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Sayreville Shows How Football Idolization Excuses Rape

Corinne Gaston |
November 5, 2014 | 12:44 a.m. PST

Deputy Opinion Editor


*Trigger warning: rape and sexual assault

Someone suddenly turns off the lights in the locker room and the darkness fills with jeers and howls. A freshman, completely new to the football team, is grabbed by upperclassmen. They pin him to the ground. Someone forces a finger into his rectum as all four boys pull him to his feet. The same person shoves the finger into his mouth. This is not the first time.

Earlier this fall, several freshman football players at Sayreville War Memorial High School accused older teammates of sexually abusing them as part of hazing. Yet for some reason, many people have been hard-pressed to be outraged about it, including on a national level. Of course there are those who are upset and feel that the legal charges the alleged perpetrators could face are justified, but some people believe that the situation is being blown out of proportion. Parents and students complained that the cancellation of the rest of the football season in response to the allegations was unfair, especially to the seniors trying to get recruited and secure scholarships for college. Some asked why should they punish the entire team for the actions of a few, despite allegations that most if not all of the team did know about the sexual abuse and stayed silent.

“I was at the police station with him when they were questioning him,” Madeline Thillet, the mother of one of the football captains, said. “They were talking about a butt being grabbed. That’s about it. No one was hurt. No one died. I don’t understand why they’re being punished. I think that the forfeited game was punishment enough.”

Her comment reveals a belief that football, as both a game and institution, is more important than the well-being of the boys playing it. Victims of sexual abuse and rape are already frequently met with disbelief or are blamed for their own abuse and must endure their lives and choices being dissected—sometimes publicly—if they choose to come forward. And in a sport that values team unity and men’s physical strength, pain endurance and, frankly, violence, there is little empathy or support for male survivors of sexual assault who speak up. They risk backlash, victim-blaming and defamation should they do so. After all, plenty of people believe that men can neither be raped, as highlighted in the FBI's former definition of rape and the GQ long form on male rape in the U.S. military, nor be “real” victims of violence, especially when the alleged perpetrators are their teammates. Violence and physical injury are generally accepted as unavoidable aspects of playing football, so a male football player, or any man in a physically-challenging profession, who draws attention to his pain can be silenced and shamed with the simple “man up,” “walk it off” or “don’t be a p*ssy.”

We must also take into consideration that hazing is a common part of many closed, fraternal and competitive male and predominantly male groups such as sports teams and fraternities and is generally socially accepted as “boys being boys.” And because of the code of silence practiced by these sorts of groups, leaked incidents of hazing reveal the gross and catastrophic extents that hazing can go to behind closed doors. Even when we discount horrific rumors, we know that hazing at some college fraternities has resulted in death, typically from binge drinking. Despite these accounts of violent hazing in male groups and allegations of rape that hit the media every year, there seems to be a societal reluctance to acknowledge that there is a systematic problem of abuse and silence that is allowed to persist within these types of closed circles, including the football locker room. Instead, we keep treating sexual assault scandals in football as just that—scandals. Outliers. Isolated incidents that can be explained or argued away.

We have a hard time believing that those we idolize could choose to violate other people and this is even truer for football players who are often treated as heroes. We don’t want to believe that our good ol’ boys would do bad things; we want to maintain their integrity: Ray Rice deserves a second chance, the Steubenville boys shouldn’t have their promising futures ruined for one mistake, Jerry Sandusky was a great coach who didn’t touch those boys—my son would never rape anybody.

Two years after Sandusky was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in prison after being found guilty on 45 of 48 counts of sexual abuse dating back to 1994, his wife still attests that, “Jerry is not a pedophile and that he did not commit the horrible crimes for which he was convicted…I know what is true and I know that, contrary to apparent popular belief, I am not delusional,” despite the fact that even their adopted son Matt revealed that he was one of Sandusky’s victims.

To stalwartly defend and support these figures and maintain their innocence consequently lead to one place: the alleged victims must be lying or exaggerating. Victims of sexual abuse are easy targets for blame and are often accused of being complicit in or responsible for what is done to them. It is still common for men who are survivors of sexual assault to be accused of not defending themselves or being a "real man" by fighting off their attackers.

Not only is victim-blaming harmful to survivors, but it doesn’t address the real issue: systematic abuse and silence that is allowed to persist, in part because of a societal allegiance to football and a cultural disbelief in male rape. In the Mepham High School sexual assault and hazing incident in 2003, three boys allegedly raped several of their male peers with pine cones, broomsticks and golf balls at football camp. One boy had to go to the hospital. After the news came out, victims were met with slurs, bullying and physical violence and after the football season was cancelled, even the victims’ families were threatened. The survivors were perceived as "taking away" other people's rightfully deserved football as opposed to as survivors.

All of the above instances show that we need to reprioritize the values of sports culture so that supporting survivors of rape and fighting stigma against male victims are more important than football. Despite football’s long successful history, it cannot continue to be built on the silence of those suffering. Football is deeply ingrained into our psyches as something distinctly American and many don’t want to challenge it, but we must. We must spread awareness on consent, masculinity and the sexual assault of boys and men. We must debunk the notion that "boys will be boys," especially when's it's used to shrug off violent hazing. Those who assault should be punished not just for punitive reasons, but to demonstrate to everyone that sexual assault of any kind is unacceptable. More than anything, we need to stop laughing at, congratulating and acting repulsed by the boys and men who come forward. The officials of Sayreville War Memorial High School have made good strides in properly addressing sexual assault on their turf, but we all need to start changing.

Lets call things what they are: rape is not hazing, it's rape. And it has no place in football.

"The War at Home" examines under-discussed angles of contemporary issues of discrimination, violence and social injustice within American borders.

Contact Deputy Opinion Editor Corinne Gaston here; or follow her on Twitter.



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