The Complicated Nature of Sexual Assault in Professional Sports

Rebekah Frank


Ched Evans is a 26-year-old Welsh footballer. He is also a convicted rapist. On Sunday, May 29, 2011, Evans and his childhood friend Clayton McDonald, also a professional soccer player, were out spending time with friends in Rhyl, a seaside resort town on the northeast coast of Wales. At some point after midnight, McDonald got into a taxi with a woman whom he had witnessed fall down in a kebob shop due to her extreme intoxication. Nevertheless, he took the woman, who was 19-years-old at the time, to a nearby Premier Inn where Evans had previously booked a room. A receptionist at the hotel said the woman was “extremely drunk” and that she was “stumbling and slurring and occasionally grabbing Mr. McDonald to steady herself.” After checking in, McDonald sent a text message to Evans that read “got a bird” and Evans, along with his brother, Ryan Roberts, and a friend named Jack Higgins, headed over to the hotel. He and McDonald then proceeded to have sex with the woman while one of the other two men attempted to videotape the assault from outside the window.


During the trial, which took place in April of 2012, the jury saw previously recorded video interviews with the victim who said she could not remember what happened and that she thought it likely that her drinks had been spiked. She said she could not remember going to the hotel but when she woke up she was in a double bed and her “clothes were scattered around on the floor.” She continued by saying, “I just didn’t know how I got there, if I had gone there with anyone. I was confused and dazed.” And yet both men claimed the sex was consensual.


At the conclusion of the trial, McDonald was given a not guilty verdict while Evans was found guilty of rape and sentenced to five years in prison. Upon delivering the decision against Evans, Judge Merfyn Hughes said, “CCTV footage shows, in my view, the extent of her intoxication when she stumbled into your friend (Clayton McDonald). As the jury has found, she was in no condition to have sexual intercourse. When you arrived at the hotel, you must have realized that.” Judge Hughes explained that the sentence, rather short considering the crime, took into account that there was no force involved, that the victim was not physically injured and that the attack did not appear to be premeditated. Evans ultimately served half of his sentence and has been trying to have his conviction overturned while attempting to restart his football career.


Preceding his conviction, most non-football fans had never heard the name Ched Evans. And during the trial, most people believed he would not be convicted for his crimes. The fact that he, a good-looking, professional football star from a country that idolizes soccer players the way people in the United States deify basketball and American football players, was convicted of rape was a clear challenge to the deeply entrenched ideas surrounding victimhood and sexual assault. And the victim herself, according to The Guardian, has “become the symbol of a successful fightback against rape culture.”


The potential impact of this verdict going forward is massive. It demonstrates changing ideas not only within the UK’s criminal justice system – which seems willing to take on difficult cases that in the past likely would not have gone to court – but also within the general population. To find a group of jurors willing to set aside myths about rape and sexual violence and hand down a guilty verdict to a promising young star speaks volumes. It communicates that at least the jurors on this particular case, contrary to classic victim-blaming rhetoric, believed that an intoxicated person could be the victim of rape and that her decision to drink and be out at night did not invite her assault. Instead it was the poor choices made by two young men who, because of their athleticism and the history of cases such as these, believed themselves to be untouchable.


The individual who should have been untouchable following the initial assault was the victim. According to a law in the United Kingdom that guarantees lifelong anonymity to complainants, the identity of the victim of the attack should have remained a secret. And yet, immediately following the guilty verdict, a supporter of Evans tweeted her name, which was subsequently retweeted over 6,000 times. As of December 27, 2014, the victim was forced to change her name and move for the fifth time in less than three years. Her father, in communication with the Daily Mail, said, “The last time I saw her was over a year ago…She is on trial every day thanks to Evans’ website….It can’t be right for a rape victim, after having endured the horrendous ordeal of a trial, to be subjected to ‘trial by website.’” Nine people were tried, convicted and fined the maximum amount (a measly 674 pounds) of breaking the law by publishing the victim’s name on Twitter and/or Facebook along with comments such as “She is to blame for her own downfall. Let’s find her address” and “money-grubbing slut. Poor little victim.”



