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January 20, 2013 12:14 PM Rape one for the Gipper? Rape culture, maudlin sentimentality, and sports

By Kathleen Geier

Besides Monsignor Meth, the other irrestistible WTF story of the week was, of course, the Manti Te’o fake dead girlfriend saga.

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o continues to adamantly maintain that he had absolutely no idea that his supposed girlfriend Lenny Kekua was fake; he claims he was catfished. This seems highly implausible, and various hypotheses about what really happened abound. I’m kind of liking the “Te’o is gay-o” theory myself; Te’o both belongs to a religion (the Mormon Church) and plays for a sport that is homophobic, and the Kekua fiction could have provided a distracting cover story for a gay affair.

But whether, and to what extent, Te’o was in on the hoax is much less important than a bigger question, which is, why is it that the sports press and sports fans cared so much about this story? Why did they find the idea of a young woman dying so tragically, in the prime of life, and a young man using her death as an inspiration to achieve great things, so very entertaining?

Feminists who have written about the Te’o hoax have made the point that while Notre Dame officials showed such touching concern over the fake dead girlfriend, they showed no sympathy whatsoever for a real young woman named Lizzy Seeberg, who in 2011 committed suicide after allegedly being sexually assaulted by a member of the Notre Dame football team. No one was ever punished in that case — both the alleged perpetrator of the assault and his friend, who sent Seeberg threatening texts warning her not to pursue the case, got off scot-free. Moreover, the Washington Post’s Melinda Henneberger has reported that several months after Lizzy Seeberg’s death, another young woman at Notre Dame said she was raped by a member of the football team. However, the second woman never officially reported attack; after being barraged by texts from other players warning her to keep quiet, she refrained from pressing a criminal complaint.

This suggests a pattern of callousness about sexual violence at Notre Dame. And it’s not just at Notre Dame: a similar callousness seems to be widespread in football. For example, there’s the infamous case involving an alleged rape by members of the Steubenville, Ohio high school football team. There was the murder last year by Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher of his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, followed by his suicide; much of the sports press’s coverage of the case indulged in victim-blaming and classic domestic violence denialism. And of course, in 2011, there were the shocking revelations that beloved Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky had, for decades, been systematically sexually abusing young boys, and that Penn State football officials, including head coach Joe Paterno, enabled the abuse. And these are only the most recent examples. There have been many others over the years. This 1989 case, which occurred in a suburb close to the one I grew up in, was particularly horrendous, and rightfully became infamous. But there are countless other examples — I’m sure you can come up with your own.

It is clear to me that rape culture is woven deep into the fabric of sports culture, and in particular football culture, in America. Does this mean there is anything inherently rapey about a group of humans tossing a pigskin ball around an empty field? Of course not. But there’s something about the outsized prestige we bestow on athletes; the fierce loyalties that sports fan cultures encourage; the all-male institutions that develop, where the men in them never have to deal with women as equals; and, in college and professional sports, the huge financial stakes involved — all of these things, in combination, can be toxic. Sports and the men who play them are worshiped, athletes are encouraged to develop attitudes of extreme sexual entitlement, and everyone around them covers up for their egregious behavior.

As a society, where crimes of sexual and domestic violence are concerned, we’ve come far, albeit not far enough. But the sports world in general, and the football world in particular, lags significantly behind in terms of the progress we’ve made in these areas.

Which brings us back to Manti Te’o’s fake dead girlfriend and the flip side of football’s rape culture, which is the maudlin sentimentality. In some ways, it is amazing to me that sports are coded as “macho” in our society. Yes, of course, the fact that the players of the most popular sports are almost always men and the fan base is predominantly male has something to do with it! Seriously though, sports culture tends to be nauseatingly sentimental, a quality we tend to code as female. But I’d bet your average Twilight fangurl probably has a more hard-nosed, realistic attitude about the true nature of the relationship between Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattinson than many sports fans and sports writers have about their athletic heroes.

