Condemning Sexual Harassment and Abuse by US Athletes

When it comes to dealing with alleged sexual harassers, the US is undeniably problematic. From releasing convicted rapists from prison just a few months after sentencing to heralding abusers as inspirations, the US has a poor track record in terms of its punishment (or lack thereof) of accused abusers. This trend of absolving people, especially men, of guilt for their crimes is even more evident when the alleged or convicted abuser is an athlete. Once again, an athlete who admitted guilt to at least part of the allegations of sexual harassment faces little to no consequences for his actions. This time, Shaun White, Olympic snowboarder, faces public scrutiny, not all of it condemning, for abusive behavior directed towards a woman. The drummer in his band filed a civil suit, claiming that he sent her sexually explicit photos and messages (with screen grab proof), made suggestive comments about her relationship, and more. White confessed to having sent the text messages and eventually settled out of court.

For some reason, in the US, athletes seem to have some form of public immunity from criticism for sexually abusive behavior. White isn’t the first athlete to be accused of this type of behavior; as of 2015, 44 NFL players had been accused of sexual or physical assault, according to Vice. Of course, most people remember Brock Turner, the former Stanford swimmer who raped an unconscious young woman behind a dumpster, and although he could have received years at his sentencing, he got just six months, most of which he didn’t even serve. Turner was lauded as a talented swimmer who happened to make a mistake, and his father claimed in a letter that his crimes added up to “20 minutes of action.” In 2013, two high school football players in Steubensville, Ohio were found guilty of raping a 16-year-old while she was intoxicated and unconscious. People online were outraged, but not at the boys—they were mad at the girl for suing the rapists. Rather than worrying about the girl’s health and safety, people berated her for ruining the rapists’ future careers. Pictures of her naked, unconscious, and assaulted circulated amongst the community, and instead of being angry that no one stood up for the girl, people were furious that she sought legal retribution for the crimes. These are extreme examples, but they occurred nonetheless. The US has an issue with properly punishing and condemning athletes for sexual assault and harassment. This problem is even more striking when compared to its response to athletes’ abuse of drugs, performance enhancing or otherwise.

In 2009, months after competing in the Berlin Olympics, photos of swimmer Michael Phelps smoking marijuana from a bong went viral. He lost sponsorships, was suspended from USA Swimming, and highly criticized for using drugs. Marion Jones, an Olympic track athlete, was stripped of her medals after admitting to use of steroids in 2004. Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs and was forced to return his medal from the 2000 Olympics, as well as stripped of his seven Tour de France wins. Jon Jones, a heavyweight champion, was stripped of his title after testing positive for steroids. It’s easy to find examples of athletes being publicly condemned for drug use and receiving consequences for their actions. Less simple? Finding examples of athletes being publicly condemned for abusive behavior towards other people, especially women.

US athletes are widely treated as heroes, and it can be well-deserved. Athletes spend substantial amounts of time, effort, and (often) money to achieve their goals, and they should of course be acknowledged for that. However, their athlete status shouldn’t affect whether or not they receive punishment or rebuking. The US, as shown by its responses to drug scandals, doesn’t have a problem with criticizing athletes for other behavior, so why not apply the same standard expectation that an athlete won’t abuse drugs to the abuse of people, particularly women? I suggest we start reacting to athletes sexually abusing or harassing people with at least as much severity as we do when they use drugs, and maybe then they’ll understand the consequences of their actions.


Main image from USA Today.