To End Rape, Athletes Need to Speak Out — And to Each Other


There's been no shortage of rapes reported since Steubenville, including other cases involving athletes from Ohio to Los Angeles. And since the trial, there's been no lack of discussion since on how to change the violent culture we live in. I, for example, organized online with the support of over 65,000 people (and the massive power of SPARK) for the wider education of coaches. Thousands of others stood up to media outlets apologizing for and glorifying rape. Each action, it seemed, revolved around the idea that our larger culture had the responsibility to influence our athletic subculture, and that no time was more perfect than the present to begin trying in earnest.

But what about the athletes themselves?

Dave Zirin, sports writer for The Nationspoke out recently about pro sports and its role in ending rape. Calling on professional athletes to take care of their own community and take action against the endemic of sexism and misogyny in their locker rooms, he cited victims of violence like Kassandra Perkins (killed by Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher), Lizzy Seeberg (who reported a rape by Notre Dame's football players, and then committed suicide), and the countless other women assaulted and beaten by individual and groups of team members from varying sports at varying levels across the country every day.

"The NFL, NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball — for starters — should see part of their mission as using the influence and power of sports to reshape a jock culture that treats women like they are the spoils of athletic supremacy," Zirin states.

"They should be appalled by the glaring connective tissue between sports and rape culture in Steubenville, OhioSouth Bend, Indiana, and now Torrington, Connecticut. They should be especially devastated that the hero worship of athletes meant that the alleged and convicted perpetrators of sexual violence are defended by many of their coaches and peers. They should recoil that survivors who accuse athletes of sexual violence are blamed and then become threatened with more violence for daring to step forward."

The "connective tissue" he focuses on is very real. Various academic studies have found that male homosocial bonding that which occurs frequently in sports, fraternal life, and other female-excluding dude-on-dude cultures of male friendship and man-driven groupthink is one of the largest components of our rape culture. Men rape because they think they won't get caught — or better, because they think that when they do, they'll have a crew to back them up. And typically, men in sports are among the most comfortable making that assumption.

Look at Steubenville, where an entire community mourned the football careers of two rapists. Look at Penn State, where the vilification of justice was paramount. We live in a world where rape victims face hostility every day for being willing and able to speak out about the atrocities committed against them. And we live in a world where athletes are some of the most commonly defended rapists of them all.

Athletes themselves must commit to ending rape culture. They are the target audience of the work being done after Steubenville, and the work being done before and after to stop rape across campuses and communities in the U.S. Education is meant, as an advocacy strategy, to provide athletes with the means to speak to one another and their larger communities about violence against women; action around the media is intended to send them a message about their own actions, and how socially intolerable they truly are. But the bottom line remains the same: In order for the rampant misogyny embedded in sports culture to change, athletes need to be on board.

The number of boys participating in high school sports has been steadily rising since the 1980s. (As of 2008, football was the most popular, with over 1 million boys participating.) The interest rarely fades, though.  Football is watched by over half of the population and almost 3/4 of men in this country. There's a huge learning opportunity present here —a huge audience and a huge number of players in one place, consistently.

But the opportunity for growth has, for the most part, been wasted. Statistics show that although white male athletes comprise 3.3%of the general population, they make up 19% of accused rapists and 35% of domestic violence perpetrators. Male athletes, emblazoned with the support of their peers, may even participate in gang rapes and other forms of communal assault. Yet despite a general conviction rate of 80%, athletes come in at a low 38. 

With sports being at the focal point of our culture's communal masculinity, time is being wasted each moment that athletes refuse to take action. With a captive audience and the inherent responsibility to lead by example, it's no longer possible for us to stand idly by as they encourage and incite violence against women. Athletes are a major part of the equation to end rape culture, and we as a united community against violence should be able to call them our allies.