Sports Heroes, Social Villains : Aberrant Sexual Conduct by Star Athletes Is Called Result of Lifelong Coddling

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seven high school athletes are awaiting trial in Glen Ridge, N.J., on charges of raping a retarded girl with a baseball bat and other wooden objects.

The 17-year-old girl is described by police as being a sports fan and the boys are well-known sports stars. According to police reports, the girl--who has the mental capacity of an 8-year-old--was brought to the basement of a house where the boys and six others the victim could not identify sexually assaulted her.

The boys were members of the Glen Ridge High football and baseball teams.

Athletes and rape--awful anomaly or growing problem? Social critics believe the latter is the case. While the attention of the sports world centers on the rape trial of former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, the details of his case merely serve to focus attention on a problem rarely discussed in sports.

A woman is raped every six minutes in this country. As members of society, athletes are going to be statistically represented in that crime, and they are. In fact, some would say athletes are overrepresented in the area of sexual assault.

A 1990 study found that 2% of athletes surveyed admitted they had committed date rape, more than four times the frequency reported by non-athletes.

What society has fostered is a segment of the population--elite athletes--that has learned from an early age that they are special. Often they form the idea that rules don't apply to them.

Institutions that thrive from the athlete's labor are tolerant of their sometimes abhorrent behavior. Too often, the institutions assist the athlete to cover up or avoid punishment for his crime.

It often is not difficult. Rape is one of law enforcement's most under-reported crimes and its most difficult to prosecute. The nationwide conviction rate for rape is 10%.

Athletes are frequently heard to complain that they are held to different standards than the general public.

But what the statistics regarding rape among athletes reveal is that the standards might not be high enough.

THE PSYCHOPATHOLOGY OF RAPE

It is not enough to say that there seems to be a high incidence of sexual assault among athletes. Police blotters confirm that. An attempt must be made to explain the why .

Tom House, pitching coach for the Texas Rangers, sees athletes as part of a system that treats them as objects, thus athletes tend to treat others as objects.

House is uniquely qualified to comment. He holds a doctorate in psychology and has written a book, "The Jock's Itch," in which he describes athletes as being in a state of terminal adolescence.

House believes this country's huge athletic system is turning out dysfunctional people. Athletes have difficulty identifying society's boundaries because of their programmed insensitivities, House said.

"The easiest way to say it is that they (athletes) don't have a thermostat for empathy," House said. "They don't have a thermostat for the reality of human interaction. They have a real problem with this thing called empathy, putting themselves in another person's shoes and feeling what that other person feels. That is a computer chip they don't have.

"Athletes are expected to understand two things: anger and aggression. Those are the only emotions they are really capable of dealing with. The more violent the sport, the less they are able to empathize for the 'other' they are dealing with."

Sexual assault cases among athletes appear to occur most often in team sports. "We never see golfers or swimmers," said one researcher. But it's not always the athletes in showcase sports.

At St. John's University in New York, five members of the lacrosse team and one member of the school's rifle club were accused of raping a student on March 1, 1990.

The woman was brought to an off-campus house where, prosecutors said, she was pressured to drink a powerful vodka and juice mix, and she passed out. Roommates who shared the house testified the woman was lying limply on a couch with her eyes closed and was repeatedly sodomized by the men, who then bragged about it. Other witnesses testified that the woman was heard screaming and that during the attack the men were cheering each other

on.

Police said other women came forward and told of similar assaults at the house. Informants told police that the practice of luring a woman to the house and then gang raping her was referred to by the men as "hooking up." Police said the men's practice was to take a "souvenir" from the woman, such as an identification card, and tack the item to a house bulletin board, which was known as a "score sheet."

During the first trial, three defendants were tried together, including two of the lacrosse players. The men admitted to having sex, but said the woman did not object. The three were acquitted after a 2 1/2-month trial, but were expelled from school.

In plea bargains, two others involved in the attack have pleaded guilty to lesser charges. The last defendant in the case went on trial earlier this month.

House won't defend what he calls "repulsive" behavior, but he asks that it be understood in its social context.

"These are not bad kids," he said. "They have been programmed to be dysfunctional when it comes to the real world of human interaction."

At the University of Oklahoma, five members of the football team imprisoned a college student in an athletic dorm room and took turns raping her. Many others watched or heard the attack.

Two players received prison sentences.

Teresa Bingman is the Cleveland County assistant district attorney who helped prosecute the case. She says the case still haunts her. One reason was the attitude of the football players during the trial. They appeared to believe they were above the law.

The other thing she remembers was how, even after their convictions, the players were revered by many people in the community, simply because they were star athletes.

"I think the system fosters these types of attitudes," Bingman said. "These individuals are young, and when they attend college they are automatically placed on a pedestal."

