Their first interaction was him complimenting her watch. Then he began snapchatting her, texting her. It wasn't until he began following her on Instagram that she realized that he was a senior on her school's NCAA division 1 basketball team. And it wasn't until he raped her on the night before Easter that she realized that when girls like her are victimized by star athletes like him, no matter what happens next, she will lose.
Sexual assault has become disgracefully endemic to the American college experience; some weeks we get so many tips about mishandling of sex assaults by schools and universities that we have to space out the depressing stories of institutions privileging their reputation over their students' safety. "No more rape stories! Too much rape today! Rape time out!"
It's a familiar refrain if you've been paying attention — a young woman is sexually assaulted and tries to follow her school's institutionally designated "proper channels," only to be blamed for her own assault, subjected to a humiliating and opaque series of hearings, and risk ostracization from her peers, all while coping with the emotional fallout of an extreme physical and emotional violation.
Not every university responds to sexual assault with terrible ineptitude, but the ones that do have generated so much bad press that it wouldn't be irrational for a rape survivor to witness what other women have endured after reporting their rapes and decide that the whole ordeal isn't worth it. No matter what George Will says about how much we ladies covet victim status, it's hard enough for a survivor to report a sexual assault when the assailant is a regular classmate. The potential fallout is even more dramatic when a woman's assailant is a high-profile varsity athlete — someone who brings in massive amounts of money and attention to their university.
For this story, I spoke with a dozen women who were sexually assaulted by athletes at their respective colleges and universities but opted to keep quiet. One by one, they told me that they knew what was at stake: instead of pissing off an entire fraternity, a woman who goes public after being assaulted by a star athlete risks pissing off an entire alumni network. An entire team. An entire campus. An entire nation of fans. A lifetime of tarnished Google results, an indelible bruise on their reputations. It's just not worth it, they told me.
Fear of blowback like the kind that has faced other victims of rape by college athletes is why Megan* has told so few people what happened to her on the night of April 19th.
Megan is a 21-year-old psychology student at a large public university in Wisconsin who speaks with the familiar round, comfortable O's instantly recognizable to people who grew up in Upper Midwestern small towns. On the night of April 19th, she was out with friends and a local bar, when an acquaintance that had previously been in her phone as "basketball guy" showed up. She was only passingly familiar with him; he had previously given her his phone number and attempted to connect with her over various forms of social media, but Megan wasn't interested in anything beyond friendship and didn't respond to his overtures. She'd only recently discovered that he was on the school's Division I basketball team. Hot shit for a small university town.
The two chatted, and when it came time for the bar to close, Basketball Guy asked Megan if he could give her a ride home. The two lived not far from each other, Megan had remained sober enough to drive (and sober enough to meet her mother for Easter brunch the next morning), and she didn't anything bad would come of it. He's an athlete, she explained to me, and she always thought that people who worked hard on the court or on the field wouldn't be bad people in real life. She told me what happened next:
We got to his place and he invited me inside. I followed him inside, not even thinking about what could be going through his mind. When we got inside, this weird feeling hit me. It wasn't right, I just had a gut feeling. He had disappeared into another room so I said I was going home. He told me to come in the room real quick. Maybe I was just being naive, but being a D1 basketball player I figured he wanted to show off his trophies or something. I walked into the room and he was lying on his bed...naked. I was completely uncomfortable and said I was going home. He grabbed me and it just went from there. He's a 6'6" guy and I'm a mere 5'3". There was no chance of me getting away. I kept saying to stop and that I wanted to go home. There was no one else there. After that was over, I sat in his room crying while he went out of the room. It was the worst thing that's happened to me so far. The things he said to me during it were just awful.
After the assault, he left the room, and Megan wordlessly got dressed and left. She told a trusted male friend about what had happened, and he was livid, but the two talked and decided that if she was to report it, there'd be too much "drama."
It's easy to see why someone would reach that conclusion; "drama" is exactly what women who report assaults by prominent athletes get from entities that are supposed to protect them. Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston's accuser, in addition to being denied any acceptable form of justice by Florida State University or the Talahassee Police Department, had her life threatened by rabid football fans. The victim in the Steubenville, Ohio sexual assault case faced public humiliation and a character assassination by attorneys of her assailants and CNN reports that tongue clicked how shameful it was that these poor boys' lives would be forever changed by their short juvie sentences. Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was able to victimize boys for decades because his young victims didn't feel empowered enough to act against him in a university community that so worshipped the popular (and profitable) football team. My freshman year at Notre Dame, a girl accused three football players of gang rape, and within three days, everyone on campus knew who she was. She ended up facing so much harassment that she dropped out of school.
Women are not stupid. They see how carelessly other sexual assault cases are handled, and they're so scared of what could happen to them if they reported their rapes that they often don't even take advantage of available resources on campus. There's so much misinformation and fear around the risk of being exposed, of being branded a liar and a slut, that they're afraid to tell a counselor.
At my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, it's an unspoken, unwritten rule that the football team gets to do pretty much whatever it wants, and if you mess with the team, you have not only the wrath of the student body to face, but the wrath of a rabidly obsessed and well-capitalized alumni network that consists of a lot of old dudes who are still mad Our Lady's University began admitting women in 1972. Recall the case of Lizzy Seeberg, the St. Mary's College student who was sexually assaulted by a football player, reported it, was completely and shamefully underserved by the University and eventually took her own life (Notre Dame's Board of Trustees would later pull strings to kill a TIME magazine cover story about the Seeberg case). Or ask my friend Beth,* who didn't report being date raped by a football player she thought was her friend because she didn't want her parents to find out (ditto for a handful of other women who agreed to speak to me anonymously for this piece). I still remember exactly how Beth sounded when she called me sobbing the morning after it happened. Or ask Caroline, an attorney and Notre Dame alum who was date raped by a then-football player. She writes,
It was a Friday or Saturday night. I hadn't gone out, so I was stone-cold sober (very rare for me in college). We were on AIM and he invited me over to his dorm. We hung out until his roommates (other football players) got back to the room. I was there after parietals [Ed Note: "Parietals" are a set of rules at Notre Dame that mandate that members of the opposite sex be out of each others' living quarters during certain hours. If you're caught in a dorm room of a member of the opposite sex after parietals, consequences are severe. This meant, in the early 2000's, that if you were in a boy's room after the clock strikes twelve on weeknights or two on weekends, you're stuck there until 9 am the next day.] , so I had to sleep over.
I hadn't intended to have sex with him —being a fairly good Catholic girl, I was pretty cool with doing everything but. But he had sex with me even though I asked him to stop or at least put on a condom. I'm pretty sure his roommates heard absolutely everything.
To make matters worse, when Caroline returned home for the summer, she discovered at the gynecologist's office that her rapist had given her chlamydia. NFL fans would recognize him now; he's been playing in the league for years. His jersey is popular enough that it can be purchased in child sizes.
Arika was a student at a private university in New York when a football player raped her. Like Caroline, Arika didn't report what happened to her because she didn't want to recognize that what had happened to her was rape and deal with the implications of that recognition. And like Caroline, Arika's assailant had a noteworthy career after he assaulted her, albeit not in the NFL; he was convicted of raping another woman two years later.
Eva had barely had time to unpack her belongings from home before she was raped by an athlete at her university weeks into her freshman year.
I didn't realize it was 'rape rape'. I passed out and woke up to him having sex with me. I pushed him off and left. He told everyone we had anal sex and the rest of my college life I tried to avoid my 'whore' label.
Caroline, Beth, and Eva's assaults predated Megan's by years, but all three women were dissuaded from sharing their stories because they feared the backlash. Caroline had dated football players, and had engaged in some suggestive pre-encounter AIM talk with her STD-ridden assailant. She didn't want her history dragged out into the media. Didn't want her classmates and the alumni network that made Notre Dame such an appealing place to complete an undergraduate degree to turn on her. The only people who knew of Caroline's assault were a few close friends. Eventually, a few therapists.
Megan told her story to a male friend, and to her roommate, and wrote a big R on the date of her assault in her calendar, to help her remember, just in case. She was so determined to keep her mother from finding out what had happened to her that she didn't even report her assault anonymously. But told me she felt the need to say something, somewhere, to speak up in a place where she'd be free from the drama she'd seen other women subjected to. And so, the day after the assault, she took to Whisper, a confessional, traceless social network that allows users to write about things that happened to them without giving away their identities. And here's what she wrote:
An anonymous social network is the safe only place Megan felt she could go after being raped by an athlete classmate because so many universities have so royally failed their students that they've successfully pushed survivors out of the real world and onto the net. And that's a damn shame (if you peruse Whisper on a typical day, you'll find quite a few posts from people — men and women — who have been sexually victimized and are afraid to speak up yet want to tell their stories. It's pretty heartbreaking.)
Megan told me she didn't want to report her rape because she had heard that if she reported it, the school would force her to press charges, or proceed with legal action. She didn't seek counseling because she didn't want there to be a snowball's chance in hell that her family would find out. But that's not the case, according to a campus sexual assault prevention advocate at Megan's university. Students have the option to visit the counseling center for confidential and free mental health assistance, and survivors who report their assaults are under no obligation to press charges or pursue disciplinary action against their attackers. The woman I spoke with seemed genuinely concerned about the well-being of sexual assault victims, and took pride in how many victims she'd successfully encouraged to undergo mental health counseling, even if they never decided to publicly pursue charges. Shock waves from schools that are epically bad at handling sexual assaults are ruining it for the people who actually want to help.
On an institutional level, reporting sexual assaults is supposed to help a school gauge the problem of rape on its own campus, and make appropriate adjustments to protect the safety of its students. But when news stories remind women, time and again, that universities are not to be trusted when it comes to sexual assault, how can we expect women to trust their university as a resource rather than a self-preserving organization just as likely to hurt them as they are to help them? High profile breaches of student trust at, say, Notre Dame might convince a student at another, totally unrelated school that reporting, or even seeking treatment, is worth the risk.
In an ideal world, universities would support victims in all scenarios. In a bare bones minimum world, students like Megan and Caroline and the countless other survivors of rape by athletes who remain silent wouldn't be so poisoned by stories of university incompetence that they were afraid to seek any form of help whatsoever. As it stands now, victims who go public and press charges are forced to become martyrs to their own cause, and the more "important" the perpetrator to the campus's image, the less likely a victim will ever see anything close to justice. It's the opposite of what should be happening.
It's important to note that many advocacy organizations now exist to protect survivors in the event that they wish to pursue legal or disciplinary action, to perform tasks at which universities have historically failed. But if survivors don't even feel comfortable anonymously seeking treatment after being sexually assaulted, what hope is there that schools will ever get to the root of the problem? Students like Megan should feel like they have a voice outside of an anonymous internet confessional.
Megan tells me that since her rape, she's seen her assailant on campus. He's tried to get in touch via text message, but she hasn't responded. The last she's heard from him was a single sentence that reads "i must have done something wrong."
She tells me that she's now considering seeking counseling. Anonymously.
*All names have been changed.
Image by Jim Cooke.