Sexual Assault as a Spectator Sport

First published in 1994 by Harcourt Brace, this excerpt provides an analysis of the ongoing epidemic of sexual assault by male college athletes, and may provide some valuable context for the 2015 CNN special, The Hunting Ground.


Excerpted from The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Footballby Mariah Burton Nelson
Twitter: @TallMariah
© 2005, 1995, 1994 

“How can they hit us and still be our heroes?”

— Pearl Cleage

During two long days at the rape trial of three college basketball players, the courtroom was packed with people leaning forward, straining to hear the graphic testimony. Sitting up front, near the judge and jury, were the woman who said it was rape and the three men who said it was sex.


Whether the case involves a celebrity such as Kobe Bryant or a group of relatively anonymous ordinary young men, as in this case, this is how rape and gang rape trials usually proceed: one woman says she was raped, and one or more men say no; she chose to have sex with us. When male athletes are involved, it becomes an issue not only of a woman’s word against men’s, but also of athletic privilege. When female athletes are involved — the woman in this case also played basketball — it becomes, too, a question of teamwork: how could these men rape their sister basketball player? Why would they?


By the end of the trial’s second day, the spectators had segregated themselves the way fans do at a basketball game, the woman’s supporters on one side, the men’s on the other. An aisle separated the two groups.


With the woman were her relatives, a few friends, and a few teammates. Many seats were empty. On the men’s side the seats were filled and additional people stood. Spectators included the men’s relatives, their friends, most of their teammates, and all of the assembled representatives of the college athletic department: two basketball coaches, the sports information secretary, the athletic secretary, and the “team mother.” This imbalance gave the room a lopsided feel, as if the men represented a popular, successful home team, the woman an unpopular opponent from another town.


Tearfully, and in a small voice, Melody[i] told the judge and jury that the three basketball players, men whom she considered friends, chatted with her one evening through an open window of their dorm, then invited her to the side door. She went to the door, but did not want to go inside. Women were not allowed in the men’s dorms after 11 p.m., and it was about 11:30. But Otis, the tallest of the three men and about a foot taller than Melody, grabbed her and pulled her inside. She escaped his grasp and ran, but he and James, a second player, caught her and dragged her in.


At this point she was not afraid. She thought they were playing a prank: a mock kidnapping. Like Gail Savage and other women, Melody somehow had become accustomed to this: being lifted and carried around by laughing men. They took her into the dorm room of Paul, a third player. Otis blocked the door with his body. She asked to be let go.


Then, she told the jury, Otis and Paul held her down while James raped her. Afterward, Otis and James held her down while Paul raped her. Then Otis pointed his penis at her and said, “Suck on this.” She refused, and he did not force her. Joking with each other, the men released her. As she dressed and hurried toward the door, they told her, “We should do this more often.”


The next day, she tried to kill herself.


The state charged the men with a total of twelve counts of rape, second-degree rape, attempted sodomy, and abduction.


The men told a different story. Without tears and in a bold voice, Otis said, “She walked into the room on her own. She took off her sweatpants. She lay down and had intercourse with James. Then she did it with Paul.”


His two friends concurred.


The men and woman all played basketball for the same university. Because the men were basketball players, they were campus heroes. Because the woman was a basketball player, she was rumored to be a lesbian, or at least bisexual. For this she was ridiculed and ostracized. For this, she believes, she was raped.



Read any newspaper and you’re likely to see the latest story of a male athlete or group of male athletes being charged with sexual assault. You see these stories now largely because the O.J. Simpson trial embarrassed journalists into covering these arrests. The original 1994 edition of The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football was the only book at that time that mentioned Simpson’s history of domestic violence. The abuse was a matter of public record. It was available to journalists. But journalists did not seem to think it was very important.


Before 1994, athletes’ domestic crimes and sex crimes were buried somewhere deep in the sports section. Even today, unlike the news of, say, a pro baseball team winning or losing any one of their 161 games, rapes do not usually merit dramatic headline or placement in the front section of the paper. Unless the charges threaten the career of a star like Kobe Bryant, the news will receive only a few sentences. Unless the men are local, it will often not be reported at all. From this we can conclude that rape by athletes is not as important to sports editors as are athletes’ on-field exploits. We can conclude that the men in power — coaches, team owners, athletes, editors — have not made the connection between male sports training and rape. Or that they still just don’t think it’s very important.


Rape is important to women. It’s important to women that “our nation’s heroes,” the central actors in “our national pastime,” and “the role models for our children” are responsible for a disproportionate number of sexual assaults. “When football players rape they send the message: That’s what real men do,” says former football player Jackson Katz, founder of Real Men, an anti-sexist men’s organization in Boston, and the project coordinator of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) project at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.


Our sons worship these “real men.” Our husbands identify with them, cheer for them, enjoy their performances so much “it doesn’t matter what they do off the field.” These are the men many of our daughters long to date.


Athletes and fraternity members are the two most likely campus groups to commit gang rape, according to Bernice Sandler, senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute, who analyzed 150 group sexual assaults on university campuses. “It’s contact team sports – football and basketball, sometimes lacrosse or ice hockey” says Sandler. “It’s rarely the golfers or the swimmers.”


Researchers Mary P. Koss and John A. Gaines surveyed 530 undergraduate men about their participation in continuum of “sexually aggressive” behaviors including whistles and catcalls; unwanted touching of a woman’s breasts, buttocks or genitals; attempted or completed intercourse by use of arguments or verbal threats; and attempted or completed intercourse by plying a woman with alcohol, threatening bodily harm, using physical force, or overcoming her with a group of men. Football and basketball players were more likely to engage in sexually aggressive behaviors than their peers, including those who played other sports.[ii]


A three-year survey by the National Institute of Mental Health concluded that athletes participated in about a one-third of 862 sexual attacks on college campuses.[iii]


It’s hard to keep up with all the reports. A sampling from my thick file on athlete rape reads like a twisted Twelve Days of Christmas. The following are just some of the groups have been accused of group sex crimes against women: twenty members of the Cincinnati Bengals football team; seven University of California at Berkeley football players (in two incidents); five members of the St. John’s University lacrosse team; five West Virginia University basketball players; five Kentucky State University football players; four Portland Trail Blazers four Washington Capitals ice hockey players; four Duquesne University basketball players; four members of Glen Ridge (New Jersey) High School football, baseball, and wrestling teams; four University of Arkansas basketball players; three New York Mets; three Houston Oilers; three University of Minnesota basketball players; three Hampton University basketball players; three University of Colorado football players; two Oklahoma University football players; and many others.


Sexual assault is my main interest here, but nonsexual assaults against women are also common. Darryl Strawberry admitted beating his wife and pointing a gun in her face. Baseball star Jose Canseco rammed his wife’s car with his car, then spat on her window. Basketball player Moses Malone was accused by his wife of physical and verbal brutality including death threats. He insisted he never hit her or threatened to kill her but admitted having “moved her out of the way.” Football star O.J. Simpson pleaded no contest to beating his wife during a 1988 New Year’s Day argument and was placed on two years’ probation. A former Denver Broncos tight end was charged with punching his former girlfriend in the face while she slept. A pro golfer was arrested at his home after allegedly hurling his wife against a wall, pulling her hair and trashing the house.


Often the charges are dropped. Her word against his, or theirs, is difficult to prove. Sometimes the men are penalized by missing a game. When tried, the men are usually found not guilty, as is true in eighty percent of rape cases[iv].


Former Syracuse football player Michael Owens pleaded guilty to first-degree sexual abuse for an assault on an 18-year-old woman; he received a three-year conditional discharge. Boxer Trevor Berbick was sentenced to four years in prison for raping his family’s babysitter. Former Oklahoma University football players Bernard Hall and Nigel Clay are serving ten-year sentences for rape.


In the Cincinnati Bengals case, a 98-pound woman identified in court as Victoria C. says she was “brutally and sadistically raped…over two hours,” by 12 Bengal players on the “team floor” of a Seattle hotel when the team was in town for a game. The men were two to three times her size. She had gone there for consensual sex with Lynn James, a Bengals team member, she says. When James left the room, three other players barged in and began the series of assaults. She also accused eight other men, including James, with aiding and abetting the incident.[v]


Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday, author of Fraternity Gang Rape, cites numerous examples of the exact same scenario: a woman agrees to have sex with one man, then he leaves and his friends come in and rape her. Apparently this is a common modus operandi for rape.


Occasionally men rape men or boys. In two separate incidents, groups of high school wrestlers raped other male wrestlers with broom or mop handles. In one case at Sunnyside (Washington) High, a 15-year-old said eight teammates held him down while others spread his legs and raped him with a mop handle. He believed the attack was inspired by his coach having put him on a “wimp” list for missing practice due to illness. The coach said there was no such list. Four wrestlers were arrested on charges of second-degree rape.[vi]


In Johnson Creek, Wisconsin, a 17-year-old wrestler was held down by three teammates and sodomized with a broom handle after missing a practice. He said his coach also pinched him on the penis when he did not break a hold within the allowed 15 seconds. The coach, William Spieker, was suspended; the wrestlers were charged with sexual assault.


