#MeToo, Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken and Roy Moore. The conversation in politics, entertainment and culture has been swirling around sexual assault. In the realm of politics, particularly, the conversation has taken some disturbing turns. There seems but one aspect of sexual assault all reasonable Americans have progressed to, and that is that sexual assault is wrong. It is inappropriate in the work place and in social settings. It is not “Boy’s being boys”. It is wrong and we should be trying to eliminate it. How we define sexual assault and who we believe when accusations are made are still undecided questions. But what we do and how we feel about people who have been accused is by far the most important discussion of the day. Especially in the politics.
Are we being honest with ourselves when we place judgments on the accuser and accused? Or do we base it on whether there is a “R” or “D” beside their name? Does the accusation of sexual assault disqualify a candidate from holding political office in the mind of voters? Or are the stakes too high in politics to let the opposing side win, even if it means electing an unsavory character? Does “Trump did it” or “Clinton did it” or “Kennedy did it” make us believe everyone does it and allow us to accept?
I cannot answer all those questions for you. Rather, I would like to take the weight of politics out of the conversation and look at how we, as American’s, have come to view high profile people who have been accused of sexual assault. I am not addressing domestic violence in this piece, only sexual violence. I have picked some instances in the sporting world that will hopefully bring all of us forward and together in the way we think about the issue.
In 2003, Kobe Bryant was the star of the glamorous LA Lakers. He had been drafted out of high school in 1996 and he and Lakers had just won their 3rd NBA Championship in as many years. He was one of the most recognizable and celebrated stars in American culture at the time. In July of 2003 in Eagle, Colorado he had sex with a 19-year old employee of the hotel he was staying at. She claimed she had repeatedly declined his advances and asked him to stop. But on September 1, 2004 the case was dropped, even though the prosecutors had evidence. The accuser refused to testify in court after Bryant’s defense lawyers went at her personally. The attacked her morals and mental health in the courts and the public arena. A civil suit was settled out of court.
The media attention for such a high-profile accusation was fierce. The same issues that are discussed today in cases of sexual assault were at play here. Was she actually harmed or was she after his money? Were his lawyers accurate in their portrayal of her as unstable and unreliable or were they tarnishing a women’s reputation because too much was a risk? Who should we believe? How should a man be treated going forward after such an incident?
In 2005, just two years later and year after the case was dropped Bryant signed a $136 million contract with the Lakers. He went on to be the 2008 MVP of the League and play in the 2009 and 2010 NBA Finals and win MVP. He had his own shoe line with Nike worth approximately $40 million. When he retired the praise that followed him was all encompassing, from opposing players, fans and other athletes world-wide. His past indiscretions, barely mentioned. What he did on the court and who he has become is his legacy. Is this the correct cultural response, forget and move one? You can argue, he was young at the time and it was one mistake. Let us look at another high profile athlete with more than one accusation.
Ben Roethlisberger is the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has led his team to 2 Super Bowl wins over his 11-year career. He has twice been accused of sexual assault. In 2008 the accusation was rape of an employee of the Lake Tahoe Hotel and Casino. When the victim told the Chief of Security for the hotel his response was that she was “overreacting” and that she “should feel lucky”. Two years later he again was accused of sexual assault of a 20-year old student in Georgia while in a club. According to reports, the friends of the victim attempted to rescue the girl from the situation but his bodyguards prevented it. Neither case was brought to trial. Unlike the Bryant case there was very little evidence.
Again, we are met with some powerful questions. How much evidence does the public need to make these decisions? Are the decisions by a court of law how a culture should judge an individual? Should we go about making personal judgments about a sexual assault case? Do we believe the woman? Do we believe the accused? How should we go forward treating a man who has been accused twice? The Pittsburgh Steelers gave him an $87.4 million contract. He still plays in the NFL. His jerseys are still big sellers to children. Is this the way people who have been accused of sexual assault should be treated? By the same argument what Clinton, and Trump and Moore do for a job is more important than what they are accused but not convicted of. Is that really our view of those who commit sexual assault?
Of course, we should not go into these cases always believing the woman without any skepticism. The Duke Lacrosse story is a perfect example of such an action taken and the great tragedy that came of it. 3 players of the Lacrosse team were were brought to trial for raping a woman. Throughout the trial process it was discovered that the woman had lied about the incident, the police officers and prosecutors had fabricated evidence. The players were exonerated. One of the players said, “Not a month goes by when I am not reminded of the damage those accusations have on my reputation and the public’s perception of my character. Sometimes only time can heal wounds.”
We cannot underestimate the magnitude of the accusations being cast. Woman accusers cannot be accepted just because they are leveled. People’s lives are in the balance. Questions should be asked on both sides. Judgement should be made with both parties given the chance to speak. We must remember the power we as a collective can have on an individual. It should not be wielded like a sword at random.
We can see from these past incidents that we are willing to forgive and move on. Or rather, the media allows the forgiveness. They choose to cover athletes and praise them for their on-field accomplishments without hint or reminder of their past deeds. Yet the regular person has very little impact on whether these athletes stay or go. We have every choice on who we choose to hold an elected position. Should we forgive them if they are good at their jobs the way we have treated these athletes of the past? Or is the climate changing? In 2015 Baylor University had a cleaning out of an athletic and football department when the gang rape of a freshman woman by the football team was uncovered. Harvey Weinstein and those others who have been accused in Hollywood are facing serious backlash. But will it continue? Will we hold to our principles and say these people do not belong in public regard? Can we turn Clinton and Trump to the curb and say, from both parties, we can do better? Can we expect better from our public figures? Or will we forget or forgive? Is their talent and their charisma more important than their actions?
If we are looking at the past to answer these questions the answer will be, yes, they will continue to thrive in the perspective arenas. Their misdeeds forgotten. The female victims will be disregarded. But I hope we take a new turn in our collective view of such allegations. I hope, if the allegations of abuse are judged with soundness and not snappy bias, we cast them out.