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O.J.’s back, again. Last weekend, O.J. Simpson was arrested by Las Vegas police for apparently breaking into the hotel room of two memorabilia dealers and robbing valuable sports collectables. According to media reports, O.J. joined a posse of five men in an effort to reclaim personal items illegal taken from him. The dealers, however, insist that the desperados carried guns, threatened then and absconded with memorabilia from sports and other celebrities; police claim to have seized two guns in their follow-up investigation. The media waits with bated breath for what comes next.
Every couple of months the media, like a blind fullback, picks-up and runs in all directions (including backwards) with a story about the latest scandal involving an athlete. Each story, with headlines blazing and little concern for nuance or probing questions, recreates the classic battle between the home-town favorite and the visiting loser so that loyal fans will know who to cheer for.
Most recently, we’ve been witness to the sad tale of Michael Vick and his gang of animal lovers. As repeatedly reported, Vick was until recently the quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons who, together with two of his associates, pleaded guilty to federal charges involving the illegal interstate commerce in competitive-fighting dogs. In case you’ve been in a coma, his venture, Bad Newz Kennels, trained pit bulls for gladiator-style battle-to-the-death blood sport and those sad beasts that didn’t make the grade were painfully slaughter by these upstanding entrepreneurs.
Last year, it was the story of the Duke lacrosse players and what happened at their scandalous bachelor party that dominated the headlines. For those who might have forgotten, two African-American women were hired as exotic dancers to add some spice for what was to be a group of five male buddies and, when the women arrived, turned out to be forty or so drunken, all-white lacrosse team members and their hommies. What happened next remains clouded in confusion, forgetting and falsification. In the end, the Duke players were exonerated of rape charges.
In 2003, Kobe Bryant, a Los Angeles Lakers basketball player, then 24-years-old, was arrested for the allegedly sexual assault of a 19-year-old woman who worked at the Colorado hotel-spa he was staying. After two-plus years of media hype and pretrial machinations, the charges against Bryant were thrown-out because the alleged victim refused to testify.
Professional and college athletics has come under considerable scrutiny of late. A host of scandals have gained page-one notoriety, including the illegal gambling by Tim Donaghy and the apparent use of performance-enhancing drugs by baseball’s Barry Bonds as well as cycling’s Floyd Landis and at least five riders of the Festina team at the recent Tour de France. To these, one can add numerous accounts of professional and college athletes involved in assault, drug possession and DUI cases.
However, a flurry of sex-related cases involving professional and college athletes over the last few years raise more serious concerns. These cases involve the intersection of athletes, violence and sex, a subject that is all-too-often ignored by sports-industry’s shills, its reporters and commentators, who (like movie reviewers) push to sell tickets, please advertisers and keep fans glued to the TV sets before, during and after game time.
* * *
Over the last decade or so, there have been numerous cases of professional male athletes being accused of, charged with or convicted of sexual-related offenses, including battery of their wives or girlfriends. Examining some of the prominent cases involving major professional sports, i.e., football, basketball and baseball, is revealing.
The most recent grand sex scandal involving athletes is the "Love Boat Scandal" or, as USA Today called it, the "bawdy boating party." The party took place on October 6, 2005, on Lake Minnetonka, MN, and involved seventeen members of the Minnesota Vikings football team, including quarterback Duante Culpepper, Fred Smoot, Bryant McKinnie and Moe Williams.
There were apparently ninety people on two boats rented for the day’s festivities. It is alleged that prostitutes from Atlanta and Florida were flown in for the party and some, but not all, of the players performed sexual acts in front of crew members.
On December 15, 2005, Culpepper, McKinnie, Smoot and Williams were charged with indecent conduct, disorderly conduct and lewd or lascivious conduct. All pleaded not guilty.
In the Spring 2006, Smoot and McKinnie pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and each paid a $1,000 fine and agreed to perform 48 hours of community service; Williams was found guilty on one count of disorderly conduct but was cleared on charges of indecent conduct and lewd or lascivious behavior; and charges against Culpepper were dropped.
A series of cases involving players for the Green Bay Packers got headlines in Milwaukee and the mid-west. In April 2000, Mark Chmura, a tight end, was arrested for sexual assault and child enticement. His child’s former babysitter claimed he raped her in the bathroom at an after-prom party. After a bruising trial, covered on Court TV with tireless commitment to recount every sordid detail so as to uplift the viewing audience, he was acquitted.
In May 2002, Ahman Green, a Packers running back, was served an order of protection from his wife, Shalynn Vance Green. He had been involved in several domestic abuse incidents with her, including when she was pregnant. In 1999, while with the Seattle Seahawks, Green was charged with fourth-degree domestic assault against Shalynn, his then-fiancée; the charges were later dropped.
Illegal non-violent sexual conduct should not be excluded. The "Boston Phoenix" recently reported on the sorrowful exploits of Richard Seigler, a former Pittsburgh Steeler and San Francisco 49er linebacker. As it stated, Siegler "has become the first major-college or pro athlete in American history to be arrested for pandering – i.e., pimping."
