Sports for Dummies: Athlete status is no excuse for abuse

Michelle Fredrickson

Having an external and unemotional view on the sporting world is funny most of the time. It gives me an amusing perspective on a huge subculture I am not part of. It is very entertaining to watch.

But sometimes it is not so funny. Sometimes I look at this counter-culture and see some serious and scary flaws.

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One of those flaws is the way the sports industry treats crimes committed by athletes. Specifically, crimes like sexual assault or domestic violence.

A study from Eastern Michigan University found that athletes were far more likely to get arrested for these charges than non-athletes, but far less likely to be convicted. The study concluded preferential treatment for athletes in the justice system.

Take, for example, the case of Darren Sharper, a former football star who pleaded guilty to drugging and raping nine women in four states.

Sharper, according to a report by Sports Illustrated, ProPublica and the New Orleans Advocate, were hardly investigated for his crimes because “prosecutors were hesitant to move too quickly on a local football hero.”

In spite of a rape kit providing matching DNA evidence, video footage and witness corroboration, Sharper was not immediately prosecuted for these crimes because of his athlete status.

Officers involved in later reports against Sharper never contacted him. Rape kits, an invasive procedure for the victim, were taken but then destroyed without any collection of the evidence. Even though sexual assault is often mishandled in the justice system, this takes it to a new level.

It was not until two years ago when more cases were brought against Sharper that he pleaded guilty to all cases and avoided a trial entirely. He is now serving 18 years in prison.

Similar to this case was the high-profile case of Jameis Winston in Florida. The Google auto-fill after the name ‘Jameis Winston’ is ‘stats,’ ‘college stats’ and ‘jersey’ with no mention in the suggestion box about the accusations of violent crimes.

Winston, a college football star at Florida State, was never prosecuted for the accusation of rape. He was never even questioned by the police in Tallahassee. The New York Times found an extensive amount of shady dealings between the football program and the police that may have led to his easy escape from the case.

This is undoubtedly scary. What concerns me just as much as treatment in the justice system is treatment in the media and by the public. Winston, for example, is always referred to by his football position title, and every article about the assault case mentions that he won the Heisman Trophy.

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As if his athletic accolades are somehow relevant to the accusation of violent crime.

Most people are familiar with the case of convicted rapist Brock Turner. But how often is he referred to in articles that way? Not often. He is most often called ‘Stanford swimmer’ and in multiple articles about his violent crimes, his swim times and statistics are quoted.

As if these athletic accolades are somehow relevant to the fact that he raped a woman.

This is obviously a deeply pervasive problem that permeates the justice system as well as the overall perception of athletes. It is scary to look at and realize the power these people have to get away with crimes. As someone without an emotional investment in the teams and sports these athletes promote, it is easy for me to look at these cases and be absolutely horrified. However, many people who are fans of the teams are eager to defend the star players.

It is important for every person, whether you like sports or not, to think about these issues and to push for things to be done about them. It is a cultural problem, and that means it can be changed with a culture shift – a movement to, as a public, hold athletes and stars of all forms accountable for their actions.

A victim’s human rights should never be less important than a game.

Collegian sports columnist Michelle Fredrickson can be reached by email at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @mfredrickson42