I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot this week, especially considering the Steelers advanced to the Divisional Round and that just means one more week of Ben Roethlisberger. Or, what is worse, one more week of the media trying to cover Ben Roethlisbeger in a way that doesn’t come off as sexist, prejudiced and just plain wrong.
But, that’s what happens with sports heroes who somehow become villains.
To be fair, Ben Roethlisberger is not exactly a villain, or at least, he’s not the worst villain the NFL has spawned. Which doesn’t make him all that better, to be honest. The thing with Roethlisberger, though, is that, unlike Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Ray Rice and many others, he has never even been charged with a crime. So, despite the fact that he’s twice been accused of rape, been suspended because of these allegations and has settled civil cases with at least one of the accusers, in the eyes of the law, he’s innocent until proven guilty.
This is all fine and good. We’re not here to discuss Ben Roethlisberger, not really. We’re not even here to talk about whether he actually raped those women or not. We’re here to talk about how the accusations against him are presented, how the mostly male sports media handles sexual/violence related issues when it comes famous athletes.
Spoiler alert: They don’t.
When it comes to these issues, the responses are varied, but they’re all extremely out of touch with how the real world works. The first and most common one is, well, avoidance. I had to sit through a broadcast this past weekend where the announcers mentioned just once that Ben had once been accused of “some bad things.” I’m one hundred percent sure they didn’t even realize that saying “some bad things” was about ten times worse than saying he was accused of rape. Not only because ninety five percent of the people watching know exactly was Ben was accused of, but because, by avoiding the subject, by deciding that a football player’s reputation is more important than the mention of what he supposedly did, you victimize the victim, once again. You make what happened to her a taboo, something that can’t be discussed in public.
For too long, women have been taught that getting assaulted was somehow their fault. That if they just dressed differently, behaved differently, they could have avoided it. Made it so another woman got raped, not them. And reducing an assault, alleged or otherwise, to “some bad things” is reinforcing the idea that talking about sexual violence is bad. That we should all just keep quiet.
This is a bad start, but still not quite as awful as approach number two, which is mentioning the allegations, but never ever committing to an opinion. And, don’t get me wrong, I understand not wanting to judge Ben Roethlisberger for something he wasn’t convicted of doing, but I don’t understand the media putting their heads so far into the sand that they can’t even utter the words: rape is bad.
Because, rape IS bad. And talking about it like the bad thing it is sends a message, not only to the millions of men watching, but to the millions of women. The days where sports was a predominantly male pastime are long gone. Women watch sports. Women love sports. And we’d like to think that the NFL, a sport that doesn’t really represent us, can at least respect us.
You think those two ways of handling the subject are bad, though? Wait till you hear about the third one.
Making a joke out of it.
Cincinnati’s 700WL radio is guilty of such an approach. Before the Bengals faced the Steelers in last week’s Wild Card game, the radio station put out a mock public service announcement saying that, since Big Ben was in town “all females’ ages 18 to 40 should use extreme caution, especially if heavily consuming alcohol.” Not content with that, the PSA continued stating that he posed the greatest threat to women with “boob jobs, in the downtown Cincinnati Area”
Ha ha, Ben Roethlisberger is a rapist. Ha ha. He rapes people. Ha ha. Sexual assault is funny. Ha ha.
What’s worse, I wonder: The media ignoring the subject, the media failing to recognize the importance of the subject matter or the media making light of sexual violence? What’s worse?
In the end, the conclusion is the same: If we ignore topics like sexual violence, if we overlook cruelty because those involved are our heroes, if we use sexual violence as just another joke in our arsenal against an opposing team’s player, we send two very dangerous messages. First, that the harm and trauma that victims endure is not as important when the perpetrator is a famous person and also, that rape is not a serious matter, that the victims don’t deserve our respect and support, but instead, our mockery.
And that is not acceptable.
Sexual violence is not to be used as a form of entertainment. We don’t get to ignore it, but we also don’t get to laugh about it. We need to do better. The media needs to do better. Otherwise, how can we talk about equality? How can we pretend sports are not a boys-club? How?