Seigler hooked up with his cousin, Billy Cooks, a "known Las Vegas pimp." Cooks apparently incriminated Seigler during a number of phone calls he placed from a Las Vegas jail and which the police tapped. In these calls it became clear that Seigler had "at least two women" working for him as prostitutes.
Apparently, Siegler placed an ad on his local Craigslist Vegas soliciting the services of two girls, who subsequently came to his Las Vegas hotel room. He also advertises their services as "all natural sexy girls" and the police busted them.
And then there is the O.J. case which stands out as a unique Rorschach test of American racial politics. In June 1994, Simpson was charged with the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. After a spectacular trial, Simpson was acquitted of the murders, but eventually found guilty in a civil trial for Goldman’s wrongful death.
Perhaps the most remarkable report on professional sports by a major American media outlet was the San Diego Union-Tribune study of the arrest records of NFL players. As it reported earlier this year, that NFL players have had 308 arrests and citations since 2000; it did not breakout sex-related cases. It found that 3 percent of the men in the league (about fifty players) were responsible for 40 percent of the league’s arrests. The Cincinnati Bengals lead the NFL league in arrests, with twenty-three. According to the paper, "arrest rates are consistent with general population, and DUIs dominate."
Basketball players are not immune to similar charges of sexual assault. Latrell Sprewell got a good deal of media attention in 1997 when he assaulted his Golden State basketball team coach, P.J. Carlesimo. He is reported to have put the coach in a head lock and threatening to kill him. However, in 1995, he was arrested for a traffic violation and for allegedly threatening a police officer who chased his truck. Sprewell was also arrested in 1995 for allegedly choking a woman during consensual sex on his yacht.
Baseball players have also faced similar charges. For example, Alberto Callaspo, an infielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks, was arrested in May for reportedly assaulting his wife, Marianny Paola. Callaspo was suspended without pay and ordered to stay away from his wife and 1-year-old child.
In June, former major league baseball player Melvin Hall, Jr., was arrested in North Richland Hills, TX, on charges of sexually assaulting two girls under the age of 17-years. These incidents took place in 1998 and 1999 while Hall was coaching a girl’s basketball team.
* * *
A similar set of incidents have involved male college athletes. In October 2005, a couple of months before the Duke lacrosse rape story made front-page headlines, seven football players at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga were accused of gang rape of an 18-year-old co-ed. However, in January 2006, a Chattanooga judge threw out the case. After listening to a day’s testimony from the alleged victim and others, the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to go forward with a criminal prosecution. In effect, the sex was consensual.
Around the same time but in Arkadelphia, AK, four Henderson State University football players and a fifth student were charged in the rape of a 13-year-old girl. According to a police report, the alleged rape took place in the men’s dormitory. Those accused were players Donald Bell, Arkeith Cozart, Marvin Prude and Malcolm Anthony Bailey as well as Christopher Brown.
According to the police report, the girl claimed that the five males smoked marijuana and drank alcohol while in the parked vehicle. She said she was told how to sneak into the dorm and was accompanied by one of the men. She told the officer she had sex with three of the men in one room and a fourth man later in another room. She said the young men "knew about her age." In another police interview, the girl said she had previously visited an off-campus apartment and had sex with Bell, Prude and Bailey. The four pleaded not guilty.
Numerous other incidents could be discussed, like those involving students at the Universities of Minnesota and Arkansas earlier this year or at Fresno City College and Reedley College last year. But they and others would only be more of the same.
* * *
Crime in American is big business, with the criminal justice system perhaps the biggest racket. When a criminal incident (even if only alleged) involves someone with celebrity status like an athlete, musician, actor, politician or business tycoon, the media goes into hyper-drive. Like the latest Washington scandals involving David Vitter and Larry Craig, the criminal incident is promoted with front-page headlines. Depending on celebrity’s status or the alleged crime, attention can drive the story to national coverage or, as with many such incidents, remain part of the local gossip mill.
If such an incident involves an athlete, violence and sex, the press’ prurient-fascination meter goes way up. And if the athlete happens to be black, or if the incident involves interracial or age-inappropriate sex, there’s no limit to the corporate media’s dedication to uncover every sordid detail. The exposure of such deeds (even if only alleged or the apparent offender is cleared of all charges) would make it appear that incidents involving celebrities, and especially athletes, occur more often than among the population at large.
Unfortunately, there appears to no credible evidence to corroborate this inference. In fact, the San Diego Union-Tribune report on arrests of NFL players argues against it: the "arrest rates are consistent with general population, and DUIs dominate."
A study by Kathryn Hildebrand (of Northern Arizona University) and Kimberly Bogle and Dewayne Johnson (of Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL), however, raises some serious issues. The authors presented a challenging research paper, "Violence in Athletes Versus Non-Athletes by Gender," at the 2002 conference of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD). While only a self-reporting study and with no corroborating data, it is among the few that explore the intersection of athletes, violence and sex.
With regard to physical fights among high-school and college students, the researchers found that both male and female athletes had higher incidents than non-athletes; high school athletes (male: 61.2%; female: 50.0%) and college athletes (male: 21.0%; female: 25.0%) were involved more than non-athletes (male: 15.8%; female: 25.0%).