Coaches often condone sex crimes through silence, cover-ups, or their own abusive behavior. When Lefty Driesell was serving as head basketball coach at the University of Maryland, he telephoned a woman and asked her to drop an accusation of sexual misconduct against one of his players.[vii] At the University of Minnesota, the head and assistant coaches were disciplined for lying about fund-raising efforts to help a player who was charged with rape. San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. settled out of court with a woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her at a party.[viii] Former Michigan State wrestling coach Philip Parker was found guilty of raping a 20-year-old woman while on a 1991 Valentine’s Day date.[ix]


“I’m going to go home and beat up my wife,” Penn State football coach Joe Paterno once said at a press conference after his team lost to the University of Texas. Later he defended the statement as “just part of the sports culture, locker room talk, harmless, a joke that did not mean anything.”[x]


Mets manager Dallas Green has also joked about beating his wife. He subsequently apologized.


Alabama men’s basketball coach Wimp Sanderson resigned after Nancy Watts filed a sex discrimination complaint against him. Watts, his longtime secretary and mistress, alleged that Sanderson hit her as part of an ongoing pattern of physical and sexual abuse. Sanderson claimed in court documents that Watts received her black eye by colliding with his outstretched hand.[xi]


Watts was awarded $275,000 in a settlement. The university bought out the last two years of Sanderson’s contract for $558,454;[xii] he also became eligible for an annual pension of $75,000.[xiii]


In The Hundred Yard Lie, Rick Telander writes, “In my years in the locker room I have heard so much degrading talk of women by male athletes — particularly the use of women as objects to be conquered and dominated…that I feel certain the macho attitudes promoted by coaches contribute (perhaps unwittingly) to the athlete’s problems in relating to women.”


Spectators also get into the swing of things. Boston Celtics fans have hung banners in the arena claiming they like to beat rival teams almost as much as “we like to beat our wives.”[xiv]


Lenore E. Walker, a Denver psychologist and author of Terrifying Love, contends there is a “very strong relationship” between men who watch football and men who beat women. She studied calls to Denver’s police and battered women’s shelters during and after the 1988 Super Bowl. During the game, reports of domestic violence were lower than usual, but “the number of calls soared in the first four or five hours” after Denver lost the game.


Women are beaten daily, but Super Bowl Sunday seems particularly dangerous for American women. Though some battered women’s shelters report noticing no correlation between football and wife-beating, shelters in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Marin County, California have reported receiving more calls from distraught, bruised, and threatened women that day than on any other day of the year.


About 25 percent of the men referred by courts to the Domestic Abuse Center in Northridge, California tell of at least one battering incident involving sports. “The men talk about being pumped up from the game, pumped up from having all their buddies around,” says the center’s director, Gail Pincus. Men get angry, she says, “when a wife or girlfriend either doesn’t serve them fast enough or makes what they consider a stupid or embarrassing comment” while they are watching sports with other men.[xv]



The three basketball players were sitting in Paul’s dorm room, drinking beer and, as they recall, “probably talking about basketball or sports” when Melody and two of her friends approached their open window and began a conversation with them. The three men and three women chatted, all accounts agree. After a while, James asked if the women wanted to see “the real John Holmes,” a reference to a porn movie star with a huge penis. He pulled down his pants.


Soon afterward Otis asked Melody to meet him at the side door. Otis testified that he asked Melody to come to the door “because James exposed himself to her and she looked interested.”


A witness testified that Otis grabbed Melody and pulled her inside, but that it appeared they were playing. Otis says he “escorted” Melody inside the building. Melody says she did not want to enter the building because of the dorm prohibition against female visitors, but was not afraid. After all, these were her friends.


Which raises the question: When a male friend grabs a woman, and drags her in a direction she does not want to go, is this play? Is this safe? Can he be trusted? Up to 90 percent of sexually assaulted women know their perpetrator.[xvi]


Once inside, Melody worried aloud about getting in trouble for breaking curfew. The men were supposed to be attending a dorm meeting, and Melody thought someone might come looking for them. “Don’t worry, they never check our rooms,” she was assured. Then the rape or sex began. Melody says James and Paul took turns raping her, while the three men worked in tandem to hold her down. She didn’t use the phrase team effort but it sounded like that: a coordinated, strategic attack that required little verbal communication. She recalls that they said to her, “You need a real man” — a reference to her rumored bisexuality — and, “We’re going to fix you.”


Melody and Otis had dated several months earlier. Melody had ended the relationship. This was not supposed to be admissible in court; the judge had ruled before the trial that Melody’s sexual history was irrelevant. But Melody, in a blunder indicative of her naiveté, blurted out this information while being cross-examined. The defense attorneys later used it against her.


In the men’s version of events, Melody walked into the dorm room of her own volition, worried aloud about breaking curfew, then pulled down her pants.


“There was no kissing, no hugging, no fondling? She just walked into the room, laid down and did it?” the district attorney asked.

“She just laid down and did it,” Otis replied.


When Melody was having intercourse with Paul, the men testified, she fondled James’s penis with her left hand and Otis’s with her right. Afterward, James said, “Turn on the light. Let me see how pink it is.” Otis turned on the light. On the witness stand he mimed the action of gently pulling apart her labia and peering in. “God dang, girl,” he said he told her, “you is pink.”


After Melody fled, her friends asked what was wrong. “Nothing,” she muttered. She looked shaken, they said. She was unusually silent. Back at her dorm, she showered for a long time.


The next morning she ingested an assortment of painkillers and cold medicines. At the hospital, after her stomach was pumped, she filed a rape report.


In her closing arguments, the district attorney said Melody didn’t tell her friends about the rape because “she didn’t believe it herself — she was shocked, stunned.” The D.A. also noted that Melody had been scarred by a previous experience: Her stepfather molested her at a young age, and when she told her mother, her mother did not believe her. Melody feared no one would believe her again.


The D.A. said it was ludicrous that a woman would walk into a dorm room, express a fear of getting in trouble, then “take off her pants and say, essentially, ‘climb aboard.'”


In their closing arguments, the defense attorneys insinuated that Melody was lying about her stepfather as well as the three basketball players; that she had a history of false rape accusations. Pointing to Melody’s admission that she’d had sex with Otis before, they labeled her “very liberal-minded.”


The jury deliberated for three and a half hours. Friends, family, and members of the community waited nervously in the courtroom. People rose to get drinks of water, to talk quietly with each other. Journalists from local papers speculated on the outcome. One male writer expressed sympathy for Otis, who was charged with second-degree rape but by all accounts “hadn’t even gotten laid.”


When the jurors emerged, the verdicts were read, beginning with Paul: Not guilty on each of the counts against him. Then Otis: not guilty. Then James: not guilty.


Shouts of “Praise the Lord!” and “Thank you Jesus!” reverberated throughout the courtroom, giving it a surreal, Baptist revival atmosphere. Otis’s mother, shouting “Hallelujah” and crying, was so overcome by joy and relief she had to be carried out.


Melody’s family formed a cocoon around her and ushered her away.


In the parking lot, James spoke of plans to celebrate the “victory” with Otis and Paul. Of Melody he said, “She’s frisky. She’s had sex with lots of guys. Lots of the football players had sex with her. She even goes both ways. She had a reputation of being bisec [bisexual].”


James’s mother chimed in. “Yeah, she goes both ways. She do it with everybody.”


I asked James, “What gave you the impression she wanted to have sex with you?”


He said, “If someone in a first-floor window expose himself to you, and you go to him, well, what is he supposed to think?”



When I tell people that male athletes are responsible for more rape than their nonathletic peers, no one seems surprised. This was true even before the first edition of this book came out; before the O.J. Simpson trial; before additional studies confirming the correlation. It simply makes sense, knowing what we know.


Rape-prone societies, according to anthropologist Peggy Sanday, are strongly associated with militarism, male dominance, high male status, sex-role differentiation, general interpersonal violence, an ideology of male toughness, distant father-child relationships, and separate spheres for men and women.[xvii] What better way to describe manly sports? With their male-supremacist rituals, macho behaviors, systemic violence, and almost-total exclusion of women, a manly sports league could be considered its own culture, and, in Sanday’s terms, extremely rape-prone.


Sanday says that men in all-male groups often 1) assume promiscuous women are indiscriminate, and therefore available to the population at large; and 2) punish promiscuous women. Rape is used to control women’s sexuality.


This may help explain James, after the trial, calling Melody “frisky” and accusing her of having sex with “lots of the football players,” as well as with women. Therefore, he seemed to be saying, she wanted/deserved sex/rape from the basketball players as well. The rape/sex could also be interpreted as a form of competition between the football and the basketball teams: if you get to “do her,” we do too.


