Unsavory news emanating from the Baylor and Tennessee football programs recently is certainly unnerving, but unfortunately nothing new. Sports journalists have had to leave their posts in the Toy Department to report on matters much weightier than box scores for years.
My first introduction to a more troubling side of the world colliding with the fantasy plane of sports came in 1992, when Mike Tyson was arrested, tried, and convicted of raping Desiree Washington.
I was 10 years old and nobody could tell me that Mike Tyson wasn’t the coolest dude on the planet at that time. He could beat up anyone, he had his own video game — the surest mark of awesome to a 10-year-old — and I wasn’t allowed to watch his press conferences until after my parents screened them first so they could fast-forward the parts I didn’t need to hear.
It was right around then that the landscape of sports began to change. The first half of the 1990s brought a whirlwind of heavy topics into the arena: MLB and NHL work stoppage;, Monica Seles’ stabbing; the attack on Nancy Kerrigan; Magic Johnson’s abrupt retirement due to HIV.
While the Mike Tyson arrest caught me off-guard, nothing in the world could prepare me for O.J.’s saga just a couple of years later.
All this coincided with sports becoming bigger and bigger business.
As the business expanded, ESPN expanded with it, introducing ESPN 2 in 1993. ESPN 2 covered all the content your parents didn’t want you to see and they did so in a cool way. Counterculture was mainstream in the 90’s and nobody did it better than ESPN.
The proliferation of sports coverage with another 24-hour network needed content to fill the airtime, so shows like Jim Rome surfaced. Coverage of sports was no longer focused exclusively on the sport itself, but the off-field happenings, and analysis became as commonplace as reporting.
One of the things that stills resonates with me about the coverage of the Desiree Washington case was that I can still recall conversations and news reports suggesting Washington could have done more.
This is victim-blaming, and it’s as prevalent today as it was then.
The level to which the narrative shifts to victim-blaming varies depending on the accused’s stardom, and the accuser’s perceived status. Tyson is a foremost example, though hardly the last.
Fast forward to last week. Former Baylor standout Shawn Oakman was arrested on a sexual assault charge, making him the latest addition and most prominent name in the BU program’s unsettling string of arrests.
As if another sexual assault case involving a football player at Baylor wasn’t horrific enough, this was followed by reports that Baylor, for over two years, had failed to investigate sexual assault claims against two completely different players.
In Tennessee, football coach Butch Jones had been given a courtesy call by the Knoxville Police Chief during a rape investigation into former Vols linebacker A.J. Johnson. The Tennessean reported this could violate state law.
Beyond the legality, the appearance suggests football takes precedent over the alleged victims.
Nearly 25 years since Tyson’s arrest, little’s changed in how such issues are covered. Example: one national media outlet’s report on Oakman’s arrest led with the imposing defensive end’s career statistics at Baylor, and highlighted that Oakman was an All-American, an all-time sack leader, and projected mid-round NFL draft choice; all this before this reporting he’d been arrested for sexual assault.
Meanwhile, Vols head coach Jones spoke of focus amid a Title IX lawsuit alleging a “hostile sexual environment” at the University of Tennessee. Serious allegations are reported in the same tone of distraction as a team downplaying a preseason ranking.
This is unfortunately appropriate to point out the same week Kobe Bryant left the NBA with a hero’s exit. Kobe’s sexual assault case is as much a part of his legacy as his five championships, Olympic gold medals, scoring titles and MVPs, yet coverage of the 2003 allegations was almost dismissive.
CFB Huddle podcast guest Lindsay Gibbs wrote an unflinching column on the subject, but ESPN treated the case like a minor hurdle he had to clear, as if it was comparable to carrying a team with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown.
Don’t blame those doing the reporting, who aren’t always equipped to address such weighty matters. Their expertise is in covering sport, hence the ham-fisted simplification of assault allegations as distractions, or packaging Oakman’s performance with his arrest, or breaking down how allegations against Jameis Winston impact Florida State’s national championship aspirations.
Essentially, sports journalists need better preparation for covering the off-field matters that inevitably cross over.
Those of who came from the field of social sciences have gone through ethics training, research statistics, qualitative and quantitative research, and intensive human rights training by the Institutional Review Board. If you’ve ever gone through the process, then you are aware of how extremely frustrating it can be to gain IRB approval, especially if special populations are involved and rape victims would certainly qualify as special population groups.
If you haven’t gone through the IRB, then just picture turning the same paper over and over again to the hardest grader you’ve ever met in your life and you can’t move on in your studies until they approve you.
The benefits of having gone through the IRB as well as having worked with several special population groups might not make me an expert, but I feel more comfortable around those types of interviews than a lot of my colleagues might in a similar circumstance.
There is no easy way to write about sexual assault, domestic violence, or the national conversations currently taking place about these topics. As difficult as it might be, however, we simply must find a better way to generate constructive conversation about reform in many areas.
Get in touch with victim experts or law enforcement. Talk to professional therapists or researchers trained to recognize the signs and symptoms. Open your mind and close your mouth.
Talking about heavy subject matter is never easy, but it also doesn’t have to be harder than it needs to be.