With regard to carrying a weapon, a similar pattern was evident. Athletes were six times more likely to carry a weapon to school or college than a non-athlete; fewer male non-athletes carried a weapon (10%) then male high school athlete (60%) or male college athletes (26.7%); however, the story is different among female students, with female non-athletes were three times more like (22.2%) than high-school athletes (66.7%) yet double that of college athletes (11.1%).
When it came to the question of sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol, again, the researchers found a similar pattern. Athletes, both male (high school: 62.7%; college: 27.1%) and female (high school: 61.3%; college: 9.7%), had more sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol than non-athletes (males: 15.7%; females: 28.0%). [http://aahperd.confex.com]
These findings substantiate those from an earlier report known as the Benedict-Crosset Study. It examined sexual assaults at thirty major Division I universities over a three-year period prior to 1998 and concluded that "male college student athletes, compared to the rest of the male population, are responsible for a significantly higher percentage of sexual assaults reported to judicial affairs on the campuses of Division I institutions."
It found that while male student-athletes comprised 3.3 percent of the population, they represented 19 percent of sexual assault perpetrators and 35 percent of domestic violence perpetrators; that one in three college sexual assaults are committed by athletes; during the 1995-1997 period, an average of 1,000 charges were brought against athletes each year; while only 8.5 percent of the general population was charged with assault, 36.8 percent of athletes were charged with assault; and, while the general population had a conviction rate of 80 percent, the conviction rate of an athlete was 38 percent. [National Coalition Against Violent Athletes]
Perhaps most disturbing, in the wake of the Duke lacrosse scandal, university law professor James Coleman chaired a committee looking at the relationship between team members and questionable conduct. It found that 56 lacrosse players were involved in 36 separate incidents over the previous three academic years, most of them involving alcohol; while lacrosse players comprise 0.75 percent of the Duke undergraduate population of 6,244, they were responsible for 33 percent of the open container cases, 25 percent of the disorderly conduct cases and 21 percent of the alcohol-unsafe behavior cases; and in the 2004-2005 academic year, the Office of Judicial Affairs handled 97 non-academic misconduct cases, and 11 of them (just over 11 percent) involved lacrosse players. Clearly, sex is not only personal or private activity, but a phenomenon that embodies deeply shared social values and forms of association.
This data is alarming. It suggests a strong correlation between athletes and violence. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell enough of the story in terms of a nationally-projectable sample or corroborating data from other sources (e.g., arrest and conviction records) to make a truly meaningful inference as to the relationship between athletes, violence and sex. Nor does it apply to professional athletes.
Obviously, one could easily infer that athletes, because of personality factors or indoctrination through the performance culture, have a greater proclivity to sexualized violence, criminal or otherwise. But no one has yet substantiated this inference and the collective voice of the sports industry (teams, TV networks, advertisers, et. al.) has, like the tobacco industry did about cigarettes and cancer, gone to every length not to ask the question.
Perhaps the issue of athletes and sexual violence is better approached from a different perspective: Is the athlete a domesticated warrior? By bringing military gamesmanship into American’s living-room every weekend (let alone everyday), does the athlete not serve to legitimize war and the warrior state?
The parallels between athlete and soldier are clearly obvious. At any weekend athletic spectacle, whether a professional game or a NASCAR race, war metaphors and analogies are common if not predominant. And at such events, it’s common to hear male fans bellowing obscenities and racial epithets, shouting abusive remarks at women and watch as fistfights break out among drunken fans. For many, the playing field is a miniature battle field. The unfortunately experience of Pat Tillman exemplifies this convergence.
In all sports, athletes are rewarded for their "killer" instinct and pushed to win at any cost. While "bean balls" are formally illegal and baseball sports commentators have stats on every conceivable facet of the game, it’s not been possible to locate data on annual hit-by-pitch (HBP) statistics on either the MLB website or that of ESPN or CNN-Sports Illustrated. Similar data relating to NHL and NFL annual penalty rates could not be found on their respective websites; penalties relating to individual games are available. This absence speaks volumes.
It appears that a clearer relation between male athletes and soldiers with regard to sexual violence is suggested by military sexual assault cases. Reported incidents of rape, sexual assault and harassment within the U.S. military have skyrocketed by over 75 percent since 2004. Reports of military sexual assaults in 2004 were 1,700; in 2005, they were 2,374; and in 2006, they hit nearly 3,000. The DoD also reports action was taken against 780 people, from courts-martial and discharges to other administrative remedies. However, the "Denver Post" found that in 2003 nearly 5,000 accused military sex offenders had avoided prosecution since 1992. [www.sapr.mil; DoD News Release, No. 443-05, May 6, 2005; Denver Post, April 12, 2007]
When incidents involving athletes and sexually-related violence occur, the media goes into hyper-drive. It seeks to exploit these incidents for maximum impact and, not surprising, to exclude more probing questioning linking the phenomenon to deeper patriarchal values. In the wake of the Michael Vick, Duke lacrosse team, Kobe Bryant and even the O.J. cases, its time for the media to not only look deeper into the relation between athletes and violence, but look at how it exploits the subject for its own ends.
DAVID ROSEN can be reached at email@example.com.