New York Times on 05 August 2003
Athletes and Accusations
Kobe Bryant, who appeared in court last week on charges of sexual assault, is the latest of a long lineup of sports stars who have been charged with crimes against women. The list includes many athletes prominent in their communities as well as nationally famous figures like the baseball Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett and the former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson.
Popular athletes are always in the news, of course, and often claim their fame gives accusations against them undeserved attention. Still, the Kobe Bryant case raises a question: Are athletes, especially those who play violent or aggressive sports, more prone than most people to assaults against women? Or is the public just more likely to hear about them?
It is difficult to make direct comparisons; defining what makes an "athlete," for example, is problematic, and police and judicial procedures vary from county to county. But preliminary research shows that, once a complaint is made, professional or collegiate athletes are more likely than the general population to be charged with a crime of violence against women -- and also more likely to be acquitted of it.
According to Justice Department statistics, 32 percent of rapes reported to police in 1990 resulted in an arrest. More than half of these suspects, 54 percent, were convicted.
For athletes, the numbers are almost reversed. Of the 217 felony rape complaints forwarded to police involving athletes in the decade between 1986 and 1995, 172 resulted in an arrest, a rate of 79 percent. But of those 172 arrests, only 53 to 31 percent - resulted in convictions. (In 43 cases the accused athlete pleaded guilty to a reduced charge or entered a plea of no contest; only 10 were convicted at trial.)
Partly this is because many prosecutors are reluctant to bring cases against athletes to trial. Interviews with the prosecutors who opted not to press charges revealed that in many cases they believed the accuser and often had corroborating evidence to support her claim. Still, they felt the cases could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
The difference in these results for athletes and non-athletes indicates something is working to the advantage of the athletes over their accusers. The athlete's social environment provides him with both protection and support. Accused athletes have money, powerful lawyers, public relations specialists, high-profile coaches and other popular personalities to come to their defense.
Rarely do accused athletes deny sexual contact with their accusers; more often they say it was consensual. Unlike most accused rapists, an accused athlete typically asserts his claims through a press conference, putting his accuser on the defensive and touching off pretrial press coverage where the accuser is vilified as an opportunist out to seek fame or money by filing a false rape complaint.
Common sense (as well as sociological research) defies these arguments. Rape is a humiliating and violent crime; rape victims do not want publicity. Moreover, criminal courts don't award victims money.
The athlete's support network is valuable even before charges are filed. Their prominence and influence often leads authorities to resolve cases without a public trial.
It is impossible to know, of course, how many arrests are never made because they involve a prominent athlete. But statistics from college campuses indicate the number is significant. According to a 1995 analysis of judicial records supplied by 10 of the nation's largest universities and colleges, male student-athletes made up 3.3 percent of the male student population, yet accounted for 19 percent of the reported perpetrators of sexual assault on college campuses. Unlike criminal complaints that are resolved in court, these cases were adjudicated away from the public eye by university judicial boards.
The law treats Kobe Bryant no differently than any other suspect: innocent until proven guilty. This is as it should be. But we should also realize that American culture, with its idolization of the rich and famous, will afford him more protection than the rest of us.