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Might Doesn’t Make Right: How Rape Culture Plays Into Football Culture

Posted on Aug 31, 2016

By Susan Griffin

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Over the last year, two serious threats students face on college campuses have made headlines. Young women are being raped at such an alarming rate—one out of every five, according to a survey conducted by the Association of American Universities—that the problem of sexual assault on campus is being described as epidemic.

Young women aren’t the only ones under assault. Young men are being threatened by violence in another way. If they participate in America’s favorite sport—football —they may incur repeated blows to the head, running the risk of suffering from a life-altering, progressive neurological impairment called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, aggression and suicidal thoughts and can lead to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia and even ALS—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

But with both problems, university administrators, coaches and other officials charged with protecting students have been slow to respond or take serious measures to protect students. And aside from the fact that in these cases, we appear to have abandoned the least modicum of care for our young, there are other, deeper ways these issues are connected—not only to our ideas of gender, but to an eroding democracy with a social order in which the wealthy have garnered inordinate power over the rest of us.

The treatment of football players reflects an economy so driven by outsize greed that, in too many cases, individuals, institutions and corporations have forsaken the most elementary decency toward their fellow human beings. Football is perceived as a cash cow for higher education, attracting media coverage and thus drawing alumni to donate. Even if these programs lose money, potential donors are feted at games with elaborate parties, often held in luxurious rooms dedicated for this purpose. And while tuition rises, ever more impressive stadiums are being built. At the University of California at Berkeley, according to The Washington Post, the mortgage on athletic buildings rose from zero to $23.4 billion in just 10 years.

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Beyond financial gain, football plays another role in an economy ruled by ruthless aggression. This sport is a prime example of the triumph of physical power, a metaphor for the reigning ethos which, whether consciously or unconsciously, is based on the notion that might makes right. Watching a game in which young men batter each other feeds the sense that somehow the larger game—in which a privileged few take up the vast majority of resources, leaving the rest to fight for what’s left—is the natural order of existence. In this way, football acts as a live-action demonstration of social Darwinism.

By this logic, it may seem like business as usual if young men’s bodies have to be sacrificed in order to witness the triumph of will played out in college games. So why should it be surprising that this drama is played out in other ways, too?

News stories from California to Kentucky to Florida have alerted the public to a spate of rapes committed by football players, on and off campus.

Indeed, the link between football and rape is more than anecdotal. On game days, the rate of rape on campuses goes up by as much as 28 percent, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Athletes are not by any means responsible for most of the rapes that occur on campus. But it is revealing that, according to a study conducted by sociologist and criminologist Laura Finley, athletes who play certain sports are disproportionately represented among the perpetrators of rape, attempted rape and assault, namely “power and performance sports” such as football, hockey, wrestling and boxing.

Finley and others have recommended that we try to unravel what for decades feminists have called “rape culture”—the idea, for instance, that football stars are entitled to bevies of women and the accompanying notions that women really never mean “no” when they say it and that, in fact, women like being raped. The perspective feminists brought to bear on the issue of rape in the 1970s has apparently not yet created the radical shift in consciousness they hoped for.

Decades ago, feminists challenged conventional wisdom about rape, including the more liberal notions that rapists are sexually frustrated, lack impulse control or are propelled by an overwhelmingly strong sexual drive. Before this challenge, the typical perpetrator was often portrayed as a forlorn figure suffering from deprivation, or was secretly admired as a dashing character, one who, even if villainous, was also enviable. The conservative view tends to be more judgmental toward both the attacker and the attacked. Rapists are victims of seduction, it is suggested, except when not, and then they are simply monsters. Yet as diverse as these explanations are, one thing unites them: the assumption that rape is primarily motivated by physical desire, and that it is thus essentially a sexual act.

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