Feminism 101: More Serious Penalties For Athletes Who are Abusers?

Feminists weigh in on sports culture and abuse
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 12/16/2016 at 6:37 AM EDT

Athletes in the world of sports — both at the national and collegiate level — find themselves insulated a bit when it comes to receiving legal consequences for cases of abuse. There are multiple cases where athletes somehow manage to emerge unscathed after being charged with various levels of domestic or sexual abuse and/or violence. And, even if a legal penalty is imposed, it seldom translates to a professional penalty.

Recently, an ex-NFL player was sentenced for 20 years for raping and drugging two women. Some think professional sports are breeding grounds for misogyny (and sexual assault/abuse), yet sentences like the one above are rare, and it seems like the teams themselves have trouble disciplining their own players. So we asked our favorite cohort of feminists (and sports fans!), what should the penalties – both legal and professional – be for active players who are accused of sexual abuse? What about sentences for players who hit spouses? Should they be banned from play for a specific period of time, or forever? Should they be jailed, or punished in some other way?

Britni de la Cretaz: Here’s what I’d like to see: players arrested on domestic or sexual violence should automatically be benched for the remainder of the season. If it happens in the off-season, it should be for the next season. At the very least, it gives time for law enforcement and/or the league to conduct an investigation. It also shows that they take allegations seriously. I’d also like to see public statements by players taking accountability for their actions, penalties to include large donations to local orgs supporting survivors of violence, as well as required classes and/or education on the issue. I want to see better education in clubhouses so that, when players are asked what they think of allegations, they don’t respond with ‘He’s a good guy and he made a mistake and I hope we can forgive him,’ because abuse is a pattern of behavior and this is very likely not just ‘one mistake:’ it’s a consistent behavioral pattern of abusing women. This accusation is most likely not the first incident, just the first the public is aware of. I want to see players and coaches and fans believing women, and not looking for legal convictions as the only proof of guilt. And if they’re arrested again, there’s no third chance. Two strikes and you’re out of the league.”

Veronica Arreola:Stats show that false accusations for rape and sexual assault are very rare. Thus I would want to see professional and collegiate sports move towards always removing a player when an accusation occurs. It would show that the team takes the allegation seriously. It would also acknowledge that athletes occupy a special space in our society that minimizes an accusation when the player stays on the field. That said, I fear that it would lead to a rise in out of court settlements that would 1) reduce the chance that the survivor sees justice in terms of prison time for her attacker and 2) give credence to people who want to believe accusations are false and the women who accuse are gold diggers. It is really a no win situation for anyone.”

Danielle Corcione:Violence against women (and all genders) is not exclusive to the sports community. Because rates of sexual violence are so prevalent and high, you likely already know someone that has been assaulted, raped, and violated. That also means you already know a rapist, a human being — a nice person you might even admire — that has committed violence against another person.

It could be productive, for a moment, to take sports out of the equation. In your circle of friends, or in your family, how would you approach a rapist you know? How would you punish them — would you even punish them at all? Would you unfollow them on Twitter but stay friends with them on Facebook? If you’ve never experienced sexual violence first hand, and even if you’ve never heard about it second hand through someone you know, you don’t have to put yourselves in the shoes of a victim. Reflect on how you’d react when someone you love committed violence against another person.”

Awanthi Vardaraj: “I think one of the things that stands out for me the most from the Steubenville trial is my memory of someone closely connected with the case arguing that the trial would ruin the futures of the rapists. I remember marveling about that because there wasn’t a mention of the survivor at all; nobody talked about how her assaults (multiple) at their hands impacted HER life; HER future. She was just painted as the problem; she was the hurdle standing between the young men and their promised lands, even though THEY had repeatedly assaulted her of their own accord.

Sports in general is a breeding ground for rape culture; there’s a reason why there was recently such a focus on ‘locker room talk’ in the recent election. That wasn’t a one-off; it’s expected that this is indeed locker room talk, and that women are talked about in men’s locker rooms in the worst possible terms. I know some sports teams were quick to say ‘not in OUR locker room’, but I think they’re more the exceptions and not the norms.

And that’s because women aren’t taken seriously in sports at all; young boys and men are frequently told they throw like girls, or that they’re girls because they can’t catch/run/jump or play the way men are supposed to. Women apparently fulfill two purposes; we’re sexual objects, or we’re objects of pity because we’re not men and we can’t play like they do. The sooner coaches step in and stop using us as insults, and the sooner they step in to stop locker room talk, and nip it in the collective bud, the better off sports as a whole will be.”

Casey O’Brien:My younger brother just turned sixteen. He is in his sophomore year of high school, and this fall he tried out for the football team, because he plays rugby and football was the closest thing his school had to a rugby team. He went to a couple of practices, then came home and told my mom he never wanted to go back. She asked him why, and he told her that ‘the guys are rapey. I don’t like how they talk about the girls at our school, and I don’t want to be around it.’ My adolescent brother hit the nail on the head — there is a cult of masculinity in some sports, professional and non, that can have terrifying consequences. Whether that’s drugging and raping women, beating their spouses, or other forms of abuse and assault, it’s happening and it isn’t being punished. We have to stop idolizing rapists. They should be off the field and in the courtroom, atoning for the trauma they have caused. Our obsession with sports, particularly violent ones, in the US is extremely harmful. We can do better, and we should.”

Jen Selk:Sometimes I think sports shouldn’t exist, even though I love to play them. Harsh penalties for gender-based violence are always appropriate (jail, expulsion, permanent bans from the game(s), etc.), but no matter how harsh, penalties are a band-aid, not a solution to the bigger problem, which is that sports culture is rape culture. Sports are about domination and every sport teaches players that they deserve and have earned anything they can take by force. Weakness in sport is always coded as feminine. These (totally f-ed up) lessons spill off the field. How could they not?”

Do YOU have a question for our cabal of fierce feminists? Email it to Avital Norman Nathman at

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