SPECIAL REPORT: CRIME & SPORTS ’95 : SEX & VIOLENCE : Some of the Most High-Profile Incidents of 1995 Involved Assaults on Women
Statistics on violence against women in the United States are staggering. There is an act of domestic violence every 18 seconds. One in three women experiences it. Abuse is the major cause of injury to women. Twenty-one percent of the women who use hospital emergency surgical services have been battered. More than six million women are beaten each year; 4,000 are killed.
Sports is not immune from this epidemic. In fact, scholars and social scientists, who cannot agree if athletes are more prone to crime or violence than others, concur that male athletes are more likely to be abusive toward women than other males.
A Times survey of 1995 newspaper and wire-service reports and court documents found 252 police incidents involving 345 active U.S. or Canadian sports figures. Of those, 77 incidents involve violence against women, the leading crime among athletes in each major sport.
That included some of the most high-profile crimes of the year.
--Minnesota Viking quarterback Warren Moon is awaiting trial on a misdemeanor assault charge after allegedly slapping and choking his wife.
--Heisman Trophy candidate Lawrence Phillips of the University of Nebraska was convicted of misdemeanor assault and trespassing after pleading no contest to charges that he attacked a former girlfriend and dragged her down a flight of stairs.
--A judge dismissed spousal abuse charges against Atlanta Brave Manager Bobby Cox but ordered him to attend counseling for allegedly striking his wife.
“The recent attention to it means we are starting to take it more seriously, and not [continuing to] be part of the conspiracy of silence and sweep it under the carpet with the attitude that ‘boys will be boys,’ ” said Michael Messner, associate professor of sociology at USC and co-author with Donald Sabo of the book, “Sex, Violence and Power in Sports: Rethinking Masculinity.”
The language of sports speaks of dominance and aggression, but beyond the towel-snapping and sexual braggadocio of the locker room is the deeper question of whether the sports culture creates negative attitudes toward women, attitudes of superiority that could lead to violence.
“It does create it,” said Mariah Burton Nelson, author of the book, “The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Like Football: Sexism and the American Culture of Sports,” which examines how the male sports environment devalues women.
“It isn’t the only institution that trains men to be sexist, but it is a primary one,” she said. “It is not the sports themselves, but the culture of the sports in which male athletes and coaches talk about women with contempt. It begins with the Little League coach saying, ‘You throw like a girl.’ This teaches boys to feel superior.
“So masculinity is defined as aggression and dominance. That, to me, is the crux of the problem: In order to be a man, you have to be on top, to control, to dominate. We know this is not a ‘male thing'--there are just as many men who don’t rape or beat women. The culture of sports is a breeding ground. And we [society] enable them. They joke about it and nothing happens to them.”
Some say that even as assault against women is recognized as an escalating crime, society doesn’t see it as a problem. Certainly not within the sports community.
At the postgame news conference in State College, Pa., after Penn State lost to Texas in 1990, Coach Joe Paterno, in what was widely reported as a joke, said that he was so frustrated that he was “going to go home and beat my wife.”
According to Sports Illustrated, after Cox was arrested in May for assaulting his wife, former Brave manager Dave Bristol said during a speech at the South Atlantic League All-Star game banquet in Albany, Ga., “If I had that bullpen, I would have slit her throat.”
“Elite athletes learn entitlement,” said Jackson Katz of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. “They believe they are entitled to have women serve their needs. It’s part of being a man. It’s the cultural construction of masculinity.”
Katz is the co-founder of the MVP program, Mentors in Violence Prevention, a group that presents the issue of male violence through seminars to male and female athletes.
The program utilizes role playing in its workshops with high school and college athletes. In one scenario, a man is a witness to another man attacking a woman the attacker knows. The bystander does nothing, saying it was none of his business.
Participants in the program are asked what they think of the man. He is called a “punk” or a “coward” and should have intervened.
