Sports  Sexual assault and the athlete complex

How the media lets 'boys be boys'

On February 14, (an aggregate website of Philadelphia newspapers such as The Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News) published a piece about the apparently heartwarming story of Nick Cousins, a Philadelphia Flyers hockey prospect. The piece detailed how Cousins, previously known as a “troublemaker” with a “soiled off-ice history” had overcome adversity and fashioned himself into a team leader and leading point scorer in his junior league. And then, about 11 paragraphs into the story, we learn exactly what adversity Cousins has had to overcome: “Cousins and two teammates were arrested on Aug. 25 for having sexual intercourse with an unnamed woman, known to the players, against her will. Prosecutors have not dropped the charges, which are still pending in court.” Cousins is an alleged rapist. Somehow, this has become a barrier to overcome on the way to being a National Hockey League (NHL) pro. Regarding the charge, the director of development for the Flyers, Ian LaPerrière, said, “At the pro level, teams expect you to be an adult and act like one… He’s got a good heart…Let’s be honest, stuff like that has been happening forever. You can’t get away with anything now. He can’t put himself in those situations.”

Let’s just stop here and give a collective: ‘what the fuck?’ There are so many horrible things happening here at once, it’s hard to order them coherently. Why is a writer writing a puff piece about an alleged rapist? Why is this rape buried so deeply in the story? Why are the allegations treated as just another young hockey player’s struggle, analogous to an injury or scoring slump? Even the wording is off-putting: “intercourse with an unnamed women, known to the players, against her will.” Could the writer not bear to write ‘sexual assault’? Why is it important that the players knew her? And as for LaPerrière, one can only hope he has been misquoted or taken out of context, because, otherwise: why? How is an alleged rape something “that has been happening forever” or excusable because of that fact? And surely “you can’t get away with anything now” doesn’t mean what it sounds like – that you can’t treat women the way you used to be able to? (On February 15th, LaPerrière responded to  the blog Backhand Shelf’s email and qualified his statement, thankfully. LaPerrière’s first language is not English, and he claimed he stumbled over his words. He meant that young players don’t think about the consequences of their actions, apparently, and claimed that sexual assault awareness would be focused on in the future with prospects. Still, the quote in the story is horribly placed.) After one more quote from LaPerrière about it and a denial that Cousins’ legal troubles had kept him out of top competitions, the story fails to mention the incident again. The story is about Cousins, who has changed his game to become more NHL-ready. The whole alleged rape thing is nothing more than a minor nuisance.

Unfortunately, this sort of casual handling of sexual assault and harassment among athletes, especially amateur players, is not uncommon. Sometimes these charges are dismissed on the grounds that ‘boys will be boys.’ Take, for instance, the Boston University hockey team scandal that was first reported in September 2011. According to the Boston Globe, an internal report at the university claimed that the hockey team fostered a “culture of sexual entitlement.” The players, according to the report, had the idea that they did not need to “seek consent for sexual contact” with women on campus. But there are plenty of people who see this as just a hockey thing – that women throw themselves at hockey players, who are entitled to have sex with them. One player, according to the Boston Globe “used two slurs to describe women who ‘hook up with multiple guys,’” then asked, “What other word for them is there?” Overall, the report found that none of the players considered their own actions wrong, the coaching staff did nothing about it, and, since then, the players involved haven’t really been punished – and fans (by and large) haven’t been outraged. Nothing has changed, because ‘boys will be boys.’

Similarly, there exists the idea that athletes are targets of women. Because athletes are presumably rich (or going to be rich), women supposedly either try to marry these men or, if they fail, make up rape charges to spurn them (or get money from them). This argument is made numerous times among defenders of players who have been accused of rape, and acts as another way for athletes to be excused. Similarly, women are often pressured not to press charges by the community, who value the athlete’s career over the ugly truth; in this way, many of this cases go unreported or are dropped under pressure.

Athletes have a privileged position in society; they are revered and held up as role models for the world to see and learn from. But it’s time to take the kid gloves off when dealing with them. The media is to blame for valuing their relationship with players and leagues (and hence, ability to get quotes) over effective reporting. The athletes are to blame for assuming that their ability gives them a pass on consent. And society is to blame for deifying athletes and assuming that they can do no wrong, that their perfection on the court is mirrored off the court. It’s time for a higher standard.