We’ll start with Notre Dame, which historically has always been among the most mawkish offenders. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that much of the mythology about the Raping Fighting Irish is totally made-up BS. Knute Rockne and George “The Gip” Gipper were, respectively, a shady sports gambler and sketchy pool hustler, and a more recent Notre Dame hero, Rudy Ruettiger, turned out to be a stock scammer. Te’o’s fake dead girlfriend fits right in with this lachrymose bogusity.

But there’s more. Why is it that not just the Notre Dame legends, but nearly every sports movie Hollywood ever made from Pride of the Yankees to Brian’s Song to The Blind Side has been so freaking sentimental? Why did most of the sports press (national treasure Charlie Pierce was a notable exception) try to sell us such a bill of goods about that shining paragon of virtue, Tiger Woods? Why is Olympics coverage interrupted with tearjerking biographical vignettes about the athletes involved that are so heavy-handed they’d shame the writers of your average telenovela? Why, for decades, was Joe Paterno treated like God the Father and Jerry Sandusky like his only begotten son, the Lord Jesus Christ?

It is no accident, comrade, that sentimentality and sports go hand-in-hand. I would argue that the sentimentality is a necessary fiction, to cover up the brutality (for example, horrific head injuries), economic exploitation (see: Taylor Branch on the NCAA), and, yes, rape culture that seem to be endemic to sports culture in this country.

Jerry Sandusky, for example, brilliantly exploited the sentimental fiction that he was a saintly altruist with a single-minded devotion to “his kids.” All the better to rape them! What continues to amaze me is that he got away with it for so long, that apparently no one questioned his cover story. In this day and age, shouldn’t we all be at least a little suspicious of grown men who contrive to spend nearly every waking moment with other people’s kids? But it illustrates the power of the sentimental in sports culture, and the way sentimental lies serve the function of distracting everyone from the ugly truth.

I don’t know if Te’o was in on the hoax about Lenny Kekua, or if he was, why he did it. But particularly in the context of sexist sports culture, I’m more than a little creeped out at the way fans and the sports press ate up the story of the dying girlfriend like it was ice cream. It seemed to play especially well in the context of a Catholic institution like Notre Dame, which is all too familiar with Catholic-women-as-martyr tropes.

It continues to be deeply troubling that Notre Dame as an institution has shown so little interest in investigating what happened to Lizzy Seeberg, meting out the appropriate justice, and instituting procedures to avoid similar tragedies in the future. But I suppose it’s not surprising that a wholly imaginary dead woman has attracted far more compassion than a real one at an institution called Notre Dame.

UPDATE: This post has been changed to reflect the fact that Lizzy Seeberg had alleged she was sexually assaulted. She did not, as I had originally written, allege that she had been raped.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • Anonymous on January 20, 2013 7:21 PM:

    " I’m kind of liking the “Te’o is gay-o” theory myself; Te’o both comes from a religion (the Mormon Church) and plays for a sport that is homophobic, and Kekua would have provided a perfect cover story for a gay affair. "

    speaking of homophobic ...

  • todd on January 20, 2013 7:40 PM:

    There was no allegation of rape. To claim so is highly irresponsible. You should correct this immediately.

  • todd on January 20, 2013 7:44 PM:

  • Anonymous on January 20, 2013 8:09 PM:

    "fondling of the breast" lacks the punch of "rape"

  • steve s on January 20, 2013 8:33 PM:

    ' In this day and age, shouldn’t we all be at least a little suspicious of grown men who contrive to spend nearly every waking moment with other people’s kids?'

    You've obviously never been a middle-aged man who taught elementary school kids. I was, and a fair percentage of the people I met, upon finding that out, treated me pretty stand-offishly, as if I was already half-guilty of being a child molester.

  • Mimikatz on January 20, 2013 8:48 PM:

    I think you covered it pretty well. Take a fairly brutal sport, lionize its players as special, isolate them from women for a good part of their careers and many of them will develop a sense of sexual entitlement. What makes it even more dangerous is the culture of alcohol and drugs that pervades many campuses and the naďveté of many young women. By which I am not saying that any of these women are asking for it. Dangerous situations should be avoided wherever possible. What starts out being thrilling can get disastrously out of hand very quickly. And of course there is no excuse whatever for these institutions to coddle athletes and cover up to protect their lucrative sports programs. In addition to being a betrayal of the young women and their parents, it just reinforces the players' sense of entitlement.

  • Mimikatz on January 20, 2013 8:52 PM:

    And it is George Gipp aka "the Gipper". Not the reverse.

  • Jim on January 20, 2013 10:01 PM:

    "There was no allegation of rape. To claim so is highly irresponsible. You should correct this immediately."

    Apparently, the author of the post is retroactively alleging the rape on Seeberg's behalf. That's enough to make it an allegation of rape, right?

  • Bill K on January 20, 2013 11:41 PM:

    Jim, From The Saint Joseph County Prosecuting Attorney report linked above: "First, there was the allegation of Sexual Batter, specifically the touching of her breasts. Secondly,there was a complaint about text messages received by Ms. Seeberg. She never made an allegation
    of rape nor does the evidence even suggest a rape occurred as some media outlets have mistakenly reported." I believe todd is referring to this.

  • FlipYrWhig on January 21, 2013 2:02 AM:

    Part of the reason for the big hype around Te'o is something else entirely: he was supposed to be a Good Guy, someone who makes everyone who comes into contact with him a better person. He was like Tim Tebow in linebacker form. And any time _that_ story line comes up, it's to make a sharp contrast with athletes who are flashy, trashy, flaunt their wealth, hang out at strip clubs, etc. Those are the sports world's villains. And it goes almost without saying that those are all racially charged categories, too.

  • Keith M Ellis on January 21, 2013 6:02 AM:

    "In this day and age, shouldn’t we all be at least a little suspicious of grown men who contrive to spend nearly every waking moment with other people’s kids?"

    Not really. I've written here, repeatedly, about how people vastly underestimate the prevalence of sexual violence against children and that predators insert themselves into positions of trust and authority and that the focus on priests is myopic and a kind of cultural denialism which exoticizes into a perceived controllable, minimized risk when the reality is that the risk is widespread.

    So you'd think I'd agree with this point. And I do to a very limited extent (that is, insofar as it emphasizes that the risk is everywhere where predators have both authority and trust). But where this prescription goes awry is that the primary risk, by a very large margin, is within families. It is fathers and uncles and brothers and grandfathers (and, to a much lesser extent, some of their female counterparts) who commit most of sexual violence against children. That being the case, the above argument would then be that we should be at least a little suspicious of all fathers and uncles and brothers and grandfathers.

    That's not viable and it wouldn't be healthy, culturally. We should face up to the reality that this is where most of the predation is happening. But, even so, it's still only a small portion of all such men (and a few women) committing these crimes. There has to be a way to reduce these crimes and protect children that doesn't undermine the possibility for healthy relationships for everyone.

    And, not the least problem is that a suspicion of all men with institutional access to children is, given the true scope of the problem, only a different version of the pathology of deluding ourselves that pedophile priests are the problem. It's a form of denial, a way of not dealing with endemic nature of sexual violence against children.

    This is exactly comparable to the vastly outsized attention paid to stranger rape relative to acquaintance rape. The overwhelming majority of rape does not occur in dark parking lots; it occurs in homes and offices and other safe places and it's perpetrated by those known to their victims. If there's a culture of rape within football programs, it's turning a blind eye toward acquaintance rape by a few known (to some) predators. Rapists are people we know personally, are related to; they're (mostly) not exoticized others lurking in dark alleys. Nor are pedophile predators (mostly) strangers in chat rooms or teachers or clerics or coaches, they're fathers and uncles and grandfathers. We don't want to face up to the implications of this, so we exoticize predators into alien, evil specters safely remote and presumably a problem that could be easily eliminated. For crying out loud, we turn it into television entertainment so we know it's "out there" and not "in here".

    Yes, many predators will find institutional environments in which they can predate. But most of the men in such environments aren't sexual predators and most of the predators are not in such environments, they choose their victims from what is for them the safest possible environment — their home.

  • Ebenezer Scrooge on January 21, 2013 8:02 AM:

    Good post.
    I think Kathleen set her sights to low. It is not just sentimentality and sports that go hand-in-hand. Sentimentality, I think, is inherent in our macho culture. Look at cops. They have one of the most psychologically difficult jobs out there ("garbage collector," as many put it), but ignore this and sentimentalize on the relatively low physical dangers of the job.
    Sentimentality is the glue of male bonding.

  • avahome on January 21, 2013 8:15 AM:

    To Keith.....excellent comment.

  • Gandalf on January 21, 2013 9:10 AM:

    I guess Kathleen doesn't like football.

  • Anonymous on January 21, 2013 10:20 AM:

    "I guess Kathleen doesn't like football."

    ....or facts. I guess she figures the only way to combat sports myths is to craft a few of her own.

  • Lefty68 on January 21, 2013 10:37 AM:

    Team sports is one of the many, many ways that human beings divide themselves into rival groups and tribes, as evolution has hard-wired us to do. Nation-states, races, and political factions are among the many other examples. Hence sports teams, like nation-states, have symbols and banners that the tribe member fans proudly display, and the tribe members display vociferous and occasionally violent hatred for members of other tribes (i.e., rival teams and their fans). Mawkish, easily-understood stories about the group's heroes (i.e., star players) are mythical narratives that form part of the tribal culture and inspire loyalty to the group. Stories about rape, drug use, child molestation, etc. detract from the narrative and are suppressed for the same reasons that George Bush covered up Abu Graib. Sports journalists promote the sentimental narratives because it's in their financial interest to promote sports in general.

    Source: Speculative armchair sociology. Have at it.

  • Jim on January 21, 2013 11:15 AM:

    Lefty68,

    Over-simplified, but I think mostly on point. Not sure I agree with the "hard-wired" part, though.

  • Ian on January 21, 2013 11:57 AM:

    Kathleen, I'm both a longtime fan of this blog and also Notre Dame football. I've come to expect a certain level of quality from this blog. To call the incident rape falls well below that standard. The kid copped a feel, and was rebuffed. That alone would put a large number of college males in the category of "rapists" every single year. Seeberg never alleged rape, and the actions described in the findings don't rise to that level. Remember, you're dealing with real people, and that kid has been barraged with all kinds of vitriol on Twitter and Facebook for something he didn't actually do. He engaged in behaviour that just about every college male engages in, and for doing so, will have a scarlet "R" on his chest for the rest of his time in the public eye (he likely will get a crack at an NFL team).

    Quite frankly, the player's accusers, from Henneberger on down to Kathleen, know that he didn't actually rape anyone. Know how I know? They won't name him. The guy's name is in public view. Henneberger and/or Kathleen could name him if they wanted to (even as an "alleged rapist"), but she's now falsely accused him of rape. If she names him, she'd have Notre Dame's lawyers up her rear end with a flashlight and a map (and ND has one of the best law schools in the country). Kathleen, you should be better than falsely accusing a someone of a felony.

  • brewmn on January 21, 2013 12:38 PM:

    I love how 80% of the comments here are defending sexual battery, child abuse and rape. Nice job proving Kathleen's point, guys.

  • Ian on January 21, 2013 1:00 PM:

    Brewmn: You going to make a scarecrow out of all that straw? No one here is doing what you described. Kathleen falsely accused an ND player of rape. Is falsely accusing people of rape OK to you? If it is, that doesn't reflect very well on you. I hope you take some time to contemplate your terrible values and make the necessary corrections.

  • Keith M Ellis on January 21, 2013 5:13 PM:

    I think the complaint against the "it wasn't rape!" protestations is that this tendency to limit "rape" to something penetrative and to make that narrowly defined variety of sexual violence the one that is highly stigmatized while everything else is considered minor is ... suspect.

    Which is why I use the term "sexual violence" and then add additional qualifiers to distinguish subtypes. Because it's all sexual violence and it's all very wrong and very hurtful and should all be highly stigmatized.

    Alternatively, in Kathleen's place I might have chosen "rape" to make the same point form the other direction.

    All these complaints of "it wasn't rape!" are, as brewman suggests, implicit defenses of the sexual violence that occurred. The only people who are very interested in asserting that something wasn't "as bad as rape" are people interested in apologizing for the sexual violence they are asserting "wasn't as bad".

  • todd on January 21, 2013 6:19 PM:

    @Keith: So wanting accuracy in reporting is a defense of sexual violence. Sure. Right. If you were accused of hitting someone you would have no problem with it being reported that you slashed them repeatedly with a knife then.

  • Ian on January 21, 2013 10:25 PM:

    Keith: So in other words, if you completely redefine "rape" and "sexual violence" to mean whatever you want them to mean, then yeah, that ND player did those things. The possibilities are endless when words cease to have meaning. Those words have very specific meanings in a court of law. If you want to talk about metaphorical rape, as in "rape of Seeberg's innocence" or something like that, you'd be on firmer ground. You don't seem to be making that argument.

    If the player committed sexual battery, as the local police report alleges (based on Seeberg's version of events), then charge him with that. But you can't redefine words to mean something they don't. The world doesn't work that way, no matter how much you may wish it to.

  • Keith M Ellis on January 22, 2013 4:27 AM:

    @todd and @lan, many jurisdictions don't, as a matter of fact, legally define rape. It is not a generally agreed upon technical legal term, as you suppose. That's a big flaw in your arguments.

    When I worked in rape crisis twenty years ago, a large portion of the states did not criminalize marital rape (whatever the particular legal terminology was used to refer to what is commonly understood as rape). By your logic, then, it would have been terribly important that anyone discussing a rape within the context of marriage not refer to it as "rape" because a) it wasn't legally "rape" and b) many people believed (and still believe) that "rape" didn't include sexual assault of a spouse. Your arguments would have applied then and, in fact, very many people protested whenever marital rape was referred to as "rape" in exactly the way that you're protesting now, for the same reasons, with the same outrage and claims of sophistry and such. How would you feel hearing such arguments now? Assuming you don't agree with them?

    As I wrote, this tendency to narrowly define rape acts as a means of minimizing the severity of all sexual assaults which don't meet that narrow definition. It is effectively an apology for them. Also as I wrote, these days I tend to avoid these entrenched terms and just refer to "sexual violence" in order to emphasize that it's all qualitatively the same, only differing in specifics. I'm unlikely to refer to something like this as "rape" or sexual harassment as "rape", but I'm sympathetic to this because these other forms of sexual assault ought to have the same stigma associated with them as "rape" does — and, more to the point, in the past I commonly referred to marital rape and aquaintance rape as "rape" when there were many people like yourselves who protested that I did so.

    I know who's in the right here, and it's not you. You may disagree with Kathleen's usage, that's fine. It's your moral outrage at it which reveals that you are morally confused in some important way. You're acting as apologists of sexual assault. You should carefully consider if you want to be in that company.

  • Ian on January 22, 2013 11:23 AM:

    @Keith. While your argument may be valid in some part of the country, it's not in the case where the incident occurred. The state of Indiana (where ND is located) has a very direct and clear definition:

    http://www.in.gov/legislative/ic/2010/title35/ar42/ch4.html

    It defines rape as a forced act of intercourse. Seeberg never claimed intercourse or force. So no, you're not right, your assertions to the contrary. And as I clearly stated, if the kid was to be charged with a crime, it should be what the respective jurisdiction defines as fitting the victim's statement, which in this case according to the state and local laws is "sexual battery". How that's "acting as apologists of sexual assault", I don't know, but you've already proven yourself to be confused about the simple meaning of words. For whatever reason you may want to rain vengeance down on the player, whether it's his skin colour, the Catholic affiliation of the school, or some other reason, what occurred was not rape. If the player is to be charged, he should be charged appropriately. That's not defending deviant behaviour, that's expecting the state to dispense justice fairly and appropriately. That's what civilized society does.

  • Keith M Ellis on January 22, 2013 8:01 PM:

    "It defines rape as a forced act of intercourse..."

    ...of someone of the opposite sex. So, I'm curious: would you have so strenuously objected at Kathleen describing something as "rape" when it's unwilling male/male intercourse? Or is your concern about legal nomenclature only engaged when you wish to defend the criminal?