Society confers a privileged status to athletes, whether they ask for it or not, and whether they deserve it or not. But an icon's burden is heavy. As writer Simone de Beauvior observed, a pedestal, like a prison, can be a tiny place.

SEXUAL POLITICS

Some studies suggest that rapists are likely to have been fostered in male-only clubs and organizations such as fraternities and athletic teams.

In a book to be published next year, "Nice Boys, Dirty Deeds: Gang Rape on Campus," psychologist Chris O'Sullivan details 40 cases of collegiate gang rape. Of the cases, 30% involve athletes; 90% involve fraternities.

In one gang rape case at the University of Kentucky involving football players, it was said that there was a line of players outside the door where the victim was being held. Witnesses testified that the players were chanting, "Me next, me next."

Not surprisingly, experts say that gender segregation reinforces ignorance, stereotypes and disregard for the feelings of the "other" group. These elements can be heightened among male athletes.

"There are a number of factors," O'Sullivan said. "One is that they do something that women can't do. They tend to feel superior to people who don't have the (physical) talents they have. By definition, women are outsiders, they can't cut it, they can't compete.

"There is also the sexism. These athletes do get an awful lot of attention from women, which of course exacerbates this feeling of superiority. And the feeling that they can take what they want."

Successful athletes are often famous persons. They grow accustomed to the attention of women, some of whom are eager to sleep with them because they are well known. Some athletes have trouble differentiating between the groupie who wants sex and the fan who wants an autograph.

All-Pro wide receiver James Lofton was accused of sexual assault on two occasions when he played for the Green Bay Packers. The first incident took place at an exotic dance club and the second in a stairwell of a popular nightspot. Lofton was fined for trespassing in the first case and acquitted of rape in the second.

In a story about Lofton's trade to the Raiders in 1987, Times reporter Mark Heisler asked Lofton, who was married at the time of the incidents, what he was doing in a nightclub and bar in the first place.

Lofton said: "Oh, c'mon. Anybody could be in that bar. And anybody could sit around and let women flirt with them. And how many men turn down sex? I think that really is the question. As some point the brain just cuts off and (says), 'Well, I'm having a good time, what the heck.' "

O'Sullivan and others say that the emotional climate in which many elite athletes work is something other than enlightened.

"Look at the coaches," she said. "They certainly foster in the players that a real man is an abusive man. Look at football players--these guys have to take a lot of pain. They have to be tuned out to their own pain, so that other's pain becomes unreal to them. Hurting somebody is something they do all the time."

Extensive research links the male hormone testosterone to aggression.

It's been a difficult year for relations between men and women. The battle of the sexes appears to have escalated and the issue of rape is even more divisive.

Some women say men display an insensitivity to rape. In the Oklahoma gang rape case, one of the defendants, Bernard Hall, testified that he did not rape the women because "she was not my type."

Remember Indiana basketball Coach Bob Knight telling television interviewer Connie Chung: "I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it."

There is also the question of believability. It has been noted that if a robbery victim resists, such action is considered stupid, but a rape victim is expected to display visible wounds in order to be believed.

A female student at Cal in 1986 reported a harrowing case of gang rape to police, charging several members of the Cal football team. On the surface, the woman appeared to have a strong case.

But, in explaining his decision not to prosecute, Martin Brown, assistant district attorney, told the Daily Californian: "I believed what (the victim) told us, but she was acquainted with the boys and there were no bruises."

O'Sullivan said that because of their sense of entitlement and commonplace use of power, some male athletes might have misconceptions about what constitutes rape.

"I talked to a former pro basketball player who told me he had raped women for years but didn't know it at the time," she said. "He's horrified now. At the time he always thought it was much better that way. That he scored more points with the other men. I think the point was, if he didn't have to use a little force to get sex, then it was a disappointment to him."

REMOVING RED TAPE

If athletes learn from an early age that they are above the rules, who is teaching them this?

"It starts when they are 8 years old, with their peer group, their teachers--the people who have impact in their social environment and allow them to be a what and not a who ," House said. "Their status as jocks precludes their development as a responsible human being. They have had responsibility all their lives, but they have never been held accountable. When they do something that escalates beyond what their immediate close system can protect, all of a sudden they are saying, 'Why is this happening?' "

Too often in the case of athletes who break the law, the protector is also the exploiter--intercollegiate and professional sports.

In college, athletic teams represent millions of dollars to the university. At the professional level, athletes are chess pieces to be moved and traded at the whims of management. If the pawn makes a mistake that might embarrass the school or franchise, it seems prudent to apply full-scale damage control.

