Athletes and Acquaintance Rape


Jeffrey R. Benedict

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  • SAGE Series on Violence Against Women

    Series Editors

    Claire M. Renzetti

    St. Joseph's University

    Jeffrey L. Edleson

    University of Minnesota

    In this series …

    • I AM NOT YOUR VICTIM: Anatomy of Domestic Violence

      by Beth Sipe and Evelyn J. Hall

    • WIFE RAPE: Understanding the Response of Survivors and Service Providers

      by Raquel Kennedy Bergen


      edited by Jeffrey L. Edleson and Zvi C. Eisikovits

    • WOMEN's ENCOUNTERS WITH VIOLENCE: Australian Experiences

      edited by Sandy Cook and Judith Bessant

    • WOMAN ABUSE ON CAMPUS: Results From the Canadian National Survey

      by Walter S. DeKeseredy and Martin D. Schwartz


      by Neil Websdale

    • SAFETY PLANNING WITH BATTERED WOMEN: Complex Lives/Difficult Choices

      by Jill Davies, Eleanor Lyon, and Diane Monti-Catania


      by Jeffrey R. Benedict


      edited by R. Emerson Dobash and Russell P. Dobash

    • EMPOWERING SURVIVORS OF ABUSE: Health Care for Battered Women and Their Children

      edited by Jacquelyn Campbell


      edited by Ruth A. Brandwein


      edited by Melanie F. Shepard and Ellen L. Pence


      by R. Emerson Dobash, Russell P. Dobash, Kate Cavanagh, and Ruth Lewis

    • SAME-SEX DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: Strategies for Change

      edited by Beth Leventhal and Sandra E. Lundy


      by Suzanne E. Hatty


    View Copyright Page


    Long before deciding to write this book, a group of professors at Northeastern University expressed great support and interest in research I was conducting in conjunction with my graduate school studies. Professors Alan Klein, Eileen McDonagh, and Michael Tolley were enthusiastic about the potential impact of my work from the moment they learned of it. Their encouragement and insights went a long way to bring my research to the book stage. I am thankful for their friendship as well as their instruction and guidance.

    This book would not have been possible without exceptional cooperation from medical personnel, defense attorneys, law enforcement officials, judges, defendants, and victims. I am particularly grateful to the Middlesex County District Attorney's office in Massachusetts; the County Prosecutor's office in Seminole County, Florida; personnel at the Middlesex County Superior Court in Cambridge, Massachusetts; personnel at the United States District Court at Seattle, Washington; the Rape Crisis Intervention Center at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston; and specialists at the Harvard Medical School.

    I am particularly indebted to former assistant district attorney David Meier (currently the chief of the homicide unit in Boston) for his patience and tutoring, and to Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Robert Barton, who made his courtroom and his chambers a place of observation and first-hand learning. Likewise, I am appreciative of Honorable Walter T. McGovern and his resourceful clerk, Phil Lucid. Both allowed me to spend time in chambers.

    I was also assisted in my research by attorneys who, despite their adversarial relationship in these respective cases, allowed me to visit their law firms to conduct interviews and review relevant documentation. The following were particularly helpful: Greg Garrison and his staff at Garrison & Kiefer in Indianapolis; Alan Dershowitz and his assistants at the Harvard Law School; Spencer Hall at Mundt, MacGregor, Happel, Falconer, Zulauf & Hall in Seattle; Byrnes & Keller in Seattle; Victoria Vreeland from Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell, Malanca, Peterson & Daheim in Seattle; and Howard Cooper from Hale & Door in Boston.

    Although I did not rely too extensively on press reports, the reporting by Lynda Gorov of the Boston Globe and Tom Farrey of the Seattle Times was critical. Bold and able investigators, both granted me their time for questioning and background information.


    In August 1995, prosecutors in La Crosse, Wisconsin, received a complaint alleging that numerous members of the New Orleans Saints football team sexually assaulted a woman in Sanford Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus where the team was being housed during its preseason summer camp. After a police officer in a patrol car spotted a woman crying outside the dormitory at a predawn hour, he approached her and asked if she was in need of help. The victim told the officer that she had been raped and held against her will by a number of Saints football players after having voluntarily accompanied a player to his room earlier that evening. A witness who had been outside the dorm moments before the victim emerged confirmed to the officer that she heard screams coming from the floor on which the Saints were staying.

