Enabling Narratives, or How Sports Writing Authorizes Rape Culture

So, Olympic hopeful turned rapist Brock Turner is a free man. Setting aside for the moment the fact that he’s being harassed by gun-toting protesters, I’d like to take this opportunity to interrogate the narrative habits that result in a convicted rapist (yes, I’ll call him that) getting a minor county jail sentence instead of the two- to fourteen-year prison sentence his charges carried.

Following, too, the hoopla over Ryan Lochte’s ‘immature over-exaggeration’ in Rio—because, you know, boys will be boys—I wonder how far we might be willing to connect our broader attitudes toward male athletes with a willingness to exculpate those athletes of bad behavior. Does the way we talk about sports cultivate entitlement?

Let’s start with a more or less uncontroversial tale of athletic excellence.

The LeBron James story is an archetypal sports narrative. Born to a single mother in urban Akron, a young man rises out of poverty on the strength of his exceptional talent to become the first high school student to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. ‘Ahead of His Class’ was the headline back then, preceding an opening tableau in which the ‘Air Apparent’ James casually greets Michael Jordan.

Rife with gravitas and prescience, the SI cover article frames James’s story as exceptional in every way. Like a future POTUS solemnly shaking Kennedy’s hand, the Chosen One glows with potential. When King James became a Prodigal Son returned to ‘end the losing once and for all’ in Cleveland, that exceptional narrative found its ideal moment of closure in the Episode of the Third Ring. That unlikely tidiness is narrative gold.

Sports writers love exceptional stories. The improbable rise, the impossible confluence, the statistical near-zero—narratives of exceptionality shape fundamentally our understanding of sport. Think MJ’s floating shot over Craig Ehlo in the last two seconds of the 1989 Eastern Conference playoffs. Or the obsessive attention paid to the abnormal physics of Michael Phelps’s body after Beijing. Or Usain Bolt’s 2.44 meter stride. Or his 900-pound foot strike. The more improbable the physique, the event, the backstory, the more we latch on. ‘You thought bodies couldn’t do this’ is an irresistibly alluring premise.

But the narrative mode so natural to sports writing—and so deeply ingrained in the nature of sport itself—turns toxic when athletes do wrong. It allows us to treat inappropriate or even criminal actions as exceptions to athletes’ otherwise laudable exceptionality.

'The Continued Maturation of Jameis Winston'Look, for instance, at Jameis Winston, recently written up in a feature for ESPN’s The Undefeated under the headline ‘The Continued Maturation of Jameis Winston’. Winston’s 2012 rape accusation at Florida State—a case which was monumentally botched by law enforcement and University officials, and which eventually resulted in a $950,000 settlement for the alleged victim—becomes in Alex Kennedy’s telling of the Winston story just one in a series of ‘off-field issues’, reduced to the level of shoplifting or playing with BB guns. These immature mistakes, Kennedy implies, are exceptions to Winston’s otherwise stellar performance as an athlete and community leader. What matters more is Winston’s ‘football IQ’, and it is on that indicative that the story rests.

This piece of media rehabilitation isn’t singular. There’s also Kobe Bryant, charged in 2003 with allegedly raping a 19-year-old concierge in Edwards, Colorado. Following a media firestorm of victim blaming, criminal charges were dismissed, and the woman settled a civil suit behind the curtain of non-disclosure. More importantly, the talking heads wondered, how long would it take Bryant to repair his image?

Three to five years of good behavior, said the CEO of a prominent marketing firm. ‘It would also help,’ opined sportswriter Roscoe Nance, ‘if Bryant can lead the Los Angeles Lakers back to the NBA Finals’. Done, and done. Bryant’s rape allegations earned a mere 133 words out of the more than 8000-word ESPN retrospective published after his retirement this spring. ‘Colorado,’ wrote Ramona Shelbourne, ‘remains a troubling section of his life story that never digests.’ An exception.

'Who is Daniel Holtzclaw? Linebacker'Then, earlier this year, SB Nation published its catastrophically unethical story on Daniel Holtzclaw, outlining in painstaking detail the failed football career of the Oklahoma City police officer convicted of 18 counts of rape, sexual battery, forcible sodomy, among other crimes in 2015 and implying that if Holtzclaw committed the crimes of which he was convicted, it might have been that he’d come ‘unhinged’ at the frustration of his NFL aspirations. Or that possibly the linebacker had suffered brain trauma. The stunningly irresponsible piece thankfully only stayed live for five hours, but in those five hours, discerning readers got a remarkably clear view of exceptional narration at work (you can read a cached version here).

The author Jeff Arnold, who covered Holtzclaw in high school and college, indulges for 12,000 words in an unrelenting search for exceptionality, speculating, for example, that the crimes for which Holtzclaw was sentenced to 263 years in prison without parole were out of character:

Holtzclaw had ever made any serious missteps during his entire Division I playing career. And yet, here Holtzclaw was, on trial for his life.