When educating men about rape, author and psychologist Chris O’Sullivan notes dryly, “it seems to be particularly important to convey that a woman who chooses to be sexual, perhaps with several different individuals, is still sexually selective and is not available to the population at large.”[xviii]


“Athletic teams are breeding grounds for rape [because they] are often populated by men who are steeped in sexist, rape-supportive beliefs,” says Robin Warshaw, author of I Never Called It Rape.[xix] Four common rape-supportive beliefs include: She wanted it; she deserved it; nothing happened; and no harm was done.[xx]


According to Claire Walsh, director of the Campus and Community Consultation Service, a rape prevention program in St. Augustine, Florida, in virtually every case of gang rape, the men admit to group sex but deny that it was rape. That’s the “she wanted it” myth, and the one the basketball players’ attorneys used. “Why did she go to the door?” the attorney asked. “If she just wanted more conversation, she could have stayed at the window.”


Many teens believe rape is justifiable (she deserves it) in certain circumstances. Robin Warshaw cites a study of 14-to-18-year-olds in which more than half of the boys and between 26 and 42 percent of the girls say that it’s okay for a boy to force a girl to have sex if 1) she is planning to have sex with him and she changes her mind; 2) she has led him on; or 3) she gets him sexually excited.[xxi]


The “nothing happened” myth promulgates the belief that neither sex nor rape occurred, and that women’s accounts are unreliable. Unlike other assault victims, rape victims are often accused of lying about the rape, supposedly to achieve covert aims such as retaliation against former boyfriends. The false memory syndrome — the theory that many women mysteriously and mistakenly imagine that they were sexually abused as children — serves as the latest version of this myth.


The “no harm done” myths are evident in the ways men define rape. “Rape is defined according to what men think violates women, and that is the same as what they think of as the sine qua non of sex,” writes Catharine MacKinnon in Feminism Unmodified.[xxii] “Men who are put in prison for rape think it’s the dumbest thing that ever happened. It isn’t just a miscarriage of justice; they were put in jail for something very little different from what most men do most of the time and call sex. The only difference is they got caught. That view is not remorseful and not rehabilitative. It may also be true.”[xxiii]


A psychiatrist who works with rapists reports, “It is becoming increasingly more difficult for these men to see their actions as criminal, as being anything more than the normal male response to a female.”[xxiv]


Kinsey Institute scholars who studied men and sexual assault concluded, “If we labeled all punishable sexual behavior as a sex offense, we would find ourselves in the ridiculous situation of having all of our male histories consist almost wholly of sex offenders. The man who kisses a girl [sic] in defiance of her expressed wishes is committing a forced sexual relationship and is liable to an assault charge, but to solemnly label him a sex offender would be to reduce our study to a ludicrous level.”[xxv]


“Rather than ‘reduce their study to a ludicrous level,'” Andrea Dworkin notes in Pornography, “…the honorable scientists chose to sanction as normative the male commitment to the use of force documented by their study.”[xxvi]


Sex and rape can both involve a sort of athletic prowess, and can be interpreted as a game that must be won in order to impress other men. “The man is taught to look upon his actions on a date as carefully constructed strategy for gaining the most territory,” wrote former college student Erik Johnke wrote in his senior thesis. “Every action is evaluated in terms of the final goal — intercourse. He continually pushes to see ‘how far he can get.’ Every time [his date] submits to his will, he has ‘advanced’ and every time she does not he has suffered a ‘retreat.’ Since he already sees her as the opponent, and the date as a game or battle, he anticipates resistance. He knows that ‘good girls don’t,’ and so she will probably say ‘no.’ But he has learned to separate himself from her and her interests. He is more concerned with winning the game.”[xxvii]


Such training “may well have the consequence of making it difficult for males to become sexually aroused in a relationship in which they do not feel dominant over the female,” says sociologist Miriam Johnson in Strong Mothers, Weak Wives. If one learns about sexuality in the context of being rewarded by other males for “scoring,” for “getting pussy” or just “getting it,” then this does not augur well for egalitarian sex.”[xxviii]



When explaining why male athletes rape we must note the obvious but overlooked fact that they are men. More specifically, most men were trained to act manly, were raised to develop a disdain for women, to dissociate love from sex, and to engage in various self-destructive and other-destructive behaviors that somehow, to themselves and other men, “prove” masculinity.


The testing ground by which masculinity is proved is violence. Author Michael Kaufman calls it “the triad of men’s violence:” violence against women, against other men, and against oneself.[xxix] Against oneself, violence proves toughness. Against men, violence establishes a pecking order. Against women, violence serves as the ultimate control mechanism, as Susan Brownmiller pointed out in Against Our Will.[xxx] Sports violence plays an integral role in maintaining male supremacy.


MacKinnon puts it this way: “Athletics to men is a form of combat. It is a sphere in which one asserts oneself against an object, a person, or a standard. It is a form of coming against and subduing someone who is on the other side, vanquishing enemies… Physicality for men has meant male dominance; it has meant force, coercion, and the ability to subdue and subject the natural world, one central part of which has been us [women].”[xxxi]


The tackle — the act of knocking or dragging another person to the ground — is an integral aspect of football. Illegal off the football field, assault is legal on it. The human body is used as a weapon against other bodies, resulting in pain, serious injury, and even death.[xxxii]


In sports, a boy learns to use his body in “forceful, space-occupying, even dominating ways,” notes University of Alberta sociologist David Whitson. His body becomes “an instrument of power” that enables him “force others to do his bidding.” Because these behaviors are linked to the concept of manliness, and thus to the boy’s definition of self, he carries them over into his intimate encounters with women.[xxxiii]


Whether hockey fights, football tackles, or baseball brawls, intentionally hurtful acts are portrayed as natural — for men. Sports violence is considered appropriate. It is considered masculine. Our concept of violence is inextricably interwoven with our concept of expected, condoned male behavior. Boys are given boxing gloves as toys, while girls and women who attempt to join wrestling, boxing, or football teams are often ridiculed, sexually harassed, or simply barred from participation.


One implicit agreement of any sporting contest is to limit the game actions to specific boundaries in time and space.[xxxiv] When boxers take off their gloves, they’re supposed to stop fighting. “Getting position” through the aggressive use of elbows and hips is acceptable on a basketball court but not in a grocery line.


Athletes have “a moral obligation to normalize relationships and lives at the game’s conclusion,” says University of California at Berkeley psychologist Brenda Bredemeier.[xxxv] Yet when games and practices conclude, relationships are not “normalized” in any sense women would consider normal. Many male athletes remain not only violent but sexually violent.



The derogatory use of the phrase “fuck you” reflects prevalent male thinking about sex: the person getting “fucked” is seen as inferior. To insert one’s penis into another’s orifice, or to threaten to, is to put that other person, whether male or female, in a one-down position. To “get fucked” is to lose status.[xxxvi]


The taunt “suck my dick” is also revealing. If a man were to close his eyes (or, as in film “The Crying Game,” to be fooled by makeup and dress), he would not be able to discern whether the person “sucking his dick” were male or female. But for a man to say “suck my dick” to another man is to insult him, because it puts him in the subservient role men have designated female.


Just six months after the infamous 1991 Tailhook convention, a group of Navy fighter pilots performed an obscene skit pillorying Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder. Schroeder was unpopular because she had proposed legislation that would give women access to combat assignments. In the skit, performed at a social gathering attended by five senior officers, the men “invited Schroeder to perform oral sex in a rhyming song that began with, ‘Hickory Dickory Dock…'” according to news reports. The officers were eventually fired.


Author John Stoltenberg has a theory about the prevalent association between male arousal and dominance. Erections, he notes, happen to adolescent boys for no apparent reason. “Among the events or experiences that boys report as being associated with erections are accidents, anger, being scared, being in danger, big fires, fast bicycle riding, fast sled riding, hearing a gunshot, playing or watching exciting games, boxing and wrestling, fear of punishment, being called on to recite in class, and so on.” Erections also occur in response to touch. But the ones associated with fear or danger “can be so distracting and disconcerting that they trigger even more panic and anxiety, which in turn can make detumescence quite impossible.”


So the young man eventually learns to “reproduce the erectile result of feeling threat, terror, and danger as a child simply by being threatening, terrifying, and dangerous to his chosen sex object. It works even better now, because he is in control…The more dread he produces, the more ‘desire’ he can feel.”[xxxvii]


Sexual dominance, Stoltenberg says, is what men do in order to feel manly. “Real men are aggressive in sex. Real men get cruel in sex. Real men use their penises like weapons in sex. Real men leave bruises. Real men think it’s a turn-on to threaten to harm. A brutish push can make an erection feel really hard. That kind of sex makes you feel like someone who is powerful and it turns the other person into someone powerless. That kind of sex makes you feel dangerous and in control – like you’re fighting a war with an enemy and if you’re mean enough you’ll win but if you let up you’ll lose your manhood. It’s a kind of sex men have in order to have a manhood.” Stoltenberg’s book is called Refusing to Be a Man.


Perhaps rape is “a violent repudiation of the female,” says Joyce Carol Oates. “The supreme macho gesture — like knocking out an opponent and standing over his fallen body, gloves raised in triumph.”[xxxviii]



In the manly sporting arena, misogyny and homophobia glue teams together. Group rape cements that bond. Men brag about “gang bangs” and joke about “pulling train.” Pulling train is a euphemism for gang rape; the men line up like train cars to take turns having intercourse with (or, rather, doing intercourse to) the woman. Peggy Reeves Sanday writes in Fraternity Gang Rape, “Cross-cultural research demonstrates that whenever men build and give allegiance to a mystical, enduring, all-male social group, the disparagement of women is, invariably, an important ingredient of the mystical bond, and sexual aggression the means by which the bond is renewed.[xxxix]


When interviewed, rapists list these rewards of rape: recreation and adventure; competition and camaraderie; rapport, friendship, and cooperation.[xl] Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Sex, aggression, and male bonding all at once — what could be more exciting? Sanday calls gang rape “a no-holds-barred orgy of togetherness.” Afterward, Sanday says, “The woman whose body facilitates all this is sloughed off…like a used condom.”[xli]


An additional motive, especially for college-age men, “is simply the opportunity to have heterosexual intercourse,” notes Chris O’Sullivan, author of Nice Boys, Dirty Deeds: Gang Rape on Campus.[xlii] Here that line between rape and sex again dissolves. Few women would define “heterosexual intercourse” as forced sex, yet some men seem to.


Rape is an act of violence, Susan Brownmiller insisted in Against Our Will and feminists have been echoing ever since. True. But it’s also a sex act, both from the perspective of raped women, who experience being sexually, not just personally violated, and from the point of view of rapists. In psychologist Neil Malamuth’s famous 1981 survey of U.S. and Canadian college men, one in three said they would be at least “somewhat likely” to rape a woman if they could get away with it.[xliii] This may indicate anger and aggression toward women, but it may also indicate that many men think of rape as one way to get sex. “We’re a bunch of guys that are — I mean, better than decent-looking,” said one member of the Spur Posse, the gang of high school athletes who notoriously turned sex into a contest, publicly counting one point for each instance of sexual intercourse. “We don’t have to go raping girls.[xliv]


Former Oklahoma football player Bernard Hall, one of the few men serving prison time for rape, was asked during his trial whether he did or did not rape the woman. “I certainly did not,” he replied. “She is not my type.”[xlv]


Gang rape provides the additional challenge of a public performance. Like most spectator sports, group sexual assault is conceived by and executed for the pleasure of men. “The woman is incidental,” says Sandler. “The men are raping for each other. They are showing off for their buddies, and there’s a tremendous fear of losing their buddies if they don’t go along.”


Former Washington Redskin Sam Hamilton explains the thinking of his former football comrades: “Hey, I have no problem sharing women with my teammates. These guys go to battle with me.”


So Otis asks Melody to meet him at the door, yanks her inside, then offers her to his friends, according to her testimony. If you won’t have sex with me, he seems to tell her, I’ll make you have sex with my friends. Three objectives achieved at once: He has retaliated for her hurting his feelings, he has asserted his masculinity, and he has offered his friends a gift.



There are few documented cases of a man confronting other men once a gang rape begins. All men may not participate, but they rarely intervene.


One former college athlete who asked not to be identified recalls with regret a gang rape committed by his fraternity brothers, and the fact that he did nothing to stop it. The woman had agreed to sex with one man, and another dozen or so were surreptitiously planning to rape her as soon as the first was finished. A friend knocked on the athlete’s door late at night and said, “So and so’s pulling train. Come on over.” Feeling loyal to his own girlfriend, the man declined. The next day he learned that two of the men had impaled the woman with a wine bottle and a pool stick.


One of the men who apparently participated is now a university athletic director. “I’m not sure exactly what he did — I wasn’t there,” says my source. “But he bears some responsibility if he was there. Even I bear some responsibility. I just went back to sleep. I wasn’t interested in putting on a display for the other guys. That’s what I think it is. It’s the same with sexual videos. They’re never just of women. The guys get off on each other.”


“The peer pressure is very strong,” notes Sandler. “I know men – good men — who will speak out at the first sign of racism. But when something sexist happens, there’s complete silence. The fear of ridicule by other men is great. It takes great courage on the part of one man to stop gang rape.”


Hamilton does recall intervening in attempted rapes. At pro football parties, it would be clear that a woman was “about to be taken advantage of,” Hamilton says, so he would say to the offending man, “Hey, back off.” Responses varied “anywhere from fights to ‘okay.'”


But Hamilton added thoughtfully: “I will tell you that in each case I’ve done that it’s been some other athlete from a visiting team, as opposed to my teammate. I’ve never thought of this until we’re having this conversation, but I don’t know whether I was protecting my territory or protecting the individual.”


So even the act of trying to prevent rape — a rare occurrence — might be motivated by male bonding, male posturing, male competition: a message from one man to another not about justice but about turf. Lay off her. She’s ours.



When men rape in a group, they are performing sexual acts on or in a woman but, experts agree, for each other. It’s a male competition with male spectators.


But are they also performing sex with each other? Are they, as the college athlete surmised, also “getting off on each other?” Is gang rape a homosexual or bisexual act? Expert opinions diverge. Peggy Reeves Sanday says yes. The rapists “delude themselves as to the real object of their lust,” writes Sanday. “If they were to admit to the real object, they would give up their position in the male status hierarchy as superior, heterosexual males.”[xlvi]


Author Brian Pronger agrees: “If they could just give each other blow jobs they wouldn’t have to rape.”


But psychologist and rape expert Chris O’Sullivan disputes that theory. “It’s showing off for each other. They’re proving they’re heterosexual, proving they’re tough, proving they can exploit somebody.”


In Men Who Rape, A. Nicholas Groth and H. Jean Birnbaum compare gang rape to group robbery or hunting: the men do not secretly want to rob or kill each other.[xlvii] But if we think not about secret wishes but about their actions, we notice that gang rapists are having sex “with” each other. A woman is present (though she is often drunk to the point of unconsciousness), but these men do not look away when their peers get erections. They get aroused together. They may not touch each other, but they look. It’s like a gay men’s or adolescent boys’ “circle jerk,” except there is a woman involved to offer heterosexual legitimacy.




Why do sportsmen rape?


“As an athlete,” says Hamilton, “you think you’re entitled. You think, there’s no reason anyone would reject me. Whatever I want, I should get.”


By the time he arrives at college, the manly athlete has gotten a lot. Respected community elders — coaches — have begged him to attend particular schools, camps, and universities. He has been given transportation, meal money, scholarships, sometimes under-the-table money, sneakers, wrist bands, socks, uniforms, towels, soap, lockers. He has received adulation and perhaps fan mail. He has received rewards: trophies, plaques, his name in the newspaper.


He has broken lots of rules — holding, grabbing, kicking, elbowing — that are considered “part of the game.” He has rarely, if ever, been punished. He has rarely, if ever, had to apologize for making mistakes, or for hurting others through aggressive acts. In fact, he has been rewarded for aggression, ridiculed for gentleness.


Hamilton likens pro football players’ parties to “certain streets you don’t walk down without knowing that you have to protect yourself.” He likens athlete sexual behavior to a game with established but hazardous rules. “We’re very freewheeling. It’s clear that this is the way we behave. If you come around you’re subject to the rules of that game.” When women refuse to provide the sex the men feel entitled to, “it’s likely to get a little rough at times.”


Entitlement is a curious concept. Manly athletes have been pampered, adored, given money, cars, and even, as if slavery were still legal, women. Therefore, some feel entitled to take sex, even from women who do not offer it.


From a female perspective, this makes no sense. No matter how privileged I may be, and no matter how many gifts I may receive, I won’t feel entitled to demand sex from an unwilling partner, and I’m not going to force my sexual will upon another person.


That’s because women can’t rape, some would argue. But women could rape. You don’t need a penis. Fingers, candlesticks, mini-baseball bats, and even crucifixes can be rammed into human orifices, as men have demonstrated, unfortunately. If women wanted to, they could rape. They could do it in groups. They could call it group sex.


Only men feel “entitled” to hurt others. Do they even think about others? How could the three college basketball players rape a “fellow” player, an athlete who ran and sweated on the same courts as they did?


Male runners, Kathrine Switzer points out, rarely rape female runners. Perhaps, she conjectures, it has to do with their understanding of what it takes to run; by running they gain an appreciation and compassion for all beings who run, and that appreciation translates to respect for women. Perhaps, like runners, swimmers, golfers and tennis players get accustomed to thinking of women as peers, as sister athletes. Coed sporting environments, like other coed environments, do seem to attenuate male aggression. When the University of Kentucky men’s basketball staff included Bernadette Locke-Maddox, head coach Rick Pitino said, “Having a female in the locker room, in the huddles, gives a more dignified huddle, a more dignified locker room. Your language is much better. Bernadette is someone we all respect a great deal.”[xlviii]


But most male basketball players see, on the court, neither female leaders nor female peers. Male basketball players rarely train or compete with women. Male players are pampered and praised and remunerated ways no female basketball players (or male runners or swimmers) could match. At the university level, male basketball players receive more and higher paid coaches, a better travel schedule, more fans, and much more media attention than their female peers.


