Rape Culture: Why I won’t be watching football tonight

I’m not writing this post as some kind of crusade to raise awareness. I don’t expect anyone to agree with my reservations and I don’t blame anyone who does not find themselves where I now do. I just know that I will be asked at some point how I could go from borderline obsessed with Aggie football for over 30 years (of mostly painful results) to completely disinterested at just the moment when the program might well be poised to break through. This is my attempt to share why.

I vividly remember the events surrounding Jameis Winston’s sexual assault investigation unfolding in real time. Nearly a year after sexual assault allegations were made, no real investigation had even begun and the incompetence (or complicity) of the Tallahassee police department was evident to anyone looking on from the outside. A state investigation was attempted but obviously doomed from the start, having only begun long after physical evidence could be found and well after stories could be straightened out. Of rapes reported to police, only about 1 in 6 lead to an arrest; only about 1 in 30 cases are referred to prosecutors. Not surprisingly, a mishandled case examined a year too late was found to lack the proof needed to move forward. Equally unsurprising is the fact that Winston will now serve a second suspension stemming from allegations of sexual assault, allegations which Winston’s former coach Jimbo Fisher called the “bad mistakes” of a “tremendous young man.”

Questioned at the time about the Tallahassee allegations, Fisher did what so many in power have done before – he deflected blame onto anyone other than the accused (at one point blaming FSU’s bad press on ESPN’s monetary commitment to the SEC) and he hid behind the inability of the police to come to any sort of definitive conclusion about what really happened (going so far as to claim “There is not a victim because there was no crime.”). Time and again Fisher went over the top to build up the character of his star player (at the 2014 media days claiming “Jameis is a tremendous human being. He is a great people person. There is no ill will or malice in his body. There’s really not.”). At his most critical, Fisher blamed youth – “Jameis is a young man who’s made some mistakes, just like any other kid at that age is going to make them.”   The dismissive and careless conflation of youthful indiscretion with sexual assault by a head coach does immense damage to current and future victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Boys will be boys means girls will be raped.

The culture that treats violent assault on par with youthful indiscretion is the same culture that makes it possible to think that raping an unconscious woman is not worthy of derailing a promising young man’s life. It is the same culture that fails to believe women and assumes that silent victims are more palatable than famous rapists. On December 4th, 2017, Jimbo Fisher was named as the Texas A&M football head coach. Since the hire I haven’t been able to stomach the idea of supporting or even paying attention to football. Fisher’s endless deflections and defense of Winston is the epitome of rape culture.

Rape and violence are not only the product of discrete actions committed by evil people. Rape culture enables and perpetuates the cycles of violence that lead victims to believe what happened is their fault and guarantees that few survivors will come forward with accusations against anyone, much less famous and powerful men. Nearly 15% of women and 2% of men will be raped (defined as forced vaginal, oral, or anal sex) in their lifetime. Only 6 of every 1000 rapists will be incarcerated. Broadening out to any form of sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, or noncontact unwanted sexual experience, the number of victims increases to 43% of women and 23% of men.

Participation in rape culture does not require overt or criminal acts. Participation requires only the deflection of blame from the accused to the accuser or to any other conceivable person or system that might have contributed to the act in question. Participation only requires that we disregard the voices and pain of powerless survivors so as not to risk the promising future of young men. False accusations occur, but are almost always perpetrated by a particular kind of accuser and for a specific set of reasons. None of those factors were relevant in this case.

The recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Bill Hybels, Bill Cosby, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Bill O’Reilly, as well as plenty of others ought to at least help us come to grips with the fact that a lack of public knowledge isn’t the same as a lack of unconscionable or even criminal activity. I have complete trust that Fisher did not participate in any criminal or even overt acts to cover up the alleged crimes of his star player. And I’m certainly not suggesting that courts reverse their stance of innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But I am suggesting that a different standard of proof and a different set of expectations is required of the most public and powerful men in society if we are ever going to get to the point at which victim’s voices are heard as anything more than a hindrance to the trajectory of promising young men.

The culture that enables abusive behavior causes at least as much harm as any discrete act. The standard to which we hold the most well known and well paid leaders of young men will do more to either combat or solidify rape culture than the facts of any particular case. That the Aggie football coach is responsible for the perpetuation and embodiment of that culture leaves me unable to take any semblance of joy in the team I have grown up loving.

I find in myself an insidious tension that makes rape culture so difficult to overcome. I know that avoiding football will do nothing to change the culture and that it will only lead to awkward moments with friends and family when the subject of football arises. Short of a similar repentance to that of Mike Riley, I don’t really know what it would take for me to find joy in Aggie football again. I just know that my disdain for men who perpetuate rape culture runs much deeper at the moment than my love for football. A&M plays Clemson later today, one of two regular season games against a national championship frontrunner. Any other year, I’d know every conceivable detail about the matchup and have the naive hope of a die hard fan that we might actually pull off the upset. This year, I simply don’t care.

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