Saturday, November 15, 2014

Huntsville-Alabama Title IX case and how we understand violence and athletes

Erin has already written about the sexual assault case in Huntsville, but I want to put it in the larger context of what I have been seeing, thinking, and discussing.
We have been hearing a lot about sexual assault and intercollegiate football of late (Florida, FSU, Missouri) in addition to the domestic violence allegations against professional football players.
Also still in the news is the campus (and spreading) activism about sexual assault in colleges.

These are not separate issues, even though they sometimes are covered and discussed in different spaces and places--including different sections of the newspapers and different television stations. But these differences, in presentation, speak to the visibility of the issues.

In the movement to fight against and seek awareness of campus sexual assault, the voices and images have been dominated by young women. There has been a concerted effort on the part of activists, like those involved in Know Your IX, to ensure that these are not just white women, or even just women.

However, looking at the coverage of perpetrators in stories about sexual assault activism we see something much different. In the cases of sexual assault by male college students (who are not athletes) we don't see much at all. Their identities remain--in the media at least--largely invisible. This is somewhat unusual given that the media usually protects victim's identities. But in the stories of women who come forward to protest their treatment by and at their schools, the men remain unidentified and their race is presumed to be white. This is not a criticism of the media coverage, rather an observation--an observation that emerged out of the coverage of male student-athletes who commit sexual assault. The picture we see in these situations is of assailants and not victims. The assailants have been football or basketball players who are Black men.

The similarity--no discussion of race. We know that men of any race can be perpetrators, but the majority of perpetrators being named and seen are Black men, who are athletes. This perpetuates the stereotypes of Black men, especially Black male athletes, as inherently violent. This is not to say that these men are innocent or that the schools have handled these cases well; the latter is certainly not true--but that the picture skewed.

This is why the Huntsville case was an interesting interruption of sorts. Yes, a student athlete, but a hockey player. Again we know that hockey players can commit violence against women too (there are several current cases in the NHL), but we have not seen them in the coverage of sexual assault. And the athlete is white. (He is foreign-born, which of course does not negate his whiteness, but provides some complication of the good American white boy athlete image that runs in contrast to the violent Black athlete.)

This case, despite being just as egregious as the ones we have heard so much about, received much less media attention. One might argue that this is because college hockey is not as popular a sport as college basketball and football (though as UNH alum, Erin and I might disagree) or he is not a high-profile athlete. Besides Jameis Winston, though, none of the other accused student-athletes have been national names.

I am glad that the Huntsville case was resolved and wish the others were being better handled, but in addition to questioning how these cases are being handled, we need to question what we are seeing (and not seeing).