Early this morning I read that San Francisco 49ers star wide receiver Michael Crabtree is under investigation for sexual assault. The alleged incident, as they’re legally required to refer to it in print and digital media, is reported to have occurred in a San Francisco hotel after the 49ers’ divisional playoff win over the Green Bay Packers.
Now, you might be thinking, “Whoa, Kat. What do you mean ‘as they’re legally required to refer to it’? Don’t you believe in due process, and innocent until proven guilty?” The answer, of course, is absolutely, I do. But please forgive me my cynicism when it comes to athletes and sexual assault. Or, really, athletes and the legal system in general. It’s been pretty clear for some time that athletes get special treatment, starting in secondary school, intensifying in college, and reaching truly ridiculous heights in professional sports. Furthermore, given the number of people who will rush to Crabtree’s defense by insinuating the timing of the accusation is suspicious (whilst simultaneously insisting that no one jump to conclusions while they attack the character of Crabtree’s unnamed accuser), perhaps you can forgive me for playing the role of “equal and opposite reaction.”
This is hardly the first time a professional athlete has been accused of sexual assault. And you know what? That’s kind of the point. I’ve known about the more than casual link between professional athletics and sexual assault for some time. It’s really not all that hard to understand.
You grow up with your parents telling you you’re special and better than other kids. You don’t even have to be an athlete to have that experience, but what follows over the next few decades couldn’t possibly do anything but convince you that they’re telling the truth. You’re barely in high school before you have college recruits all over you telling you you’re the next Joe Montana, Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, etc, and practically begging you to sign with their school. You go pro, you’re making millions of dollars, living in a huge house. Your entire life, people around you have gotten you everything you want, have made anything you don’t want go away…
It’s really no surprise that we’ve seen huge stars (Bryant, Roethlisberger, now Crabtree) accused of this crime. What’s surprising to me is that it doesn’t happen more often. (Please forgive this cynic, but perhaps this has something to do with combining the most underreported crime in America with the hopelessness of going up against a fame machine with expensive legal teams and millions of people who will immediately leap to their defense.) Athletes are taught from an early age that they play by a different set of rules than the rest of us.
I’ve seen it firsthand in college, where my school’s athletic department wielded a ridiculous amount of power despite hardly being one of the nation’s premiere athletic programs. (During my time at that school, we made the transition from NAIA to NCAA Division II.) I personally saw violations of both campus policy and the law just disappear because athletes were involved.
And that’s just talking about one aspect of athletics. Then there’s that… other thing, that athletic institutions are often intensely homophobic. Yes, we’ve seen a lot of positive movement, especially recently. This is no longer an uncomplicated topic where you can just assume “athletic institution = homophobic.” Barriers are being broken down. An accurate picture of the state of queer issues in athletics would definitely require a completely separate article. But let’s just agree that culture is there, and that it isn’t especially surprising.
So, perhaps I’ve demonstrated that I’m hardly naive about the culture of athletics, and that brings me to why I’m writing this. This is far from the most important aspect of the allegations that came to light this morning, but I still have to say it. I’m not sure I have a team to root for to win the Super Bowl this year anymore. The 49ers were the team I was planning on backing, and doing so when one of their star players is under investigation for sexual assault isn’t especially palatable. I have been fortunate that such accusations have been against “the other guy,” against players on teams that I don’t like, even against players that I didn’t especially like in the first place. But, again, that doesn’t mean that I’m blind as to the reality of athletics.
Something about this Michael Crabtree story, as little as we know about it, hit a nerve. Maybe because of the timing, maybe because of everything else going on. Actually, it’s definitely a little of both. You have Lance Armstrong’s confession. (Though, I have never watched a single professional cycling race and I doubt any of the people who have very strong opinions about Lance Armstrong have, either. I just think that’s worth mentioning.) You have the Major League Baseball Hall of Shame acting like widespread steroid use is a bigger deal than institutionalized racism. You have three major labor disputes in the last two years, which seriously consisted of millionaires and billionaires squabbling over money. (For the record, I favored millionaires in all three labor disputes, but the ridiculousness of the situation existing in the first place still makes me intensely angry when I collect my barely-above-minimum-wage paycheck.) All of this happening while the sports media doesn’t talk about anything but some college kid’s personal life. And I find myself sitting here, consumed by a thought I never thought I’d have.
Why do I care?
Seriously. Why is it worth my time to be interested in this? When people have asked me why I’ve cared about sports so much, I’ve always had an easy answer. It’s the beauty of the game. It’s the artistry of human bodies doing things human bodies weren’t intended to do, and the way some of them are just better at it than even others who have chosen the same profession. It’s the little moments and big moments. It’s understanding the flow of the game. It’s the human drama of the thing. It’s seeing a good team and a good crowd feed off of each other. It’s those special games, special plays, special players that you just have to tell people about.
I’m a democratic socialist. I’m a pacifist. I’m a fierce critic of the gender binary, and of pretty much every source of privilege. So why should someone like me like sports? It doesn’t make sense. Sports often glorifies a culture that represents pretty much everything I criticize in society at large.
A lot of it is that massive paragraph I wrote just now about what I like about sports. All of that is true. Another big part of it is that it’s something a lot of people are interested in. Something that I can know more about than they do. I like being an expert. And you know what? I can’t compare to the people who get paid to do this for a living, but I am an expert compared to almost everyone I know. So it gives me something to talk about, and on top of that it gives people a reason to be impressed by me.
Again, so what? If that really is the reason, the ultimate reason, it’s pretty clear that it really isn’t worth it, right?
I debated whether to write this, and then I debated whether to publish this. Especially since I’m going to publish my conference championship picks tomorrow like nothing happened. But maybe in a few years I won’t be writing about it anymore. Maybe I won’t care anymore.
Then again, maybe I will. Maybe everything I said before–not about liking being regarded as an expert by my peers, but about the beauty of the game, and all that stuff–maybe I’ll realize that that really is worth it. Maybe I’ll be able to reconcile the joy I feel when I see something special happen on the field/court/rink with the disgust I feel when I hear about something that happens off of it.
Thanks for reading.