By the time Mike Tyson was released after three years in prison for rape, his case had been eclipsed by that of another sports icon accused of murdering his wife following years of abuse.
During Tyson’s trial, lawyers portrayed their client as a sex-crazed athlete. Likewise, Team Simpson, in hopes of creating a legal wall between escalation of abuse and murder, has argued that O.J. Simpson’s history of spousal abuse is irrelevant. In both cases, the sports subculture was complicit.
The overwhelming majority of cases against celebrity athletes are either dismissed or result in unusually lenient plea agreements and sentences. From our survey of 145 cases reported to the police, 30 (20%) were tried before a jury and only 12 ended in guilty verdicts. By contrast, 79% of felony trials overall result in guilty verdicts.
Most athletes are never accused of criminally violating women, but those who are enter the legal system with built-in advantages. Consider:
* In March, 1993, the Boston Celtics’ Marcus Webb was charged with rape. With conviction carrying a possible 20-year sentence, the presiding judge accepted an unusual plea agreement, which stipulated that Webb would serve 30 days in jail in exchange for admitting guilt to a reduced charge of indecent assault. Despite convincing medical evidence, the district attorney opted for assured if minimal jail time, due to the potential for a jury to acquit because of the victim’s prior involvement with Webb and other athletes.
* In 1994, prosecutors in Lincoln, Neb., accepted a no-contest plea from Nebraska Cornhusker Christian Peter after a woman accused him of sexual assault. Peter was sentenced to probation while continuing to play football, eventually in the 1995 Orange Bowl.
* Defensive lineman Gerald Perry was paid handsomely by the Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Raiders despite a record of incidents that included soliciting a prostitute and sexual assault. Sentenced in 1991 to 180 days in jail for sexual assault, Perry got out after just 65 days to go to Rams training camp.
Beginning in high school, talented athletes learn that curricular obstacles can be lowered while egos are raised. Arriving on a college campus, the student athlete gets favors that might include having his books bought, under-the-table payments from boosters and sexual access to coeds. The athlete’s view of the social world gradually narrows, shaped by the men and women who cater to his every whim.
“Groupies,” mostly women, hang around hotel lobbies and bars with the goal of spending time with players, some of whom admit to hundreds of sexual partners during their professional careers. Though potentially threatening to women, the jock-groupie tango is not criminal.
With the sports subculture inadvertently providing a green light for those who harbor violent tendencies toward women, eager groupies can be susceptible to victimization. In addition, the woman who is not a groupie but finds herself in the wrong sport-related setting faces danger. Because such a woman may naively traverse sexual-consent boundaries in a world with which she is unfamiliar, she is in danger of being perceived as having granted consent when in her mind she is acting safely.
The public already has a sense of the athlete as entitled and pampered. What is perhaps not so well understood is the subculture that systematically produces him. In the sports socialization process that churns out images of women as non-threatening and sexually compliant, the distance between inappropriate behavior and crimes of violence is shortened. Thus the sports culture can become a triggering mechanism for that small subset of athletes who are predisposed to abuse women. There, they will find endless opportunity and a safe haven to act with impunity.