Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Expect another circus as the next phase in the legal case against National Basketball Association star Kobe Bryant develops this week. The media pack that surfaced with O.J., with the Monica Lewinsky affair and around Congressman Gary Condit when Chandra Levy vanished should be out in force.

Bryant, of course, has not been convicted of any rape charges and should be given the presumption of innocence.

But the case draws attention to the disturbingly common occurrence of male sports stars running afoul of women. It’s an issue that–in the heat of the baseball playoffs and onset of the football season–deserves our inspection.

Since Bryant’s arrest last July, according to the Los Angeles Times, another prominent NBA player, Washington Wizards guard Jerry Stackhouse, has been charged with assaulting a woman by allegedly grabbing her around the neck and throwing her to the ground.

Another high-profile athlete recently accused of abusing a woman is running back Michael Pittman of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He is alleged to have used his Hummer in May of 2003 to ram his wife’s car, which also contained their two-year-old son and baby sitter. Pittman was already on probation for two domestic violence cases from 2001.

Then there’s Atlanta Hawks forward Glenn Robinson. In 2003 he became only the second NBA player–Ruben Patterson was the first in 2001–suspended for committing crimes against women after his conviction on assault and spousal battery.

And let’s not forget Ricky Clemons, basketball whiz for the University of Missouri. He was jailed after violating his probation, three months after he had been charged with restraining and choking his girlfriend.

Lighter Sentences for Athletes

Athletes often get lighter sentences for such behavior than the average offender. Jeffrey R. Benedict, author of “Public Heroes, Private Felons: Athletes and Crimes against Women,” published by Northeastern University Press, reported that more than 400 professional and college athletes have been publicly accused of violent crimes against women in the past 10 years and few have been prosecuted, much less jailed.

He says this has “dulled public consciousness of their increasing levels of deviance.” The result: Athletes, spurred on by a “diminishing sense of shame over their socially degenerate behavior” continue the assaults.

These guys generate a great deal of money for both college and pro teams. So there is a lot invested is seeing them as innocent and in seeing the accuser as a slut or a psychopath–no matter what her background.

Desiree Washington was a church-going beauty queen with a squeaky-clean reputation when she was raped by Mike Tyson in an Indianapolis Hotel room in 1991. But even given Tyson’s thuggish reputation and the brutality of the rape
–he reportedly held her off the ground by her heels–she found herself the subject of probing questions about her morality. Tyson himself claimed in a recent interview with Greta Van Susteren that he didn’t rape Washington–even though he went to jail–but he was so angry that “I just hate her guts. I really wish I did. Now I really do want to rape her.”

Accusers Are Vulnerable

It’s always been tough for women who accuse high-profile men of sexual assault. Susan Estrich, the University of California-Los Angeles law professor who wrote about her own rape in her book “Real Rape,” believes that the law does not adequately defend accusers. “When you’ve got a high profile defendant in a highly competitive news environment and the Internet era,” she told The New York Times, “you’re not going to get any protection.” All the publicity, she said, may force the alleged victim into the open. “By the time they’re done with her, she’s going to be a walking, talking, unstable slut. She’ll end up having to out herself.”

We have seen Kobe Bryant stand next to his wife and apologize for his infidelity while denying the assault, in a press conference staged by very expensive media advisors. Make no mistake; a high-profile athlete isn’t just a defendant, he’s a corporate investment. (In Kobe’s case, a multi-million dollar one, given all his endorsements.)

“This is a business and it’s about money,” said Kathy Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes in Littleton, Colo. “When you look at the amount that could be poured into this by those who see Kobe as an investment, when you consider who he is, the district attorney knows how difficult this will be to prove.”

While high profile athletes–even convicted ones–go back to their moneymaking careers, the women who brought charges against them are forever branded. Some, like Washington, have to hear their attackers defame and threaten them in public even years later.

This is an issue that runs deep in sports-mad U.S. society.

Fundamental Disrespect

Jeffrey Benedict says “Far too many of the younger generation’s male role models possess a fundamental disrespect for women.” And young, talented athletes too often get the message from the people who make money from their talents that they will be protected, whatever they do. Since domestic violence and sexual abuse often go unreported, observers believe the incidence of such acts by members of pro teams are much higher than reported.

Cathy Redmond of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes estimates that perhaps a quarter of pro football players may have been involved in such behavior. “They know what their standing is in the community and they know they can get away with it.”

For the good of U.S. sports, women in general and the players themselves–who are all tarred by the behavior of their abusive teammates–this has to change. Sports leagues, coaches, sportswriters and those who hand out big checks for endorsements have to make it clear that athletes are not above the law and that if they assault or batter women they will be held fully accountable.

Until that happens, ugly incidents will continue to mar the pastimes that bring us, “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.

For more information:

National Coalition Against Violent Athletes:

Mentors in Violence Prevention:

Jackson Katz, director of the United States Marine Corps Gender Violence Prevention Program: