Here’s a telling sports media cycle for you: In March 2016, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ star quarterback Jameis Winston groped a female Uber driver. A year and a half later, when her account of the incident made headlines, Winston denied any wrongdoing, and the NFL announced that they would investigate. The league took eight months to conclude that he had assaulted the driver, opting to suspend him for three games as a result; Winston, along with a formal apology, gave a statement referring to his choice to grab a stranger’s crotch as a “learning experience.” This September, in the midst of his suspension, we learned that the woman was suing him for emotional distress and therapy costs. On October 1, the Buccaneers proudly announced that Winston would rejoin the starting lineup for Week Six, as Head Coach Dirk Koetter had long planned.
The team made no mention of why Winston had been on the sidelines so far this season.
The narrative is nothing new for Winston, who won the 2013 Heisman Trophy playing for Florida State University just weeks after a state attorney said they were looking into a sexual assault allegation filed against him in Tallahassee the previous year. (The original investigation proved to be grossly inadequate.) And while the quarterback was clearly disappointed to miss a few games over the Uber incident, there was a sense that no worse consequence could befall him — that he’d always be back, sooner or later.
This assumption of easy return — and the interest in how well Winston would play after his bench time versus the continuing fallout from his off-field behavior — stands in marked contrast to a #MeToo atmosphere currently hanging over other industries. As predatory comedians and journalists plot redemption arcs, fans and readers have been there to push back.
But long after some commentators declared that a #MeToo wave would soon change the face of pro sports, NBA legend Kobe Bryant, once arrested and accused of violent rape, won an Oscar for his short animated film, Dear Basketball. Earlier this year, Super Bowl LII was a match between two teams with a total of five players accused of sexual assault or domestic violence. Major League Baseball opted not to take disciplinary action against the Minnesota Twins’ Miguel Sano for allegedly trying to kiss photographer Betsy Bissen and yank her into a mall restroom. In the hockey world, the Nashville Predators’ Austin Watson, who had once been featured in a domestic violence awareness campaign, was suspended for 27 games after pleading no contest to the charge of misdemeanor domestic assault, a number the NHL had to pull out of thin air because they have no policy specific to such abusive behavior. Police said that Watson’s girlfriend, whom he’d been seen physically attacking at a gas station, worried that an arrest would derail his career. He’ll be back on the ice in December.
NHL.com still hosts the video with Watson and his team condemning domestic violence.
Why have athletes not been fired, exiled or publicly rebuked the way other celebrities and powerful men have for sexual harassment and violence? For one thing, as Deadspin’s founding editor Will Leitch notes, sports fans don’t care about these issues, “at least not so much that they will refuse to support players charged with it in the past if they are able to help their teams in the present.” To some extent this holds true across industry lines — some have suggested that Harvey Weinstein went down when he stopped being of value to Hollywood, and you could argue that the renewed disgust with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski coincides with their artistic decline.
Even so, producers, directors and especially actors are replaceable in ways that talented athletes may not be in a given season or crucial game. If you truly accepted that only Ben Roethlisberger could lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to another Super Bowl victory, you might be more willing to discount the multiple allegations of sexual assault against him.
Combine this superstitious favoritism with the importance of youth to athletic achievement, and a reluctance to deliver lengthy sentences becomes automatic.
Then you have the big four leagues themselves — the NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB — organizations dominated by men, and exclusively male at the audience-facing levels of general manager, head coach and player. Workplaces with more men make for higher rates of gender discrimination, and it follows that such environments are less sympathetic to women’s complaints of sexual misconduct. Moreover, the leagues often deal with cases internally, no doubt with the aim of keeping their multibillion-dollar empires running smoothly; individual teams, as lawyer Sheryl Ring wrote in a column for FanGraphs, even structure offenders’ punishments to make them attractive trade prospects. The idea of a second chance, or a third or a fourth, is baked into the business, while suspensions have a solidly quantitative (yet reassuringly temporary) feel that suggests a rational authority in control of the situation. There is no governing body to rule that Louis C.K. must stay out of comedy clubs for a set number of nights, only a loose patchwork of club promoters who must decide the risk of allowing him to perform.
Oh, and a tidy dollar amount can also help the guilty party “move on” from misdeeds.
But the leagues barely even try to address sexual violence in meaningful ways, only to deal with it when a story breaks — again, with symbolic and strictly measurable penance. No soul-searching, just figures on a sheet. Abusers pay a “price” far short of justice. And if you’re wondering why more survivors of assaults by athletes don’t come forward, think of how casually we ignore those women for decades, the difficulties of testifying in court and what kind of threats or intimidation you would face in taking on a football franchise hero. Imagine the misogynist horrors and harassment of GamerGate with Barstool commenters instead of 4chan geeks.
In fact, you hardly have to wonder what this would be like. The Uber driver assaulted by Winston, who understandably chose to remain anonymous, was nevertheless the fodder for a spate of tasteless memes.
The message was clear: Nobody wasted time debating whether or not he’d done what a woman said he did. This wasn’t about believing or discrediting her. Everyone already suspected the worst had happened, and many agreed it was kind of funny. That’s as major a reason as any that Winston kept his job — and will keep on making millions.