Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is in (alleged) trouble again. For the second time in two years, he’s being investigated for sexual assault, though at this point the facts are still unclear and no charges have been filed. (In 2009 a hotel employee sued the football star for sexual assault and battery, false imprisonment, and infliction of emotional distress over an alleged 2008 encounter. Roethlisberger denied those claims; that suit is ongoing). In a statement released yesterday, Roethlisberger's lawyer said his client was "completely innocent of any crime."
But is it just me or is every “scandal” involving professional athletes nowadays handled with an appalling moral relativism—adultery gets lumped in with sexual assault gets lumped in with steroid use? And with the possible exception of murder, all bad behavior is categorized under "scandal."
Sports columnists get carpal tunnel bemoaning the loss of our role models and checking the temperature of the sponsors. But what bothers me in cases such as this is the now-mandatory doubting of the victim’s character and possible motivations. Are fake rape charges so rampant that even mainstream media outlets must be sure to warn against them? In a report for CBS's Early Show, former prosecutor John Q. Kelly said: "Well, sure. You've got a lot of different things that can happen in these situations. First of all, look no further than the [false rape allegations against the] Duke lacrosse team, what happened to them. So you can't jump to conclusions. But you might have a woman who overreacted; she might have been rejected by Roethlisberger and she's getting even. Attention-seeking. Consensual activity that she was embarrassed about afterwards. Or maybe she's looking for a payday. We've seen them all play out in the past." (Editor's note: Is there any other type of crime where past accusations of bad behavior are used to discredit the accuser? Roethlisberger's agent responded to the charges by saying, "Obviously, given the prior accusation against Ben, we are skeptical of motive," which pretty much redefines chutzpah. If a man were accused of shooting his neighbor, and then a year later a different neighbor ended up with a gunshot wound, no one would accuse the second victim of trying to get on the gunshot-wound gravy train—Kate Dailey.)
I could understand this kind of caveat if what happened at Duke in 2006 were the tip of the iceberg, not an aberration in a year when the FBI determined that 92,455 forcible rapes had occurred—a number most agree is too low due to underreporting.
Rape shield laws, which prevent using an accuser's sexual history against her, have been in place for more than a decade. Still, sexual assault is still too easily seen as a crime in which the accuser is probably lying. The facts, of course, tell a different story. There isn’t an epidemic of women lying about sexual assault, as Emily Bazelon and Rachael Larimore over at Slate.com prove beautifully. Bazelon and Larimore conclude that “if police and juries are influenced by false reports, especially high-profile instances of false charges, like the Duke lacrosse case or the Hofstra case, why wouldn't those reports influence victims, too? Up to 60 percent of rapes go unreported. The Hofstra story will only make more women wonder if the police will believe them.” Which means that the real scourge is our society’s seemingly knee-jerk and public prosecution of rape victims. Let’s remember that when the Roethlisberger “scandal” kicks into overdrive.