ESPNET SPORTSZONE on 30 October 1996

Ads Aren’t Enough to Address Problem

by Jeff Benedict

Ads Aren’t Enough to Address Problem

On October 6th, Auburn University enrolled highly-touted basketball recruit Michael Spruell, although he is awaiting retrial on charges of rape, sodomy and aggravated assault. On the 9th, USC running back Ted Iacenda was charged with sexually assaulting a woman in a motel room. On the 17th, Old Dominion’s best basketball player from last season, Joe Bunn, was convicted for assaulting his girlfriend.

The 17th was also a busy day for professional athletes in the criminal courts. In Sacramento, Kings’ player Olden Polynice was arrested for domestic violence. In San Antonio, a jury convicted NBA player Alvin Robertson for a crime against his ex-girlfriend – his third conviction this year for assaulting women. And in Albany, New York, undefeated heavyweight boxer Jo-el Scott was sentenced to three years in prison for sexually assaulting three underage girls. A day earlier, former Los Angeles Rams cornerback Darryl Henley pled guilty to soliciting the murder of his ex-girlfriend.

All of this begs the question: Is it wise to use athletes as role models of reducing men’s violence against women?

The sponsors of a new ad campaign targeting men’s violence against women believe the answer is, “yes.” Relying on the high visibility of college athletes, Liz Claiborne, Inc., in conjunction with the College Football Association and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, has produced 30-second public service announcements in which football players denounce the abuse of women and encourage men to take a stand on the issue. With October being domestic-violence awareness month, the infomercials have been airing in college football stadiums across the country on Saturday afternoons. The project’s coordinators hope to promote male leadership in a problem area where men are traditionally silent.

Whenever men can be encouraged to speak out against the abuse of women, it is a positive step, whether they be athletes or otherwise. But relying on athletes’ visibility to influence men’s treatment of women comes with considerable risks. First, celebrity is a poor substitute for genuine leadership qualities such as courage, candor, and positive example. Second, by virtue of their unparalleled popularity, athletes’ misdeeds are well-publicized, sending mixed messages when players, on the one hand, denounce the abuse of women, while, on the other hand, their peers are continually being arrested for violating women.

While neither the FBI nor any other recognized data collection agency maintains crime statistics specific to athletes, a growing body of research points to a problem of female abuse among football and basketball players. Consider:

  • A 1994 University of Massachusetts study of internal judicial-affairs data from Division I colleges with perennial top-20 football and basketball teams found that male athletes were responsible for 35 percent of the reported domestic violence incidents and 19 percent of the reported sexual assaults on campus – despite comprising just 3 percent of the male student population.
  • Since September, 1995, 51 college football and basketball players have been arrested for crimes against women – and those are just reported cases. Aside from 10 charges of acquaintance rape and seven gang rapes, the predominant crime was domestic violence involving girlfriends.

This kind of information presents a major credibility gap if football or basketball players are used in the ads.

Strangely, the press release announcing the project said, “Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society has embarked on a cutting-edge public service announcement campaign to reverse the negative images of our student-athletes on the issue of relationship violence.” Richard Lapchick, the Center’s director added, “This project comes at a time when college athletes are under fire and are being widely stereotyped.”

It is worth noting that these statements hardly suggest a campaign is under way to reduce women’s violence. The issue is female victimization, not athlete reputation. Furthermore, whatever negative impressions the public has of student-athletes is generally confined to the sports of football and men’s basketball. Mounting public outrage over players’ mistreatment of women and disregard for the law is no exception.

Clearly, genuine efforts to inform football stadium crowds on the prevalence of female abuse should be lauded. But a dual motive aimed at repairing athletes’ image, while skirting the obvious problem of abuse among athletes, is not only wrongheaded, but irresponsible. Regardless of whether male athletes commit more or less than their share of rapes and batteries on college campuses, there is an ugly cancer in the ranks of college sports’ most visible men. Repeated arrests for crimes against women compromise the legitimacy of other athletes who may be worthy of emulation. More importantly, by failing to hold abusive athletes accountable, victims are victimized twice.

Thus, before college football and basketball players can be taken seriously as spokespersons against the abuse of women, some serious self-inspection is needed. It is easy to speak into a faceless camera and give glib messages for adoring spectators. It is another thing altogether to stand up to an abusive teammate.