“Do you have a good women’s basketball program” at your university? I asked Melody, the woman who accused the three basketball players of raping her.


“Oh yes,” she said.


“How does it compare to the men’s?” I asked.


She laughed. “Oh, well, compared to the men’s — it doesn’t,” she said. “You know how it goes. The men have better everything.”


The women male players hear about are the “cunts” and “pussies” of locker room humor; the short-skirted cheerleaders; the university “hostesses” who escort the men around campus during the recruiting process. Despite evidence to the contrary, basketball is equated with manliness. Women – even female players – become non-peers, non-teammates, non-comrades. Even non-people.


The prosecutor of the three college basketball players said of the men, “I don’t think they looked at it as hurting somebody. I don’t think they thought of her at all.”



The manly athlete becomes accustomed to having his offenses ignored. Society acts as a personal maid, following along behind him, cleaning up. Can’t meet the acceptance requirements for college? No problem. We’ll admit you anyway. Bad grades in college? Don’t worry – we’ll change them, or at least provide free tutoring. Parking ticket? We’ll take care of it. Drug abuse? Help us win games and we’ll look the other way.


The manly athlete knows right from wrong, but after a while such distinctions don’t concern him. On the playing field, cheating isn’t cheating if the referees don’t see, and off the field the same rule seems to apply. Even when referees do see – when he is caught using drugs, or accepting illegal payments, or breaking the law – these infractions can be overlooked.


At Arizona State University, Jamal Faulkner was convicted of fraudulent use of a telephone credit card. He then failed to perform any of his court-ordered community service and missed numerous appointments with his probation officer. The judge told Faulkner, “It does appear throughout these proceedings that your status as a student-athlete has somehow given you the impression that you can take a casual attitude…toward both compliance with the law and the conditions of your probation.”


The presence of his coach must have contributed to that impression. Bill Frieder, who testified on Faulkner’s behalf, said, “Jamal is in good standing with me. I’m not going to criticize the court system, but I still stand by Jamal.” Frieder did not revoke Faulkner ‘s basketball eligibility.


Another ASU basketball player, Dwayne Fontana, had been arrested on rape charges the day before. Eight other ASU basketball and football players had been arrested on various charges of assault and theft in the previous 14 months. Only one of those did not return to school. The others were suspended for from one to six games.


If a black woman accuses a white man of rape, Ms. editor Marcia Ann Gillespie notes, the black male community supports the woman and excoriates the man. But the woman “who dares to speak about and hold black men accountable for the everyday acts of incest, battery, rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment risks becoming a pariah.”[xlix]


Pearl Cleage, author of Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot, notes, “Sexism is still not a word that gets used much in the black community, even though it describes a form of oppression that affects the majority population of the community — women! — and is no less virulent and deadly than racism.”[l]



But are black male athletes unfairly or disproportionately accused or convicted of sex crimes? Of the few athletes in jail for rape, most are black. This might be because most pro boxers, basketball players, and football players are black. But the overall prison population is disproportionately black. Given the racist history of this country, it’s reasonable to be suspicious when black men go to jail for crimes that white men commit with impunity. Yet in the case of athletes, my concern is not that too many African-American men are being convicted of rape. It’s that too few men of any national origin are.


The high school boys convicted of raping the mentally handicapped girl with a broomstick and a baseball bat were all white. Their lawyer said, “The whole country is obsessed with sex. You bring them up that way, and then…you call them criminals? Boys will be boys.”[li]


Psychiatrist Daniel Begel tells the story of how the “compulsive seductivity” of a recently retired pro baseball player, a married man, were condoned by his male community. One evening, Begel writes, this man “went with some old friends to a nightclub, where his presence was announced from the stage. From his seat he fastened a hard, predatory stare on a woman sitting at a neighboring table with her male companion.” After the man stared at the woman for some time, the woman’s “boyfriend rose from his chair to approach the athlete’s table. Instead of the challenge that the whole gathering expected, the boyfriend asked for the athlete’s autograph and shook his hand. Afterward the athlete explained his practice of compulsive seductivity as something he learned in professional baseball. The sanctioning of this behavior in the nightclub repeated a pattern that occurred many times over, in various ways, during his career.”[lii]


The three male basketball players accused of raping the female basketball player admitted in court that their behavior that night included indecent exposure, voyeurism, illegal drinking, and the breaking of two dormitory rules (no women in the dorm past curfew and mandatory attendance at a dorm meeting). They admitted a penchant for pornography. One player had been declared ineligible to play on the team that year due to failing grades. The other two had not yet graduated after four years of college.


Yet a juror afterward characterized the men as “pretty good kids.” Despite the defendants’ admissions of various broken rules and misdemeanors, and despite their admission of three-on-one “group sex”: pretty good kids. She added, “The guys stuck to their story. They would. Guys do that.” She smiled.


A local radio announcer trivialized the rape charges, using the phrase, “alleged hanky-panky.”


A student, noting that the men accused of rape in this case were black, defended them as “an endangered species.” Apparently seeing me as a representative of the white media, she asked, “Why don’t you focus on some good things black people are doing? You’re just trying to bring them down.”


I reminded her that the young woman involved was also African-American. Did she extend her concern for black people to the woman?

“No,” she said. “I’m not a feminist.”


Rape prevention expert Claire Walsh calls this community-support phenomenon “ring around the rapist.” She hears people say, “‘It cannot be true. He’s such a sweet guy. An upstanding citizen.’ The flip side is that there’s an annihilation of the accuser. Character assassination occurs.”


Universities join in, prioritizing their own reputations over the safety of their female students. Congress recently passed an act mandating the reporting of campus crimes, but “administrators are going to twist every which way to redefine or discourage reporting so their universities will look great,” predicts Walsh. At the University of Florida, Walsh says, administrators specifically tell students not to report rapes, saying, ‘We’ve got a waiting list.'”


Administrative hearings serve as another layer of protection for college rapists. Victims are often offered on-campus hearings conducted by “judicial review boards” comprised of faculty members who have no expertise in rape or legal affairs. If this board finds the woman’s claims groundless, she is discouraged from reporting the incident to the police.


“It’s ludicrous to assume that if a student is murdered by another student that the university would handle the investigation,” notes author Robin Warshaw, “and yet they see it as totally appropriate with rape.”[liii]


Rebecca Carpenter, a filmmaker and the daughter of a Philadelphia Eagles assistant football coach, was fifteen when sexually assaulted by a professional hockey player. She escaped, but felt responsible. “I thought, he just got cut from the team, and must be in pain,” she recalls. “I thought I must have done something to ask for this. I was so naive.”


At the trial of the three basketball players, the athletic director, in a typical move that violated both the First Amendment and the concept of college as a center for intellectual debate, asked students not to discuss the case. Many students complied, appearing fearful of disobeying orders.


After the trial I spoke with the “team mother,” a woman in her fifties who said her volunteer job was to “create a home-away-from-home atmosphere” for the university’s athletes. Throughout the trial she provided hugs, conversation, and other obvious forms of support to the men and their families. She avoided Melody. Upon the reading of the verdicts, she was jubilant.


“Which teams do you work with?” I asked her.


“Football, basketball, baseball,” she said.


“Oh,” I said. “Only the men?”


“No, the women too,” she added quickly.


“Well, you were sitting with the families of the men,” I noted. “Melody’s a basketball player too.”


“I have more contact with the men,” she admitted. “Melody stood off by herself. She was an introvert. But they’re all my children. I love them all.”



Coaches used to forbid athletes to have sex the night before games. Sex dulls men’s aggression, some said; it softens them, melts them, makes them mushy, romantic, cuddly. Others said: Sexual energy should not be wasted on women when it could be put to better use in The Game.


Maybe “regular” sex as currently practiced by many men is not a distraction from aggression, but a form of aggression. Mike Tyson, before a boxing match, used to taunt his opponents with this telling threat: “I’ll make you my girlfriend.”[liv] Making someone his girlfriend and beating/humiliating them were synonymous. He was threatening to fuck them/fuck them over. In his autobiography, Tyson said he likes to make women bleed; he later denied it, claiming not to have read his own book. His former wife, Robin Givens, told Barbara Walters that life with him was “pure hell.”


Catharine MacKinnon writes: “Crime is supposed to be deviant, not normal. We get very low convictions for rape. We also get many women who believe they have never been raped, although a lot of force was involved. They mean that they were not raped in a way that is legally provable. In other words, in all these situations, there was not enough violence against them to take it beyond the category of ‘sex’; they were not coerced enough.”[lv]


I’m reminded of Jane Wagner’s In Search of Intelligent Signs of Life in the Universe in which Lily Tomlin as Trudy, the bag lady, tries to explain to her space chums the difference between Andy Warhol’s painting of a Campbell’s soup can and the can itself. “This is soup and this is art. Art. Soup. Soup. Art.” It gets confusing.


Three men say group sex. One woman says gang rape. This is sex and this is rape. Rape. Sex. Sex. Rape. It gets confusing.


