Thursday, November 21, 2013

Rape vs. Football in a Big Football Town

Disclaimer, this is a somber post about a serious topic. There is some occasionally graphic language and imagery.

First, let me state that people are innocent until proven guilty. And as this Jameis Winston story has unfolded, the accuser stated that her attacker was under 6 feet tall, and Winston is 6' 4" tall. I have no idea if Winston is guilty, and this post isn't about his guilt or innocence.

If Winston is innocent, that doesn't mean that Tallahassee's law enforcement didn't try to protect the Florida State QB and the FSU football program from investigation.

In a statement released to the Tampa Bay Times, the family of the accuser claims that:

"When the attorney contacted Detective (Scott) Angulo immediately after Winston was identified, Detective Angulo told the attorney that Tallahassee was a big football town and the victim needs to think long and hard before proceeding against him because she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable," the family said.

"The family also said that Angulo refused to collect Winston's DNA or interview his roommate, a possible witness in the case, because doing so would alert Winston and allow the case to go public."

Again, I'm not saying anything about Jameis Winston here. This is about a cop in Tallahassee telling a person accusing someone else of rape that they are in "a big football town," and that "she will be raked over the coals."

It's all too easy to imagine a Tallahassee detective warning someone that wants to accuse a Florida State football player (at the time of the alleged crime, Winston was a redshirt freshman after being a highly touted recruit) of sexual assault, that their life will be made miserable. I can imagine a similar conversation occurring in State College, PA if the family of a young boy wanted to accuse a Penn State coach of sexual assault.

"This is a big football town."

What the hell is a big football town? It's a town that identifies itself through a team. State College is home of the Nittany Lions. Tallahassee is home of the Seminoles. Football is life. Everything else, including the law and basic human decency, can very easily become secondary priorities. As it did in State College.

What's alarming is that this attitude could prevail in any college sports crazed town: Tuscaloosa, Norman, Eugene, Chapel Hill, Ann Arbor, South Bend, Syracuse, Lexington, College Station, Austin, Gainesville, Lawrence, anywhere.

And maybe the police weren't trying to protect Florida State or Winston. Maybe they were trying to protect the accuser from the onslaught that a "big football town" would unleash on her. If you accuse a star athlete of rape in these sports-obsessed towns, you're putting yourself in jeopardy.

And it's not just college towns.

Just look at what happened in Maryville, Missouri. There a 14-year-old girl accused star high school football players and wrestlers of rape. She was found the morning after a party, by her mother, passed out on their lawn in sub-freezing temperatures, weeping, disoriented. The mother gave her a bath and found her daughter to have anal and vaginal bruises. The town rallied behind the alleged rapists, threatened the girl on social media, the mother lost her job, and eventually the family felt compelled to leave town. Then their old house was mysteriously burnt down. Charges were dropped with no explanation. One of the accused players was related to a state lawmaker, whose picture hangs in the office of the District Attorney who dropped the charges.

Or Steubenville, Ohio, where members of the community rallied around star football players who were eventually convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious girl. There were tweets and videos online of the accused talking about raping the accuser, as well as pissing on her. Yet still many in the town stood by the team and the accused players.

And as the guilty verdict was read, a CNN reporter focused on the plight of the student-rapist-athletes: "Incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart." Even after conviction, the athletes, the team, the sport are the focus. Not justice, not the law.

That's what can happen in "a big football town." When a team becomes larger than the town, or a school, or basic human decency. They become towns without pity.

State College, PA is perhaps the worst case of what the NCAA called "loss of institutional control" in "a big football town." When in fact the problem was that the institution - in this case the PSU football program and the university - had far too much power. The program exerted direct control over the school, and indirect influence over local law enforcement. Joe Paterno and Penn State football literally made their own laws, and deemed rape legal. Because in "a big football town," trivial things like boys being sodomized in a shower can't be allowed to get in the way of important things like the defensive scheme against Michigan State.

And it sounds like Tallahassee could be in the same category of Maryville, Stuebenville, or State College. Someone has accused a star football player in a big football town of sexual assault. Regardless of the validity or truth of the accusation against Winston, the accuser will have her life scrutinized, she will be raked over coals, people will try to make her life miserable. Not because of her, but because of who she has accused, and what he does for a football team.

It's difficult enough for rape victims to accuse their attackers. Women who accuse men of rape have their sex lives vigorously investigated, divulged in detail, and discussed in open court and in the media. Which doesn't happen with other crimes. Why is it that if you have your car stolen, the defendant's attorneys don't investigate the history of how you took care of your car, how often you locked it, where you parked, who you let borrow it. If a risk-taking daredevil is murdered, why doesn't the defending lawyer point out that the deceased frequently risked his life, and accuse the victim of "asking for it?"

In a big football town, a woman accusing rape faces more than scrutiny and moral judgment. They face intimidation, scorn, contempt, threats, being ostracized, being shunned. By accusing a football player of rape, they're attacking the team, which in essence is an attack on the whole community. So the community defends the accused, and sometimes savagely attacks the accuser.

These towns and cities don't just revolve around these sports teams. The sports teams are the town. The team is everything. Tuscaloosa is Bama football. Lawrence is KU basketball. And the people, the police, the school officials, and the coaches sometimes defend the program at all costs. Because if the program's image is tarnished, the community is tarnished.

And they will not allow that. Especially if it's some stupid, drunk, whore doing the tarnishing.

It's alarming. It's sad. It pisses me off.

It's sad if a Tallahassee detective warned a girl's family that if she accused Winston, her life would be made miserable, almost as if he were trying to convince her not to accuse him. It's sad that he's also correct and that such things probably will happen.

I don't know if Winston is guilty. I consider him innocent until proven so. Maybe this girl is lying. Maybe she's telling the truth. Maybe she thinks it was Winston but is wrong. Who knows.

What I do know is that in some communities, too many communities, and Boston isn't above this (see: BU hockey, or the morons who cheered for Aaron Hernandez the day he was arrested), people not only blindly defend their sports teams. They blindly ATTACK anyone who threatens the "good name" of their beloved team. No matter how much evidence there is, no matter how suspicious circumstances are, no matter how non-thorough the investigation is.

The team is above everything.

Sports are meant to unite and entertain communities, not define and control them.

Winston is innocent until proven guilty. So was Sandusky, so were the Stuebenville kids, so were the Maryville kids. Let's extend those same rights to those who accuse rape. They're also innocent until proven otherwise.