidably prejudicial the other way. While the accuser’s identity is (understandably and necessarily) protected, we see b-roll of the defendant solemnly arriving at the courthouse in an understated suit and being mobbed by a throng of reporters while the charges against him are outlined by the newscaster. He doesn’t speak on his lawyer’s orders. Mug shots surface. He seems…guilty.

These messy public conversations about an athlete’s guilt or innocence in rape cases reflect the way actual rape trials play out. When there is an absence of physical evidence — as is very often the case —  rape trials necessarily become about damaging the other side’s credibility. No matter the verdict in those cases, there’s plenty of fresh anger and little resolution. How, exactly, do we fix that?

UPDATE: In comments, NinaG points us to a helpful post at YesMeansYes that explains why the woman in this case might be going forward with a civil case and not a criminal one (and the post itself has some enlightening comments from people speaking from personal experience).



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • I was at a magazine conference at HU back in the spring, and one of the panelists was a guy who writes for ESPN Magazine (can’t remember dude’s name, unfortunately). He basically said that while he liked working there (because he’s a guy and he loves sports), it kind of sucked because the real journalism, stories that even lightly criticized players, were always killed.

    I find that interesting, and it made me wonder, what, exactly, is ESPN’s purpose? Obviously it’s this huge conglomerate under the Disney umbrella, and its divisions possibly have competing interests. But is its purpose to merely report on sports? Notsomuch anymore, now that we’re living in this celebrity culture where we want to know more, more, more, about our heroes. But when our heroes screw up, or slip, or reveal themselves to be terrible people, what’s ESPN’s responsibility? Rambling, I know.

    Anyway, I don’t have a neat answer to your question, but it makes me think of this great post by Megan on Jez about the need to treat sexual assault cases like every other kind of assault case.

  • K.

    If he were a Black player this would have been covered. Majorly.

    From what I read it appears that the woman has filed a civil suit ($$$) but never went to the police. It doesn’t sound right and isn’t a good example for a discussion about athlete privilege in regard to rape cases. This is an important discussion to have nonetheless.

  • Grump

    Where was the criminal case? Why are we hearing about a civil case but not a criminal one?

  • the black scientist

    it really irks me when folks accuse people who claim to have been raped of lying, imagining it, or wanting money. taking a rape case public is such a difficult decision, and going through the long and tedius process of dealing with court is even more trying, made worse by having the recount your experience in front of so many people. accusing someone of rape is one of those things (kind of like abortion, i think) that most people think is a lot easier than it is. it’s one of those things no one wants to have to do.

  • Azalea

    Because there is NO criminal case, no criminal complaint and no criminal complaintant.