Could you believe that the same hard-working young man who so ‘studiously avoided off-the-field issues’ could have committed these heinous crimes? We then sift in tedious detail through the minutiae of Holtzclaw’s wholly unexceptional football career, as if somewhere in this boring morass of mediocrity lies the key to detuning Holtzclaw’s crimes, which Arnold stops just short of explicitly denying.

He closes with a cruel dismissal of Holtzclaw’s victims, clutching still at the allure of the improbable within a last flourish of bungling and delusion:

Pending an improbable successful appeal, everything he had worked for was now gone, likely never to be recovered, ever again. Recovery, if there is any, appears to be something deserved only by the victims of a man whose belief in his innocence will apparently be, like the way he once pursued his dream of playing in the NFL, unrelenting, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Holtzclaw’s drive for reversal—for that which would make this episode merely an unfortunate exception to an otherwise blameless life—will be as relentless ‘despite all evidence’ as his NFL ambitions. The piece itself sticks just as doggedly to a narrative mode that allows its author to sports-wash the fact that its subject is a serial rapist who systematically used a position of authority to violently assault poor black women.

Arnold defends his story as having provided necessary context, as an attempt to understand what happened to a ‘once-promising young man’ turned criminal. But in giving us that backstory, Arnold deflects attention from Holtzclaw’s remorseless criminality, as if the decision to rape and assault, with targeted precision, vulnerable women were something we need to understand. It’s not.

So, speaking of remorseless criminality, let’s swing back around to January 2015, when Brock Turner, a young man of serious athletic potential, was caught in the act of thrusting upon an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Convicted of three felonies—assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object—Turner was sentenced to just six months in county jail, followed by probation, and he’s been released after three, as expected. Again, the minimum sentence for his crimes was two years in prison, the maximum fourteen.

The Brock Turner case is a stark example of how a narrative of exceptionality can become the excuse for exceptional treatment, treatment that denies systemic problems within our justice system’s handling of violence against women.

Turner’s father, in a letter to Judge Aaron Persky, wrote that his ‘easygoing’ and ‘humble’ son ought to be sentenced leniently, that he had already suffered enough. Incarceration, wrote Dan Turner, would be ‘a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.’ The letter—like some early stories covering the case—highlights Brock Turner’s fastidious training schedule, his Olympic ambitions, his commitment to the Stanford swim team, all as justification for why Turner’s crime is merely an unfortunate exception in an otherwise exceptionally promising athletic career.

The narrative mode of sports writing, dependent as it is on describing exceptional persons accomplishing exceptional feats in exceptional situations contributes fundamentally to the trend in reportage that routinely overlooks, downplays, and in its worst moments explicitly undermines, the testimony of victims. In spite of Brock Turner’s anonymous victim’s 7000-word impact statement having been shared by millions and read aloud into the Congressional record, apologists for Turner persist in victim blaming, in dismissing her experience, and in insisting that Turner’s acts were merely juvenile mistakes, not criminal assault.

A former classmate Leslie Rasmussen wrote in a character letter supporting Turner, ‘where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.’ Brock Turner, the classmate implies, may have raped, but he is not a rapist. And of course Persky agreed. A longer sentence, he decided, would have a ‘severe impact’ on Turner, and character letters like Rasmussen’s and Dan Turner’s demonstrate that the conviction has already resulted in a ‘huge collateral consequence’. Brock Turner’s imagined exceptionality led directly to Aaron Persky’s lenience.

While Brock Turner’s Olympic ambitions and milquetoast façade became fodder for victim blaming, judicial leniency, and rape apology, his victim wrote her own story. Focused squarely on the events surrounding Turner’s crime and on that crime’s reverberation through every aspect of the victim’s life, that story is familiar to far too many women.

The Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that one in six American women are victims of attempted or completed sexual assault. Most of those will exhibit symptoms of posttraumatic stress. Almost half will experience relationship problems at home or at work. A third of them will contemplate suicide. Often unheard and more often untold, women’s experiences of sexual violence are the common subtext to these masculinist narratives of poor judgment, momentary lapse, and anomaly. By writing about athletes as special cases—freakish, unlikely, beautifully atypical—we open the door to moral indulgence, as if people apparently unbound by the laws of physics were also unbound by the laws of civil society.

Let me be clear: Brock Turner is not an exception. Brock Turner is exemplary of a toxic masculinity habituated by a complicit media culture and condoned by a permissive justice system. Sports writing enables that toxicity and its pervasive sexual violence. Hero exceptionalism allows us to wag our fingers at Brock Turner, to think we can understand Daniel Holtzclaw, to forgive Kobe Bryant, to excuse Ryan Lochte’s shameless ‘over-exaggeration’, and to praise the growing maturity of Jameis Winston. That stupid, myopic, and delusional exceptionalism is rape culture.

The evidencecopious and despicableleads to one question: at what point does the exception become the norm?

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