    The victim was shuttled to a nearby hospital for examination. Meanwhile, police investigators were dispatched to the dorm. They began by interviewing the two players staying in the room where the alleged incident took place. Once inside, the officers saw a pair of women's panties on the floor (the victim left her panties behind in her attempt to escape the room). Before police seized the panties as evidence, one of the players in the room began rummaging around in the area where the panties were located. He then asked permission to use the bathroom, and police discovered the panties were suddenly missing. The player was searched and the panties were discovered stuffed in his pants.

    With the district attorney's office soon joining the investigation, a total of 30 players were interviewed. The players named by the accuser did not deny sexual contact. The following excerpt is from the prosecutor's report:

    Player 1 … and Player 2 did lie down and took their clothes off. … He [Player 1] stated that he and Player 2 did perform sexual intercourse with her and that she also had oral sex with him. He stated that at one point when she was having oral sex with Player 2 that he had sexual intercourse with her from behind. … When Player 9 entered the room … he took his clothes off and then attempted to put a condom on. … Player 1 stated that he specifically remembers seeing Player 5 standing in the doorway because he made the comment that he couldn't even get into the room with all the guys in there. (“Investigation Summary,” 1995)

    Nonetheless, after completing his investigation, prosecutor Ron Kind declined to press charges. “I believe that the credibility of the woman who reported the assaults would be insufficient to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the sexual contact she had with numerous players was not consensual,” said Kind (“Declination Report,” 1995). The decision appears callous and unjust in light of the players’ conduct. Yet, Kind's decision is consistent with the growing trend among prosecutors to dismiss sexual assault charges against professional and college athletes for lack of evidence. Out of 217 felony complaints of sexual assault against athletes filed between 1986 and 1995, 100 were dismissed by law enforcement, primarily due to insufficient proof to surmount the hurdle of reasonable doubt. Of the remaining 117 that resulted in an indictment, 51 resulted in dropped charges or were pleaded down to misdemeanors (Benedict & Klein, 1997).

    Dismissals and watered-down convictions are frequently met with harsh criticism by the media, women's groups, and victims’ advocates. But the criticism has been inappropriately directed at law enforcement. It is the public that dictates whether athletes will be held accountable in these cases. Law enforcement's skittish approach to trying athletes for alleged acquaintance rape is predicated on jurors’ unwillingness to convict athletes. Of the 66 athletes who were brought to trial on charges of rape during this time frame, only 6 were convicted (Benedict & Klein, 1997). Moreover, these 66 cases represented the cases with the strongest likelihood of a conviction (evidence of physical injury, timely reporting, strong victim, and in some cases multiple defendants—which would seem to refute the consent element). Thus, the inability to gain convictions even in these cases offers a clear illustration of the high esteem in which jurors hold athletes and the corresponding distrust of women who accuse athletes of abuse.

    As in most acquaintance rape cases, conviction turns on the credibility of the accuser and the accused. When an athlete is the defendant, jurors are routinely faced with the question: Why would a famous athlete resort to force when he can have any woman he wants? Although both sexist and arrogant, this is the most natural defense for a powerful male celebrity to raise. This approach is often clever enough to fool jurors. Yet athletes’ arrogant claims of having women readily available for their sexual desires raises a more relevant question: When celebrated athletes become so accustomed to having their sexual urges fulfilled on demand, are they capable of restraining themselves when confronted by a woman who says “no”?

    With their power of self-restraint eroded by excessive sexual indulgence, many athletes become unwilling to accept rejection by women. Moreover, having never been held accountable by coaches, fans, the public, or the courts for ignoring a woman's wishes, there is little incentive for athletes to respect the word “no” from a woman. So why are jurors disinclined to convict famous athletes charged with sex crimes? In an attempt to answer this question, I have selected three cases—Massachusetts v. Marcus Webb (1993), Victoria C. v. The Cincinnati Bengals (1993), and Indiana v. Mike Tyson (1992)—that illustrate the problems associated with establishing violations of consent by athletes.

    My conclusions are not based solely on these three cases. In addition, I researched more than 300 cases of alleged sexual violence involving athletes. Along with tracking the disposition of each complaint, I familiarized myself with the facts and circumstances of each case. This was accomplished by reviewing published reports, court documents, and, when possible, interviewing district attorneys, police, and defense attorneys directly involved in the cases.

    Personal interviews were conducted with the professional athletes (defendants and teammates) where possible, as well as victims, defense lawyers, police investigators, prosecutors, presiding judges, jurors, and witnesses. Most interviews were recorded. In addition, I conducted many less formal interviews that were not recorded. Various court documents (arrest warrants, police reports, affidavits, briefs, motions, jury instructions, evidence exhibits, testimony transcripts, court decisions, and appeals briefs) were also obtained and reviewed.

    The choice of which three cases to feature was heavily influenced by the willingness of the key participants in those cases to cooperate with my research. I made telephone and written inquiries to attorneys and other key players in over 50 cases in search of an affirmative willingness to submit to interviews and make available necessary documentation to thoroughly research the issues relevant to consent. The value of the interview data is enhanced by the fact that not all court documents filed in these cases are available to the public. Many of the critical memoranda, briefs, and motions were filed under seal. I went through the presiding trial judges, district attorneys, and defense attorneys to obtain the overwhelming majority of court documents now in my possession. I reviewed arrest warrants, police reports, official statements given to the police by victims, affidavits, briefs filed by defendants and the state, motions to admit evidence, motions to deny evidence, jury instructions, trial testimony, court rulings, and briefs filed with the appeals courts.

    Another reason for profiling the three cases I selected was the fact that litigation had advanced far enough for the legal arguments to develop fully. In other words, of the hundreds of cases that I reviewed, many never got beyond the stage of a formal arrest. In order to fully explore the use of the consent defense, it is necessary to have a case that either goes to trial or advances to the stage where a trial date is set and sufficient motions exist in the case file to provide an outline of the defense's strategy.

    Finally, I chose to chronicle these cases because most of the literature treating the subject of athletes and sexual assault suffers from an absence of primary source data. Scholars have produced a significant body of anecdotal evidence suggesting an association between participation in all-male, aggressive sports and the tendency to hold the belief that women are inferior (Crosset, Benedict, & McDonald, 1995; Messner & Sabo, 1994; Parrot & Bechhofer, 1991). A smaller body of data hints at a link between membership on all-male athletic teams in revenue-producing sports and sexual aggression (Crosset et al., 1995; Koss & Gaines, 1993). But short of analyzing the attitudes and behaviors of athletes on a case-by-case basis, it is merely speculative to link sports participation with sex crimes. The deviant sexual practices of some of today's celebrated athletes are a much stronger link to the sex crimes they commit. Continuous engagement in sexual activity with random partners and the attitudes toward women that such conduct fosters are a much greater cause of athletes’ abuse of woman than the mere fact of their athletic training. In short, the problem of rape by athletes is much more a result of their celebrity than their athleticism.

  • References

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    Barnett makes most of second chance. (1994, January 9). The Kansas City Star, p. CIO.
    Benedict, J. (1997, May 9). Colleges must act decisively when scholarship athletes run afoul of the law. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. B6.
    Benedict, J., & Klein, A. (1997). Arrest and conviction rates for athletes accused of sexual assault. Sociology of Sport, 14, 86–94.
    Berkow, I. (1992, February 25). A champ named Desiree. The New York Times, p. D1.
    Berkowitz, A. (1992). College men as perpetrators of acquaintance rape and sexual assault: A review of recent research. The Journal of American Health, 40, 175–181.
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    Converse steps up third-place effort. (1995, March 2). USA Today, p. B1.
    Crosset, T., Benedict, J., & McDonald, M. (1995). Male student-athletes reported for sexual assault: A survey of campus police departments and judicial affairs offices. The Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 19, 126–140.
    Declination report, case no. 95–29998. (1995, August). County of La Crosse, Wisconsin, Office of the District Attorney.
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    About the Author

    Jeffrey R. Benedict is the former research coordinator at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. He is the author of Public Heroes, Private Felons: Athletes and Crimes Against Women. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and he has contributed to ESPN.

    Benedict was the lead researcher on a sociological study examining college athletes and violence against women. Published results of this study appeared in the Sociology of Sport Journal, Journal of Sport & Social Issues, and Violence Against Women. He has appeared as an expert on crime and athletes for ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, and ESPN.

    He earned his bachelor's degree in history from Eastern Connecticut State University and a master's degree in political science from Northeastern University. He is currently attending the New England School of Law in Boston and is a lecturer in the sociology department at Northeastern University.

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