MacKinnon notes, “Finders of fact look for ‘more force than usual during the preliminaries.'”[lvi]


Tyson, the day he was sentenced to prison for six years and fined $30,000 for rape and deviate sexual conduct, claimed that what he did to Desiree Washington didn’t hurt her. “When I’m in the ring, I’m breaking their ribs, I’m breaking their jaws — to me that’s hurting somebody.”


A lawyer for the three college basketball players echoed this position: “Her hair was not messed up. Her clothes were not in disarray. There were no bruises, lacerations, or contusions in her private area. She wasn’t even crying!” Therefore, they implied, no harm was done.



Unwanted sex does not necessarily cause bruises, unless the men also beat the woman. When there are three men, there is no need to use fists to obtain compliance. When attached to three large basketball players, three erect penises provide sufficient intimidation so the woman usually does not fight back. Penises, even when used as battering rams, rarely leave bruises.


Melody “laid back and did it,” the three basketball players claimed. But even according to their account, did Melody “have sex?” Or did she just have sex done to her? If this was “group sex,” which members of the four-person group defined the sexual experience? By their own account, the men made no attempt to please her, to arouse her, or to bring her to orgasm; nor even to act affectionate. Even by their own account, she got fucked.


Where did these men get the idea that a woman would enjoy having intercourse, and fondling two men, without having her own body caressed?


“A classic male fantasy,” said the (male) detective who investigated the case.


This male fantasy is now showing at a theater (and bookstore, magazine rack, and video rental) near you in various forms of pornography. Madonna’s photo book, Sex, offered one of many sports-related examples of the ubiquitous rape-as-sex mythology. Shot from above, a photo shows Madonna dressed as a schoolgirl, pinned by two boys to the gym floor under a basketball net. Is it rape or is it sex?


Despite the prevalence of violent pornography, most college men have been exposed to at least rudimentary information about real women’s sexuality. They should know, for instance, that most women do not have orgasms via intercourse, and that women crave breast and clitoral stimulation, as well as whole-body touching and hugging.


Let’s consider the unlikely possibility that Melody did walk into the men’s dorm, lie down and say, in essence, “climb aboard.” Victims of childhood sexual abuse, naive about danger and tending to confuse sex with love, sometimes develop a pattern of being sexually abused. Repetition compulsion, therapists call it. They tend not to know how to get out of harmful situations; they tend not to cry out for help.


What would have been a responsible, mature response? If men see a “damn pink” vagina, are they entitled to shove their penises into it? Is this what pretty good kids do?


I found two of the defendants sitting on a bench during a recess in the trial. I asked, “Did she enjoy it? Did she have an orgasm?” They squirmed. They looked down. They were silent.


Moments earlier, I had asked them about career goals, and they couldn’t come up with any. “Be a free man,” said Paul.


Otis agreed. “Free man.”


I saw how frightened they were, how shocked, shaken, scared-to-the-bone terrified, how young. They never expected Melody to tell anyone. They never expected to be tried for rape.


They never, it appears, thought about Melody. Otis answered, “She didn’t act like she didn’t enjoy it.” Paul said nothing.


Where did they get the idea that women like to get fucked? James’ reference to porn star John Holmes may provide a clue. Pornography promotes the myth that women are willing receptacles for male sexuality/aggression. Porn promotes the myth that women enjoy gang rape. It appropriates lesbian images for male excitement. James made derogatory remarks about Melody’s supposed bisexuality and told her, “You need a real man.” James also exposed himself, then decided that Melody must want sex with him. This bizarre belief is also likely derived from porn: women who see naked men want to have sex with them. This is called a projection.


It’s men — mostly young men — who support the porn industry’s images of naked women in order to become sexually aroused.[lvii] In a survey of 32 college campuses, men who admitted rape also tended to rate “very frequently” their reading of Playboy, Penthouse, Chic, Club, Forum, Gallery, Genesis, Oui, or Hustler magazines.[lviii] In another study, massive exposure to pornography was associated with a loss of compassion toward women as rape victims and toward women in general.[lix] A federally funded study by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop concluded that “exposure to violent pornography increases punitive behavior toward women,” at least in the short term.[lx]


Exposure to violent sports seems to have a related effect. Researcher Leonard Berkowitz conducted sports-fan experiments using a technique from the famous Stanley Milgram experiments in which students are pressured to administer shock to another person (that person does not actually receive a shock). Berkowitz’ results: “Subjects who observe films about violent sports are more willing to administer a high level of electric shock than subjects who see another sort of film [such as a travelogue].”[lxi]


In Pornography and Silence, Susan Griffin writes that watching pornography helps men to silence vulnerability in themselves, to quiet their own dread of being victimized. Perhaps watching – or participating in – sports serves the same function.


Maybe the question is not why so many sportsmen rape, but why more of them don’t.


Or do they? An estimated 84 percent of rapes go unreported.[lxii]



As reports of male athlete rape proliferate, dozens of colleges are trying to dissuade athletes from raping women. The University of California at Berkeley has offered rape prevention programs to its football players at least twice, though the timing is sadly ironic: once before the alleged rape of a woman by five football players in 1986 (the men said she wanted it and were never brought to trial), and once between that incident and the 1993 case in which two football players allegedly raped, robbed, and beat a woman (they also said she wanted it; the case is pending).


The University of New Hampshire has also had trouble getting the message across. During a rape awareness session for nearly 700 athletes, students performed a skit about date rape. Audience members laughed, joked, and engaged in behavior that was “offensive and disruptive,” according to Dan DiBiasio, interim vice president for student affairs, who wrote a six-page letter to every student on campus and to all students’ parents, criticizing the athletes, detailing sexual assaults reported, and describing a new program for training athletes.[lxiii]


More successful programs include one at the University of Arkansas, where the athletic department mandates rape education programs for its athletes. In the five years the program has been in place, no athlete has been implicated in sexual assault.


The University of Maine has a program called “Athletes for Sexual Responsibility.” Skits and discussions communicate messages about date rape, but athletes serve as teachers, not students. By training athletes to teach other students, this program acknowledges the leadership role of athletes and intimately involves them in the lessons, which emphasize dissociating masculinity from dominance, violence, and sexism.


Mandatory participation and male leadership seem to be key. When I recently gave a talk on this subject at a major university, female athletes filled almost all of the seats; few men chose to attend.


Former football player and self-described pro-feminist Jackson Katz is successful using a gentle approach with male college athletes. Chief architect of the Mentors in Violence Prevention program, Jackson trains athletes as peer educators on sexual harassment and all forms of men’s violence against women. “I don’t say, you’re a bunch of rapists, and your culture trains you to rape women,” he reports. “I ask how many have a sister or a girlfriend, and they all raise their hands. I talk about the level of terror women experience. I tell them it takes more courage to speak out against sexism than it does to play football. If you hit someone on the field, everyone cheers. If you hear a rape joke, and you say that’s not funny, you’ll be ridiculed. So it takes even more inner courage, but you know it’s the right thing to do.”



The university attended by the three male basketball players publishes a student handbook. It specifies that students who exhibit lewd behavior (presumably including genital exposure) can be suspended. Students “discovered in a state of undress or sleeping in residence hall rooms of members of the opposite sex” can be suspended. Curfew violations result in suspensions from the residence halls. Students who permit illegal visits are subject to penalties.


Yet neither the athletic department nor the university imposed any penalties on the men. The autumn after the summer rape trial, Otis continued playing on the basketball team. James and Paul did not, but only because they had already completed their four years of eligibility. All three remained students at the university. All three continued to live in the dormitory.


Melody relinquished her athletic scholarship and transferred to a small community college.



[i] The names in this rape case have been changed to protect the innocent. None of the other facts has been altered.

[ii] Mary P. Koss and John A. Gaines, “The Predication of Sexual Aggression by Alcohol Use, Athletic Participation, and Fraternity Affiliation.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 8 (March 1993), pp. 94-108.

[iii] Anastasia Toufexis, “Sex and the Sporting Life,” Time (August 6, 1990), p. 76

[iv] Alice Vachss, Sex Crimes (New York: Random House, 1993. See also Vachss, “The Charge of Rape, the Force of Myth,” Washington Post, November 2, 2003.

[v] Mihoces, Otis, “Bengals: Disclosure of Names in Lawsuit Erases Team ‘Cloud” USA Today (September 9, 1992), p. 8C; also Wire Services, “Bengals Rape Case,” Washington Post (September 9, 1992), p. B7

[vi] B.G. Gregg, “Incidents, Aftermaths,” USA Today (June 16, 1992), p. 10C.

[vii] Toufexis, p. 77.

[viii] “Around the NFL” Washington Post (June 3, 1992), p. D2.

[ix] National News Network, “Colleges,” USA Today (September 23, 1992), p. 11C.

[x] Mike Capuzzo, “Unsportsmanlike Conduct.” Philadelphia Inquirer (December 7, 1990), p.1C, 5C; cited in Carol Graybeal, “A Critical Appraisal of the Role of Certain Aggressive Male Sports in Socializing and Institutionalizing Violence Against Women.” Unpublished masters thesis (Pennsylvania State University, 1991), pp. 25-26.

