Athletes and Rape
Accounts of sexual assault multiply on the sports pages
Even as Mike Tyson awaited a March 26 sentencing date in Indianapolis on his rape conviction, it was reported last week that a 31-year-old New York City woman had accused three members of the New York Mets, pitcher Dwight Gooden and outfielders Daryl Boston and Vince Coleman, of raping her on March 30, 1991, in Port St. Lucie, Fla., site of the Mets' spring training base. Last Wednesday three Hampton (Va.) University basketball players were charged with sexually assaulting a female student. And on Friday a woman withdrew a complaint that she had been raped by former NFL defensive back Fulton Walker, out of fear, said the prosecutor, that she would be "victimized once more" at a trial.
The sports headlines would seem to indicate that there is an epidemic of sexual assaults by athletes. But the allegations against the Mets, the Hampton players and Walker are just that—allegations. On the other hand Tyson isn't the only athlete to have been convicted of sexual assault in the last few years. Others include boxer Trevor Berbick, pro football players Mossy Cade and Gerald Perry, and college football players Nigel Clay and Bernard Hall.
It is possible that rape victims are simply more willing to come forward than they used to be. But it's also possible that such crimes by athletes are on the increase, and sociologists offer insights that could explain why this would be so in an era when athletes increasingly enjoy exalted status.
"Athletes are revered in society, given special privileges," says John Murphy, a St. Cloud (Minn.) State University sociologist who has studied rape patterns. "They are protected. High school and college athletes aren't held responsible for their grades, their actions. Someone's always taking care of them." The result. Murphy says, is that athletes come to believe "that money, power and fame can get them out of any trouble."
One case of an athlete's being protected came to light in January when University of South Florida officials were criticized by the state board of regents for not investigating charges involving former South Florida basketball player Marvin Taylor. Over a period of 16 months, from Oct. 1989 to Feb. '91, five women accused Taylor of offenses ranging from verbal harassment to sexual battery, yet school officials ignored their complaints even though one charge resulted in Taylor's being placed in a probation program by a Hillsborough County judge. Only last February, with his eligibility nearly complete, was Taylor kicked off the team—for a curfew violation.
Another factor that could make athletes more inclined than other men to commit sexual assault, says Murphy, is the "reinforcement of the cultural stereotype of macho-ness and maleness on athletic teams—the idea that women are sexual conquests." In fact many of the incidents involving athletes have been alleged gang rapes, and frequently those accused are teammates. Sociologists point out that teams emphasize excluding outsiders, and on men's teams the ultimate outsiders are women. They may thus be seen as less than human, as objects to be acted upon without consequence.
But there are consequences, as Mike Tyson will soon learn. Courtroom observers in Indianapolis expect Judge Patricia Gifford to sentence him to at least 10 years in prison.
A Golden Snub?