What do athletes learn from coaches bailing them out of trouble? Bingman said the attitude she observed at the University of Oklahoma was troubling.

"I had the impression they thought they would not be convicted," she said. "They thought they were untouchable. That's very disturbing to me, it really is. We all know there are certain people who feel they are above the law. And some of them manage to get by with committing crimes."

On the college level, school administrators are often co-conspirators in either covering up reports of sexual assaults or in pressuring the complainant into dropping charges to avoid negative publicity.

The strategy backfired at the University of Maryland. Lefty Driesell, then the school's basketball coach, repeatedly called a woman to persuade her to drop sexual misconduct charges against basketball player Herman Veal.

The woman didn't drop the charges and pressed charges against Driesell for harassment. He was reprimanded and made to apologize publicly. Veal was suspended for four games.

The case of the Arkansas basketball players is another where university officials were found to have acted improperly to resolve a charge of rape.

Four Arkansas players, including All-American Todd Day, were accused of raping a woman in a campus athletic dormitory in February of 1991. The woman identified the players to police, but never pressed charges. The players conceded they had sex with the woman, but said that she consented.

However, according to a report issued by the president of the University of Arkansas system, school officials "up and down the line"--including the university chancellor, Athletic Director Frank Broyles and Coach Nolan Richardson--erred in not taking immediate action.

"It looked like we were not in control of the situation," said B. Alan Sugg, Arkansas system president. "It looked like we were not concerned about it. It looked like we were not concerned about the conduct of athletes. It sent a terrible message to the state of Arkansas and, actually, the nation.

"I do believe (the players) broke a university student conduct regulation by participating in a degrading act by engaging in serial consensual sexual intercourse. I consider this conduct simply wrong."

Having said that, Sugg then reduced the athletes' suspensions from one year to six months. The reduction allowed the players to miss only one tournament and a few nonconference games. Sugg's ruling also allowed the players to practice with the team during the suspension.

Sugg was criticized for his seemingly contradictory position and for showing less concern about the welfare of the players than their eligibility. However, the public relations lesson was apparently learned. Two months later, when an Arkansas football player was charged with rape, the athlete's scholarship was revoked and he was dismissed from the football team.

The most recent and perhaps the most blatant example of complicity came to light last week. A Florida State Board of Regents committee report sharply criticized administrators at the University of South Florida for their handling of multiple sexual assault complaints against a basketball player.

The report reveals that school officials took no action against Marvin Taylor--the basketball team's starting point guard--for more than 1 1/2 years, despite complaints filed by six women.

The 60-page report charges that the school's vice president of student affairs gave special handling to Taylor's case. Even though she reported the alleged incident immediately, the alleged rape victim was never interviewed by anyone at the school. The first official to ask for her version of the events was the investigator appointed by the board of regents, nearly two years later.

Taylor was accused of raping an acquaintance in 1989. By the next year, four more women lodged complaints of sexual assault or harassment against Taylor. In another case that wasn't handled by campus authorities, Taylor was prosecuted in Tampa criminal court for battery after he knocked a woman down and kicked her in the stomach.

During this period, the South Florida vice president responsible for both intercollegiate athletics and student discipline took personal control of Taylor's case. The school official, who is a member of the Green Jackets athletic booster club, repeatedly ignored the school's written discipline procedures, according to the board of regents report.

After Taylor's conviction in the battery case, another school official overturned a school hearing officer's recommendation that the basketball player be suspended from school for one year. Taylor was placed in a program for first offenders, even though court records showed he was on probation for a burglary conviction in another state.

Finally, the report said, the alleged rape victim was treated unfairly by the school and offered none of the help and support that was afforded Taylor. The school vice president told the media that the alleged victim had recanted her story, which he later acknowledged that she never did. The same official also removed all records of the women's complaints from Taylor's file.

The board of regents' investigation also showed that the woman and others had been continually harassed into withdrawing their complaints against Taylor. At least one of the women reported the harassment to school authorities, who took no action. The parents of another woman took their daughter out of school rather than face continued harassment.

Last February, with his eligibility nearly over, Taylor was finally kicked off the team for a curfew violation.

Dan Walbolt, the South Florida vice president criticized in the report, resigned Friday.

Florida's top school official called the case unbelievable.

THE VIOLENT FUTURE?

What is the solution? Will the sports system continue to turn out seeming sociopaths unequipped to deal with a complex world? Will the "indiscretions" of athletes be tolerated by a society that looks the other way? Or will parents and others responsible for the welfare of young athletes do what Tom House suggests and "make them take out the garbage?"

Not all athletes are the spoiled products of coddling and special privileges. House cites Ranger pitcher Nolan Ryan, who--even when he showed amazing athletic aptitude at a young age--was never treated differently by his parents. And he always had to take out the garbage.