[xi] “Resigning?” USA Today (May 18, 1992), p. C1.

[xii] Jim Myers, “Besieged Sanderson Decides to Step Down,” USA Today (May 19, 1992), p. C1.

[xiii] Washington Post “Fanfare” (May 15,1992), p. C2.

[xiv] Mike Capuzzo, p.1C, 5C.

[xv] “The Super Bowl’s Real Score,” Ms., (November/December 1991), p. 93.

[xvi] Estimates range from 84 to 90 percent. See Robin Warshaw, I Never Called It Rape: The Ms. Report on Recognizing, Fighting, and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988); also Diana E. H. Russell, Sexual Exploitation: Rape, Child Sexual Abuse, and Workplace Harassment (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications 1984).

[xvii] See Peggy Reeves Sanday, “The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape: A Cross-Cultural Study,” Journal of Social Issues 37 (1981), p. 5-27.

[xviii] Chris O’Sullivan, “Acquaintance Gang Rape on Campus,” p. 153; in Andrea Parrot and L. Bechhofer, eds., Acquaintance Rape: The Hidden Crime (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1991).

[xix] Warshaw, p. 112.

[xx] Martha Burk, “Rape Myths and Acquaintance Rape”; cited in Graybeal.

[xxi] Warshaw, 1988 p. 120.

[xxii] Catharine A. MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 87

[xxiii] MacKinnon, p. 88.

[xxiv] John Stoltenberg, Refusing to be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice (Portland, Oregon: Breitenbush Books, Inc., 1989), p. 20.

[xxv] Paul H. Gebhard, John H. Gagnon, Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Cornelia V. Christenson, Sex Offenders: An Analysis of Types (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, and Paul B. Hoeber, 1965), p. 6; cited in Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (New York; Plume, 1979) p. 53.

[xxvi] Dworkin, 1979, P. 53.

[xxvii] Warshaw, p. 39.

[xxviii] Miriam M. Johnson, Strong Mothers, Weak Wives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); cited in Michael A. Messner, Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity (Boston; Beacon Press 1992); p. 101.

[xxix] Michael Kaufman, “The Construction of Masculinity and the Triad of Men’s Violence,” in Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner, eds., Men’s Lives (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company 1992), pp. 28-50.

[xxx] Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976).

[xxxi] MacKinnon, p. 121.

[xxxii] Michael A. Messner, “When Bodies Are Weapons: Masculinity and Violence in Sport,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 25 no. 3, (1990), p. 203.

[xxxiii] David Whitson, “Sport in the Social Construction of Masculinity,” in Michael Messner and Donald Sabo, eds., Sport, Men, and the Gender Order: Critical Feminist Perspectives (Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books 1990) p. 23.

[xxxiv] Warren Fraleigh, in Right Actions in Sport: Ethics for Contestants (Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Publishers, 1984) delineates four moral agreements athletes ideally must make: 1) each participant freely chooses to play; 2) arrangements are made to equalize opportunity; 3) each participant strives for victory; and 4) game actions are limited to specified spatial and temporal boundaries.

[xxxv] Brenda Jo Bredemeier and David L. Shields, “Athletic Aggression: An Issue of Contextual Morality,” Sociology of Sport Journal 3 (1986), p. 19.

[xxxvi] This was first explained to me by Brian Pronger in The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality, and the Meaning of Sex (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), p. 137. Interesting discussions can also be found in Sanday’s Fraternity Gang Rape and Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women (New York: Plume, 1981).

[xxxvii] Stoltenberg, 1989.

[xxxviii] Joyce Carol Oates, “Rape and the Boxing Ring,” Newsweek (February 24, 1992) p. 61.

[xxxix] Peggy Reeves Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus (New York: New York University Press, 1990) p. 20.

[xl] Chris O’Sullivan, p. 146.

[xli] Sanday, p. 11.

[xlii] O’Sullivan, p. 147.

[xliii] Jane Hood, “Let’s Get A Girl: Male Bonding Rituals in America,” in Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner, eds., Men’s Lives (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company 1992), pp. 364-370.

[xliv] Joan Didion, “Trouble in Lakewood,” The New Yorker (July 26, 1993), p. 49.

[xlv] Lester Munson, “Against Their Will,” The National Sports Daily (August 17, 1990), p. 30.

[xlvi] Sanday, p. 13

[xlvii] A. Nicholas Groth and H. Jean Birnbaum, Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender (New York: Plenum Press 1979).

[xlviii] “Outside the Lines: Men and Women, Sex and Sports” ESPN, (May 27, 1992).

[xlix] Marcia Ann Gillespie, “What’s Good for the Race?” Ms., (January/February 1993), p. 81.

[l] Pearl Cleage, Deals with the Devil, and Other Reasons to Riot (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), p. 24.

[li] Laurie Goodstein, “Girl’s Low IQ at Issue in Assault Trial,” Washington Post (October 25, 1992), p. A3.

[lii] Daniel Begel, “An Overview of Sport Psychiatry,” American Journal of Psychiatry 149, no. 5, (May 1992), p. 610.

[liii] Warshaw, 1988.

[liv] Joyce Carol Oates, “Rape and the Boxing Ring,” p. 61.

[lv] MacKinnon, 1987, p. 88.

[lvi] Ibid, p. 88

[lvii] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991)

[lviii] Mary P. Koss and Thomas E. Dinero, “Predictors of Sexual Aggression Among a National Sample of Male College Students,” in Robert A. Prentky and Vernon L. Quinsey, eds., Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 528 (1988), pp. 133-146.

[lix] D. Zillman and J. Bryant, “Pornography, Sexual Callousness, and the Trivialization of Rape,” Journal of Communication 32 (1982) pp. 10-21; cited in Graybeal, p. 37.

[lx] Wendy Melillo, “Can Pornography Lead to Violence?” Washington Post (July 21, 1992), p. 10 – Health.

[lxi] Allen Guttmann, From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), p. 130-2.

[lxii] National Victim Center and Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, Arlington, VA 1992.

[lxiii] “New Hampshire Writes Parents About Assault and Disrespect of Women,” About Women on Campus 2, (Summer 1993), p. 10.

Oppressive Stereotypes for Strong Women

My letter to the editor in the Washington Post, February 19, 2014:

With all due respect for a brave person who is determined to chart her own path, Marion Cory [“Genderqueer at the gym,” Outlook, Feb. 16] inadvertently reinforced the very gender stereotypes that oppress her.According to Ms. Cory, derby cars, self-discipline, adventure, challenge, sports and weightlifting are masculine. Has she never heard of feminism? That, in part, was the point: freedom from gender roles — for all of us. Has she never watched the Olympics? When women lift weights, they’re not acting masculine, they’re acting like people who want to get stronger.And why in the world would she want to use the men’s locker room? That’s for men. She’s a self-disciplined, adventurous, strong woman — just like millions of other women. The word for these people is not genderqueer; it’s athlete.
— Mariah Burton Nelson, Arlington
Marion Cory in her apartment building’s gym. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

I Don’t Want to Become a Stiff, Sore, Old Person

I don’t want to become an old person with sore joints.

Is this inevitable?

Maybe. Frankly, I’m already a middle-aged person with sore joints.Mariah in the pool, post-swim

But I have a hypothesis: Stiff, sore people get that way by “baking” muscular tension into their (our!) bodies.

Whatever we practice, we reinforce. By “practicing” chronic tension, perhaps we create necks, backs, and shoulders that become permanently tight and tired.

Josh Hanagarne, who has Tourette’s, explains in The World’s Strongest Librarian that it’s “exhausting” to experience a continual onslaught of muscular contractions. Maysoon Zayid, a comedian, uses the same word – exhausting – to describe what it’s like to “shake all the time” due to cerebral palsy.

Might all of us be exhausting ourselves by inadvertently contracting, clenching, and clamping our shoulders, backs, and necks – not just at work and home but in the water, too?

As a Total Immersion student, I’m learning to swim and relax at the same time. (This one-lap video  illustrates that attempt.) During the recovery phase, for instance, Terry Laughlin teaches that the leading hand should dangle as it skims above the water.

Now I find myself wondering what might constitute a “recovery phase” on land. Can I achieve what Terry calls “effortless endurance” here, too? When walking, for instance, do I need to marionette my shoulders up toward my ears? When working, must I vice-clamp my jaw?

Not surprisingly, Terry’s way ahead of me.

“Since I started focusing on pinpoint relaxation (relaxing neck muscles to hang head, hand muscles at all times, the ulnar muscle for a ‘suspended’ forearm,) I find I’m much better at being conscious of unintended, unproductive muscular tension at all times, often related to ordinary living stress,” he explains.

I studied Tai Chi in college, and one day my teacher invited an 80-year-old Japanese master to demonstrate. Before he began moving, she said proudly, “Look at his flaccid muscles!”

