As someone who has followed sport and social issues for more than four decades, I know the power of sport to heal communities, effect positive social change and bring people together. I know, too, that sport has been a powerful way to expose the general public to problems rarely discussed openly in our society.
Basketball star Len Bias’ overdose death in 1986, for example, rallied the nation to the war on drugs; the criminal courts closed down on cocaine dealers, especially when crack emerged. Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe helped us realize that HIV and AIDS are problems that extend beyond gays, lesbians and intravenous drug users; huge investments were made in potential treatments for HIV/AIDS victims. Michael Vick’s abuse of animals expanded a discussion on animal cruelty as he served a significant prison sentence.
In 1994, the O.J. Simpson trial for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman brought domestic violence into the public eye and eventually ignited a national conversation on race that dominated the case and its aftermath. The Simpson case at least briefly opened a window on the facts that one out of every four women in America is a victim of domestic violence, on average three women are murdered every day, and up to 6 million women are assaulted each year, according to research gathered by the Domestic Violence Resource Center.
In the cases mentioned above, the media, police and public acted swiftly in response to these news stories.
We are seeing it happen again now as we confront the horror at Penn State. It is the worst sports-related story in my lifetime. The nightmare for the young victims of the alleged sexual predators at Penn State and Syracuse has brought awareness and focus to the issues of child abuse and child neglect. The fact that we are now paying attention to child abuse is important. We need to address the issue of who should take responsibility for intervening. First, ANY PERSON who witnesses the rape or abuse or another person MUST ACT to stop it. Then the police must be brought in immediately.
The Penn State and Syracuse cases are just a tiny part of the extent of how many children are abused in America. According to Childhelp, an organization formed more than 50 years ago to help abused and neglected children, a report of child abuse in the United States is made every 10 seconds, yet it is estimated that only one in 10 cases is reported. Five children die every day as a result of child abuse. More than 90 percent of juvenile sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way. About 30 percent of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children, continuing the horrible cycle of abuse. I could add many more horrible statistics.
Lost in the discussion so far is that whatever Jerry Sandusky is said to have done to his victims has been done by other coaches in other youth and high school sports on too regular a basis over many years. Sadly, I am confident that other college coaches, too, eventually will be exposed for similar monstrous acts. It is no surprise that where men have authority and power in places such as athletics, the Boy Scouts and the Catholic church, the chances for a predator to victimize a young child increase exponentially.
So all this attention is long overdue, and if anything positive can come out of these awful stories at Penn State and Syracuse, it will be that we know that we have to watch all our children all the time to make sure that they are safe.
Another issue in sport, though, demands at least as much of our attention, yet isn’t receiving it. It’s the question of why the same concern hasn’t been paid to women and girls who are victims of college and professional athletes. Too many male athletes have been convicted of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence, and many more have been accused. Yet there has never been a public reaction similar to what we are seeing in response to the allegations against Sandusky.
Numbers from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center indicate that one in four college coeds will be sexually assaulted while they are in school. Because of stories in the media involving professional and college athletes in these crimes, a stereotype has been created that suggests athletes are more inclined than nonathletes to be violent against women. It’s important to note that according the research I have conducted in the past 15 years, that stereotype is statistically totally false.
Nonetheless, athletes charged in cases of domestic violence often are allowed to keep playing or continue on campus as student-athletes and as students.
Remember, neither Sandusky nor Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine has been found guilty of any crimes to date, but the public outrage over the allegations has been significant, and rightly so.
So, leaving the guilt or innocence of the athletes in these cases out of it for a moment, here are some quick examples of cases involving athletes in the past five years that haven’t resulted in a similar reaction.
- NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor pleaded guilty to having sex with a teenage girl in May 2010. His sentence was six years on probation.
- A woman in Lake Tahoe, Nev., accused Pittsburgh Steelers star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of rape in 2009, and another woman in Milledgeville, Ga., accused him of sexual assault in 2010. He was not prosecuted in either case, although NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for six games (and later reduced the suspension to four games). Although the media paid attention to the cases, most of the focus was on Roethlisberger’s immature and frat-boy-like behavior.
- Santonio Holmes was arrested after reportedly choking the mother of one of his children in 2006. With her assent, a judge in Columbus, Ohio, eventually dismissed the misdemeanor charges of domestic violence and assault. Holmes eventually was suspended by the NFL … for drugs.
- Syracuse guard Eric Devendorf hit a female student in November 2008 and initially was suspended for the rest of the 2008-09 academic year. That was reduced to 40 hours of community service, though, enabling him to play the entire Big East season.
- In the fall of 2010, Tony Woods, a center on Wake Forest’s basketball team, was arrested and charged with assaulting his girlfriend, reportedly fracturing her spine. He received a 60-day suspended prison sentence.
- Baylor basketball player LaceDarius Dunn reportedly broke the jaw of his girlfriend in the fall of 2010. She asked that the charges be dropped, and a grand jury declined to indict him.
- Florida wide receiver Chris Rainey was charged with stalking after sending threatening text messages to his girlfriend in 2010. He reached a plea agreement with authorities and stayed out of court. Then-coach Urban Meyer suspended him … for five games.This tells me that the media, police and public do not place sufficient and equal importance on the victimization of women and girls.
In 1993, my colleagues and I started the Mentors in Violence Prevention program intended as a proactive solution to addressing these issues. MVP has visited more than 150 campuses delivering training to student-athletes, coaches and athletic department staff on how to confront abuse, gender violence and inappropriate behaviors involving teammates, peers and co-workers. The program also has been adopted by all four branches of the U.S. military.
In our work with MVP, we often find awkward responses when we begin to ask participants some of the questions I am asking here about women who are victims and men who are perpetrators. The reaction is not the same when we discuss animal cruelty or child abuse. Yes, O.J. Simpson became widely reviled, but many believe that story was more about race than domestic violence.
Why haven’t we expressed the same outrage over violence against women that we do over violence against children and animals? Some 6 million women and girls are victimized annually, but in most cases, we never even learn the names of the predators, abusers and murderers, let alone get them off the streets and off our campuses.
These are all our daughters, sisters, aunts, nieces, mothers and wives. We need to express outrage and sustain it over a long period of time. We know the devastation and pain will never fully go away for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, yet less than 40 percent of women and girls who are victims go to the police now. Women and girls need to believe that the authorities can and will fully prosecute the men who have violently violated their humanity.
I do not think we will soon forget the name Jerry Sandusky. Why don’t we hold sexual predators of women and girls equally responsible?
Richard E. Lapchick is the chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida . Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.