"The problem is that (society) says, 'Little Johnny, you can be as weird as you want to be, as long as you're a Heisman Trophy winner.' It starts with Johnny taking the trash out. That's when Johnny's family doesn't make him take the trash out, they serve him special meals. His friends revere him for his athletic ability, they don't expect him to be social. He isn't held up to the same standards.

"This will continue until such time that the aberration costs more than he brings in to the community. It's all economic."

A Case Study

A partial list of athletes who have been charged with rape or other sexual offenses. Names have been omitted if charges were dropped before trial.

* Nov. 30 1991--A San Francisco Giant is arrested, accused of forcible rape, rape with a foreign object, false imprisonment and battery. The woman later told police she did not want to pursue the case.

* Sept. 9, 1991--Mike Tyson is indicted, accused of rape and three related counts by a grand jury after a four-week investigation into charges made by a beauty pageant contestant. Tyson is currently on trial in Indianapolis.

* Aug. 5, 1991--Former Compton College basketball star Roy Williams is ordered to stand trial in the murder of a Compton woman and the rape and murder of a second, and the kidnaping, rape and attempted murder of a third. Williams is also awaiting trial accused of a rape in Cleveland.

* June 21, 1991--Derrick Dodson, an Arkansas football player on academic probation, pleaded guilty to rape and burglary and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

* April 26, 1991--Seattle Seahawk linebacker and former USC player Marcus Cotton pleaded guilty to a charge of assault after prosecutors dropped charges of rape and sexual battery against him.

* April 23, 1991--A San Antonio Spur player is charged with indecent exposure in Seattle. The woman decided to not pursue the case.

* Feb. 27, 1991--Four Arkansas basketball players are accused of raping a 34-year-old woman at the school's athletic dormitory. Charges were not filed.

* Nov. 14, 1990--Then-Denver Bronco tackle Gerald Perry, now a Ram, is charged with third-degree sexual assault against the former girlfriend of a teammate. Perry was convicted and served 65 days.

* Sept. 20, 1990--A player for the San Antonio Spurs is accused of rape for the second time in three days. A 21-year-old woman alleges the player sexually assaulted her after drinking with her at a nightclub. The player also was charged in Maryland with the rape of a 17-year-old girl. Charges in both cases were dropped.

* July 1990--Three incoming USC freshman football players are charged with battery and sexual battery and false imprisonment of a USC graduate student. The three were acquitted.

* March 1, 1990--Five members of the men's lacrosse team at St. John's University are among those charged with the rape of a woman at a fraternity house. One defendant admitted to the offense and testified against three others, who were acquitted. Two defendants pleaded guilty and another is awaiting trial.

* Nov. 22, 1989--Former Oklahoma football players Nigel Clay and Bernard Hall are sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay $10,000 fines for raping a woman in an athletic dormitory.

* Aug. 21 1989--Angel outfielder Luis Polonia, then a New York Yankee, is convicted in Milwaukee of having sex with a minor, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail and fined $1,500.

* February 1989--University of Colorado linebacker Miles Kusayanagi is arrested, accused of the rape of one woman and the attempted rape of another. Kusayanagi is convicted on four counts of first-degree sexual assault and is serving an 80-year sentence in a Colorado prison.

* Aug. 31, 1988--St. Louis Blue center Doug Gilmour, his wife and the team are sued for $1 million by the parents of a 14-year-old girl who claim the hockey star repeatedly had sex with their daughter. The civil case is pending.

* Aug. 4, 1988--Former Seattle Seahawk quarterback Gale Gilbert is sentenced to perform 240 hours of community service for molesting a 24-year-old woman.

* March 1, 1987--The University of Miami football team suspends a player after his arrest on kidnaping and rape charges. The charges were dropped.

* Feb. 25, 1987--Boxer Aaron Pryor, a former junior welterweight champion, is charged with sexual battery with a deadly weapon, kidnaping, two counts of aggravated battery and six counts of aggravated assault with a firearm. Pryor pleaded no contest to two lesser charges and was fined $5,000. Pryor is currently in jail on unrelated drug charges.

* Sept. 27, 1986--An 18-year-old Cal student claimed she was raped by four members of the football team in the co-ed dorm in which they all lived. In an out-of-court settlement, the players agreed to move out of the dormitory, apologize to the victim and perform 100 hours of community service.

* July 25, 1986--Thomas Watson, a Syracuse football player who pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct, is sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to perform 300 hours of community service.

* May 29, 1985--Former North Carolina State quarterback Percy Moorman is sentenced to 26 years in prison for the rape of a female student.

Times researcher Peter Johnson contributed to this story.

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