Flaccidity had never been my goal. But she made a good point: Muscles are for motion. To tense them unnecessarily is to fatigue and even injure them.

This is not an argument against strength training. It’s an argument for conscious, efficient movement, in the water and on land. I don’t know if we can become flexible, pain-free, energetic old people, but I suspect that the actions we take – and don’t take – right now might make all the difference.


This is a guest post for Terry Laughlin’s “Swimming That Changes Your Life” blog

A former Stanford and professional basketball player, Mariah Burton Nelson is the author of six books about female athletes, including We Are All Athletes and The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football. She’s in charge of innovation for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

A Splash-Free Life?

What would it mean to lead a splash-free life?

To splash is “to cause water or other liquid to move in a noisy or messy way.”

In swimming, leading a splash-free life means gliding smoothly forward, without wastefully dissipating one’s own energy in messy, noisy, random directions. This is what first attracted me to Total Immersion: The stunningly beautiful, preternaturally graceful, splash-free stroke demonstrated by Shinji Takeuchi in his popular “Most graceful freestyle” video.

Then I heard Terry Laughlin explain why splashing is inefficient. It takes energy to send water up into the air, and this represents energy diverted from moving you forward. And—since Terry notes that human swimmers, by nature, are energy-wasting machines—a focus on minimizing even the smallest form of waste is the simplest way to acquire what he calls ‘Effortless Endurance.’  

This makes so much sense! As a lifelong swimmer, I’m shocked that I have logged 50 years’ worth of miles, including many competitions at many ages, without ever wondering how I might “shape my vessel” to slice cleanly through the water without creating a noisy mess. Dolphins don’t splash! Why should we?

I’ve been an enthusiastic Total Immersion student for about six months now, practicing mindfully and relishing my new grace and power. I’ve become a TI evangelist too. I can’t help it. Every time I meet a swimmer or potential swimmer, I feel compelled to tell them about streamlining, slipperiness, reducing drag, and the amazing power of the hip-drive.

My most recent convert is 89-year-old Mom, featured in the clip above talking passionately about Total Immersion, while demonstrating the method — and demonstrating how much energy is required for her, at this age, simply to get dressed and get into the pool. Why waste that precious energy splashing?

Now I’m wondering if it might also behoove me (us?) to splash a bit less on land, too. After practicing Total Immersion in the morning, I stride onto the surprisingly firm land like a sea creature that has recently become amphibious. Still high on the satisfying sense of grace I just experienced in the water, I wonder if I (we?) might practice the same grace with colleagues, family, and the above-sea-level world as a whole.

For example: Must I interrupt others when I’m really, really eager to share my views? Isn’t that simply splashing?

Must that colleague across the hall sing out loud all day? Splashing!

What about Metro riders who elbow aside elderly passengers on their way to the seats? Looks pretty splashy to me.

We can only control our own “splashiness,” of course – and, being fallible humans, we can’t entirely control that either. But I find that my own attempts to “splash less” make me more, rather than less, compassionate for others who are noisily and messily moving through the world. After all, isn’t that what I’ve been doing, lap after lap, for most of my life?


This is a guest post for Terry Laughlin’s “Swimming That Changes Your Life” blog

 A former Stanford and professional basketball player, Mariah Burton Nelson is the author of six books about female athletes, including We Are All Athletes and The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football. She’s currently in charge of innovation for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership.

Violence, Silence, and How to Be a Man

leadershipHow to Be a Man

Brilliant Ted Talk by Jackson Katz on male responsibility – and opportunity – to take a leadership role in ending violence against women, girls, boys, and other men.

Sex, Seduction, Power, and Love

My letter in the Washington Post today (regarding “Ex-swim coach gets 7 years in sex case”):

“I loved him.” Those were the three most important words in Rick Curl’s sentencing hearing. Kelley Currin’s sentiment has been echoed by victims everywhere, including Jerry Sandusky’s. “It was awesome. I loved it,” one boy said of his relationship with the football coach. I felt the same way about the coach who abused me. In my 14-year-old mind, we were having a love affair.
Parents must understand: Children can be manipulated and seduced. All of us crave love and affection, especially from charming, successful adults. Statutory rape laws are based on this premise: Young people are not developmentally capable of handling complicated and dangerous emotional situations.

Our message should not be, “If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, tell me.” Unfortunately, they’re not going to tell us. Even in the face of disturbing and damaging sexual contact, they’re going to preserve their “special” relationships with beloved mentors, coaches, teachers and priests.

Instead, we need to give children and teens this message: We know how powerful love can be. Then we need to demonstrate the power of our love by protecting them.

Being Out, Not Coming Out: Brittney Griner

Even people who don’t give a hoop about basketball are rallying around Brittney Griner, and what’s not to like? This Baylor center, best known for her spectacular dunks, is now publicly chatting and writing (most recently in the New York Times) about what it’s like to be OUT, and why it matters.

And it does matter, to all of us.

Learning that a female basketball player is gay cannot exactly shock anyone. So compared to Jason Collins’ announcement that he is gay (wow – a MALE basketball player? Finally!) the Brittney story is a yawn.0402010951_zpsfc873352-1

I had already heard through the grapevine she was gay – and she herself didn’t see it as an announcement. Unlike Jason, she wasn’t “coming out.” She was “being out,” which is different. Coming out is revealing a secret, or making a revelation that will surprise the audience. Being out is “just being who you are,” as she put it.

But as long as discrimination  exists, being openly gay matters. “If I can show that I’m out and I’m fine and everything’s OK, then hopefully the younger generation will definitely feel the same way,” she told

Even in 2013, being out takes courage – and many athletes still fail to live courageously. They’re afraid of losing corporate sponsorships, and thus sacrifice authenticity for money. That’s counterproductive, because as long as corporate America can in effect pay athletes to feign heterosexuality, we will not achieve the equality we deserve. Plus we’ll feel miserable and ashamed.

When I came out as a Stanford basketball player in 1976, I said the same things: “I’m just being who I am.” That was at the height of the feminist movement and the beginning of the gay liberation movement. I naively expected that 37 years later, gay people would have achieved full legal rights and full acceptance. We’ve come a long way, but we aren’t there yet.

What WILL surprise – and please – me is when gay college coaches start “being openly who they are.” Now THAT will be newsworthy.

In the future, who’s gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered, or “fluidly” sexual or asexual over the course of their lifetimes will not be a big deal. That’s the goal, or my goal anyway: To create a world where human diversity is appreciated but nowhere near as interesting as a good game of basketball.

— Mariah Burton Nelson has written six books about gender and sports. She enjoys “being out” – and being shorter than Brittney Griner, as pictured above.

How Can I Promote My Book?

Friends ask me this all the time. Here’s today’s answer:

To the degree that I have been successful, it’s because I have developed expertise within a niche (women’s sports), then, because of my own passion for that subject, I show up (speeches, conferences, etc) where people interested in that subject congregate. Social media makes that much easier than the old days when you had to get on airplanes… but it’s a much more crowded space now too.

Whether in person or online or (ideally) both, the point of this approach is not to think of it as promoting a book, but as sharing a message. 
So you “go” to the places where those interested in that message spend time. And you continuously re-establish your expertise by blogging, tweeting, or writing a newsletter or articles so when someone thinks of that topic, they think of you. By contributing a steady stream of ideas, advice, insights, research, and commentary, you become known as a thought-leader on that topic, rather than the author of a single book.
Of course, you also identify yourself as the author of that (latest) book, so that if they’re interested in the subject of the article/blog/speech, they’ll be curious about (and MIGHT even buy!) that book.
Photo: I’m on the right (easy to spot in EVERY photo :-)) with good friends and authors Sam Horn and Maggie Bedrosian, at a National Speakers Association event.Image

A Phone for Dad

A Phone for Dad

Three-minute fiction contest by NPR. Read on air by Anne Patchett

Game-Changer: Let Athletes Major in Sports

I sometimes joke that at Stanford University, I “majored in basketball.”

Truth is, I spent hours each day immersed in a highly educational experience involving leadership and team-building lessons that were far more hands-on than anything I might have picked up at the Biz School. I also took those lessons and used them as a foundation for a career as a sportswriter.

The author shooting (#12)

But what if athletes could really major in sports? In today’s Washington Post, always-thoughtful sportswriter Sally Jenkins makes the case that NCAA Colleges Should Consider Offering Sports as an Academic Major.

Jenkins’ proposal is a game-changer because her plan would legitimize sports participation for the educational experience that it is – and encourage universities to create integrated curricula including existing courses such as sport science, sport psychology, sport sociology, sport management, physical education, kinesiology — and the currently missing piece, the connection between theory and practice: varsity participation.

Most athletes are not football players, and most sports do not generate revenue (nor do most football teams, but that’s another story). Her main point has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with challenging the way we think about sports as an educational experience.

Congrats, Sally, for raising a fascinating new subject.

Maybe if I had been encouraged to study sports as an academic discipline, I would have thought of your wonderful idea myself! 🙂

Mariah Burton Nelson now serves as Executive Director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation