Sexual Assault & The NFL: When Will We Stop Defending Our Athletes?

Next Door Solutions

We’ve all seen it time and again- sport fans defending their heroes by slandering the victim and questioning her motives, claiming that the girl is just after attention, fame, and money. But is that the type of attention a woman would welcome into in her life?

NFL player William Gay recently opened up about his personal experience with domestic violence in the hopes of helping others. Gay, a cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was only 8 years old when his stepfather murdered his mother before killing himself.

Gay decided to go public with his story after visiting the Women’s Center and Shelter of Pittsburgh during Thanksgiving, and even agreed to do a public service announcement, which you can watch here.

His teammate, Ben Roethlisberger, is a man who has been accused of sexual assault. TWICE.

In 2009, David Meggett was found guilty of raping a 21 year old woman and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. In 2010, Giants player and two-time Super Bowl Champ Lawrence Taylor was accused of raping a 16 year old prostitute and pled guilty to the charges. Former Denver Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith was accused of domestic violence, assault, and battery against the mother of his two children. Brett Farve made the news this year while engaging in alleged sexually harassing activities via text messages.  And the list goes on.

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I’m curious why more men like William Gay don’t stand up against crimes against women, and organizations like the NFL and its fans don’t take a stronger stand against accusations like those against Roethlisberger.  Interestingly enough, a recent article by Morning Gloria titled “Sexual Assault and the Super Bowl”, explores why, despite numerous allegations of sexual assault and violence against women, we continue to place NFL athletes on a pedestal and deem them worthy of our praise.

To be fair, one of the charges against Roethlisberger was dropped but that’s not necessarily the point I’m trying to make. Regardless of whether or not the case made it to court, why are we so quick to defend these athletes? Why is it our first reaction to assume that the victim isn’t a victim at all?

We’ve all seen it time and again- sport fans defending their heroes by slandering the victim and questioning her motives, claiming that the girl is just after attention, fame, and money. But is that the type of attention a woman would welcome into in her life?

It is exactly this kind of treatment that continues to prevent victims of violence from stepping forward. Imagine having to defend yourself every single day. Imagine recalling every last detail of the most traumatic experience of your life. Imagine having to answer the same questions over and over again, to the point of exhaustion. These women don’t have to imagine it… they had to live it.

Morning Gloria states it best: “Until America’s justice system is perfect in resolving sexual assault allegations, until the NFL takes rape accusations more seriously, until wealthy and powerful athletes aren’t given a free pass to treat women any way they wish, we have to assume that at least some of the women who accuse NFL players of sexual assault are telling the truth.”

In an industry riddled with accusations of sexual assault, William Gay deserves to be commended for his bravery on taking a stance against violence against women. He successfully turned his life around and is now using his stance as a celebrity to mentor young people and show them that they don’t have to feel alone.

I only hope that several of his teammates, other players around the league, NFL leadership and its fans will some day follow his example, and send the message to women that they don’t condone this kind of behavior from their “heroes”.

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.

Commentary Violence

Major League Baseball Has More Work to Do When It Comes to Domestic Violence Charges

Claire Tighe

Major League Baseball's response to charges of domestic violence against Jose Reyes is really just a step in the right direction. The league, its fans, and the media outlets covering it have work to do before there is additional cause to celebrate.

Two weeks ago, the Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball (MLB) team made headlines for designating their shortstop, Jose Reyes, for assignment. The designation for assignment (DFA) means he was removed from their roster, most likely so the Rockies could trade him or release him to the minors.

The decision came after an announcement from MLB in May concluding that Reyes had violated its new Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse policy. Reyes was put on leave in February while the league investigated charges that he had allegedly assaulted his wife in a Hawaii hotel the previous October. Though the charges were ultimately dropped, MLB still concluded that he had violated its policy—which allows discipline no matter a case’s legal status—based on the available police reports. Ultimately, Reyes was suspended for 52 games.

Many sports fans and media outlets are celebrating the Rockies’ decision to designate Reyes for assignment, framing it squarely as a moral response to his domestic violence suspension. As a result of the suspension, Reyes ultimately lost a total of $7.02 million for missing 30 percent of the season and is required to donate $100,000 to “charity focused on domestic violence.” Still, the team will owe Reyes $41 million despite the DFA—and that, spectators say, makes the Rockies’ actions worthy of praise. The Denver Post‘s Mark Kiszla, for example, wrote that the Rockies franchise owner, Dick Monfort, deserves a “standing ovation” for taking a “$40M stance against domestic violence” that was “not just financial.” According to Kiszla, “the franchise did right by battered women by showing zero tolerance for physical abuse.”

Yet instead of a purely moral response that deserves “a standing ovation,” the Reyes case is really more of a step in the right direction. If, as Bob Nightengale at USA Today suggested, MLB is setting a precedent by suspending Jose Reyes, the league and the media covering it have work to do before there is additional cause to celebrate.

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The league could have acted faster and given Reyes a longer, more consequential suspension to show its seriousness in responding to his violation of the policy. In fact, the New York Mets’ recent signing of Reyes, which the team explained as giving him a “second chance,” underscores just how much tolerance for reports of domestic violence truly exists in professional baseball as a whole.

The public excitement about the connection between Reyes’ domestic violence record and his sportsmanship is warranted, albeit overstated. As MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred put it, the league has taken “a firm national and international stance” on domestic violence. Reyes was only the second player to receive a suspension under the new policy, which was approved by the league in August 2015 as a result of the ongoing national conversation about intimate partner abuse in professional sports. His case was the first to be negotiated with the MLB Player’s Association; his was the harshest punishment a player had received at the time.

Even so, while the Rockies’ consideration of Reyes’ charges of domestic abuse in their decision should be appreciated, the DFA should be understood for what it really appears to be overall: based on the team’s response, it was a business decision, not an action on behalf of domestic violence survivors.

“Would we be sitting here talking about this if the domestic violence thing hadn’t happened in Hawaii? We wouldn’t. So it’s obviously part of the overall decision,” said Colorado general manager Jeff Bridich told the New York Times. After all, an incident causing a player to miss a third of the season is enough to make any team pause for consideration.But, as the Times pointed out, there are other reasons that the Rockies were ready to move on, including “never really wanting him in the first place,” the great performance of his replacement during the suspension, and the fact that the franchise had already sunk the costs of bringing Reyes onboard. By the terms of their contract, designating him for assignment was no more expensive than keeping him.

Furthermore, the handling of the Reyes case within the league and the franchise has been mostly professional, but there is still a lingering tone of undue apology toward Reyes—suggesting, again, that the treatment he has received may not be the unilateral condemnation of domestic violence that others have implied.

It begins with Reyes himself, who first apologized “to the Rockies organization, my teammates, all the fans, and most of all my family,” before retweeting Mike Cameron, a former MLB player who said that Reyes just had a “bad moment in life” and deserved forgiveness for committing physical violence against his wife.

Commissioner Manfred walked a thin line in a news conference in November just after the Hawaii incident, stating his interest in maintaining Reyes’ privacy despite the charges against him. “There’s a balance there,” he said. “On the one hand, I think our fans want to know that the case has been dealt with appropriately. On the other hand, whoever the player is, the fact that he’s a major league player doesn’t mean he has absolutely no right to privacy and or that everything in the context of a relationship or a marriage has to be public.”

While domestic violence can happen “behind closed doors,” that does not mean it is an issue of one’s personal privacy. As Bethany P. Withers has argued for the New York Times, there may not be public witnesses to abuse occurring between partners, but we should not ignore professional athletes who are charged with committing acts of domestic violence. Manfred’s comments, as well as Cameron’s, minimize Reyes’ Hawaii incident into “a lovers’ quarrel,” rather than a report of an abusive act of behavior that most likely exposes an ongoing pattern.

Rockies Franchise owner Dick Monfort’s comments were better, though not ideal. In April he told the Associated Press, “I’d like to know exactly what happened. It’s easy for us all to speculate on what happened. But really, until you really know, it’s hard. You’re dealing with a guy’s life, too.” Monfort, while expressing understandable concern for this player, sounds apologetic to Reyes, rather than the woman he was charged with abusing.

Sympathizing with Reyes in this matter, while he may be sorry for reportedly committing actions that had visible consequences, centers the experience of an abuser in a culture that silences, blames, shames, and erases survivors of domestic violence and perpetuates abusive behavior.

Much of the media, meanwhile, has taken action either to diminish Reyes’ alleged crimes or dismiss them completely. The Post‘s Kiszla, for example, was plain encouraging of Reyes, for whom he “hoped nothing but the best, if his wife had forgiven him.” His uninformed commentary shows utter lack of understanding of domestic violence and what Katherine Reyes might be experiencing in deciding to “not cooperate with the prosecutors” on the case. Fox News was similarly insensitive. At the very least, the media can provide a short explanation as to what domestic violence is and why victims may be reluctant to work with police and the criminal justice system in the first place. The “inaction, hostility, and bias” they might face, as the American Civil Liberties Union put it, is real. And their personal fear of consequences are legitimate.

Nightengale of USA Today had a particularly awful response, explicitly sympathizing with Reyes, saying “that one ugly night in Hawaii cost Reyes his pride and his job.” Except that domestic violence, a cycle of power and control, is hardly ever just “one ugly night.”

Furthermore, incidents of reported domestic violence need to be named as such. In the coverage of Reyes’ charges in Hawaii, the media failed to do so. Though ESPN reported Reyes had been arrested on abuse charges, it still said Reyes had “an argument with his wife [that] turned physical.” The Chicago Tribune labeled it as “an altercation.” The Tribune was also inaccurate in reporting that Reyes ‘choked’ his wife, when the it was actually strangulation. Technically, choking by definition is when the airway is blocked internally. Strangulation, however, is the act of blocking the passage of air through the external use of force. While the difference is subtle—in fact, the police report itself logged the action as “choking”—the ramifications are large. Describing the act as an expression of dominance signals to the public that acts of violence have perpetrators. It also gives detailed meaning to “domestic violence,” an all-encompassing phrase whose intricacies are not widely understood.

While it may seem petty to be picking over semantics, accurate framing is the difference between two partners having a disagreement and one partner committing threatening acts of violence against another in a cyclical power dynamic. It’s the difference between public acceptance of horrific behavior and public recognition of unhealthy, unacceptable relationship dynamics.

The focus on costs to Reyes and the Rockies should also be reframed. If we really want to talk big money, we should consider the exorbitant shared cost of domestic violence on all of our systems, both public and private. Domestic violence is “a serious, preventable public health problem.” The epidemic is estimated to cost $8.3 billion annually to the economy due to its effect on survivors’ physical and emotional health, as well as their workplace productivity. Because domestic violence is so widely underreported, this estimate is even a conservative one. It also does not encompass the cost to child survivors and the trauma inherited by future generations. Understanding the ridiculously high costs of domestic violence centers the long-lasting effects of an epidemic on survivors and our society as a whole, rather than the cost to a singular MLB player or team.

Wholly shifting the narrative is vital in Reyes’ case and in the cases of other players disciplined under MLB’s new policy. It is up to the public to connect the dots between all of the players and teams to understand the wide scale and scope of MLB’s domestic violence problem. The Mets’ quick re-signing of Reyes as a “second chance” to the player is a reminder of many teams’ true priorities.

Though the new MLB policy appears to be comprehensive and informed by experts, the league, the teams, and the media haven’t quite perfected their responses. With regard to MLB’s process and ultimate decision, critics are saying the league should act faster and make longer, more consequential suspensions in the future. If Commissioner Manfred is really going to give weight to charges of domestic violence, a quicker, more punitive response to charges like Reyes’ is a good way to start. There is also significant work to be done in the public relations and media responses to domestic violence in the League overall.

Five years ago, there was very little talk about domestic violence in professional sports, let alone in Major League Baseball. Almost ten years ago, it was a big joke. Until 2016, MLB had never suspended a player for domestic violence. It’s becoming clearer and clearer to the public that domestic violence pervades every arena, from professional sports to entertainment. There has been an explosion of coverage on the topic in relation to the National Football League, college campusesHollywood, theater, and the music industry. Domestic violence in Major League Baseball, in professional sports, and in our culture is a much larger problem than one suspension can solve. It’s up to us to see that domestic violence is not just the concern of a singular player, team, sport, or profession. We all have a domestic violence problem. Together we can solve it.