Then another scenario is offered. A group of people are standing around at a party and a man slaps and pushes his girlfriend. The participants in the seminar invariably say they would do nothing because it’s a private matter.
Katz said that part of that reaction results from society’s insistence on blaming the victim. When athletes ask, “Why does the woman stay with a man who batters her,” he turns the question around.
“It’s a typical excuse,” he said. “We are not here to talk about why so many women stay with batterers. We are here to talk about why men continue to batter. We focus on men’s responsibility.”
The problem seems especially acute on college campuses. A study concluded this year by researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Northeastern University in Boston found that in colleges and universities, male student athletes were six times more involved than their non-athlete peers in sexual assault cases.
Yet, there seems to be a veil of denial in the athletic community. Coaches often complain that athletes are held to higher behavioral standards than others in society, then explain away athletes’ misdeeds by noting that violence among them is simply a mirror of violence in society.
Many sports leaders who have so much to say about complex labor issues and racial equity have been largely silent about sexual assault and violence among athletes.
One athlete speaking out is Denver Bronco receiver Vance Johnson, who has admitted beating his first two wives.
In his 1994 biography, Johnson said he saw poor role models for treatment of women growing up in Trenton, N.J.
“Everywhere I looked, men abused women,” Johnson wrote. “There was absolutely no respect given to women in Trenton. All of the women were really battered and abused emotionally and physically. It was just a way of life, and no one ever did anything about it.”
It is still happening. Two weeks ago, Lamont Riley, a star basketball player at Cal State San Bernardino, was readmitted to the team a day after pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault on his former girlfriend, an attack that she said left her with a fractured skull and separated shoulder.
“I thought the school would act morally right, but they didn’t,” Claudia Wilson told the San Bernardino Sun. “The way the coaches see it, if it wasn’t a felony, it didn’t really happen.”
Attempts to reach school officials were unsuccessful.
A few weeks ago, the football coach at Courtland High in Alabama refused to suspend two players who were among six people jailed on charges of raping a 14-year-old girl.
The players were expected to be starters for the team in that week’s state championship game. Louis White, the coach, said the players were not suspended because the arrests involved an incident that happened away from school.
“We have a state championship game to prepare for, and that is all I have to say about the arrests,” White said.
A few days later, the county school superintendent overruled White and suspended the players, who remain in jail.
As this case and others illustrate, there is also a nagging conflict-of-interest question. The institutions that profit from athletes’ labor are also sometimes responsible for sanctioning their misbehavior. Often criminal behavior is tolerated and even covered up.
At the University of South Florida in 1992, a Board of Regents committee report revealed that school officials took no action against Marvin Taylor--the basketball team’s starting point guard--for more than a year, despite complaints of sexual assault and sexual harassment filed by six women.
One alleged victim of rape, who reported the incident to campus police immediately, was never interviewed by a school official. The regents’ report detailed how high-level officials at the university worked to cover up the case. One, a member of the school’s athletic booster club, ignored the school’s discipline procedures. The report said that another official, after Taylor was convicted of assaulting a woman in a case not handled by campus authorities, overturned a school hearing officer’s recommendation that the player be suspended for a year.
A school vice president told reporters that the alleged rape victim had recanted her story, even though she had not. The regent’s report said that he also removed all records of the woman’s complaints from the files.
The regents’ report noted that all the women who lodged complaints against Taylor were harassed into withdrawing their complaints. One woman reported that harassment to other school authorities, who took no action. The school vice president resigned in the wake of reports of the coverup.
Madeline Popa, president of Nebraska NOW and a student at the University of Nebraska, said:
“Athletes are models to small children. We worry about violence on television, but generally that is make-believe. When you have real-life heroes [engaging in violence], the message to young boys and girls is, ‘If you are a star athlete, you can get away with things.’ The message to girls is, ‘If you get hurt, nothing will happen [to the perpetrator]. You have to stand alone.’ The message to girls is, ‘You are not as valuable.’ Girls don’t play football. The guys play by different rules than the rest of us.”