The judge in these cases, District Judge Andrew Shaw told the defendants that rape is a “crime against women that subjects them to the most intimate personal violence” and that by publishing her name and comments with “deliberate malice” they had “revictimized” her. Unfortunately, fining a few people for acting on a set of beliefs that is incredibly pervasive does not solve the problem. The victim is still in hiding, and The Guardian proclaims her case “one of the worst instances of victim-blaming ever seen” in the UK. That fact is due largely to the fact that her assailant is a famous athlete.


Unfortunately, the story of athletes, women and sexual assault is one we hear over and over again. Recall the Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston, who was accused of raping Erica Kinsman, now 20, back in December of 2012. (Kinsman waved her right to anonymity when she opted to go public with her experience following the Florida state attorney’s decision to not go forward with the case.) The night of the assault, Kinsman reported the attack to police in Tallahassee. During the time she spent in the precinct, bruising began to appear on her knees, indicating recent trauma. Later testing found semen on her underwear. For almost a year, all of the events of that evening remained secret, including the fact that Kinsman’s drink was likely spiked and Winston’s roommate tried to intervene to stop the assault upon hearing Kinsman say “no” over and over again. When the information became public, the University of Florida and college football in general were sent into a tizzy. But only until three weeks later, the prosecutor announced the charges would not be filed because he lacked the evidence to bring the case to trial. According to an investigation by the New York Times, the reason there was no evidence available was due to the fact that there was virtually no investigation into the allegations, either by the local police or the University of Florida itself.


The Times found that the police neglected to follow normal protocol for such an accusation, and even after Kinsman identified her attacker, the police did not attempt to interview him for two weeks and never got his DNA, despite the presence of semen on the victim. Furthermore, the detective assigned to the case waited months before filing his first report and then suspended his inquiry without informing Kinsman. By the time the case made its way to the prosecutor’s office, a video of the sexual act itself had disappeared. All the while, people, including the police officer who met Kinsman at the hospital, urged her to think long and hard before pressing charges. The officer, Scott Angulo, an FSU graduate, allegedly told the victim, “This is a huge football town. You really should think long and hard if you want to press charges.” He had a point. When Kinsman’s complaint went public, she began to receive death threats.


The list of athletes who have been accused of assaulting women is, sadly, long. Senator Claire McCaskill, during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in July 2014, brought up a report that said that more than 20 percent of NCAA member institutions give oversight to athletic departments in sexual assault allegations involving student-athletes. In the same report it stated that 13 student-athletes accused of sexual assault in the previous year simply transferred schools and continued to play at other universities.  In the professional sphere accused athletes include Kobe Bryant, baseball Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, and former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, among others.



According to statistics compiled by the Justice Department, 32 percent of all rapes reported to police in 1990 resulted in an arrest and 54 percent of those accused were later convicted. The statistics on athletes is almost the complete opposite. According to a New York Times piece, “of the 217 felony rape complaints forwarded to police involving athletes in the decade between 1986 and 1995, 172 resulted in an arrest, a rate of 79 percent. But of those 172 arrests, only 53 – 31 percent – resulted in convictions.” The reason for this, the Times found, was that many prosecutors were reluctant to bring cases against athletes even when they believed the accuser’s story and had sufficient corroborating evidence. They simply believed they could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.


And this is due in large part to the athlete’s social and professional environment that provide them with support and protection. They have money and therefore access to good lawyers, they have a fan base, they are beloved and they are, in many ways, seen as super human. They do things within sports that non-professional athletes could never dream of doing and the thought that they would throw all that away for sex, sex that they could undoubtedly get consensually whenever they want, seems unbelievable. Or, better yet, we simply as a society do not want to believe it. And so people do the only reasonable thing to justify their love of the Ched Evanses, Kobe Bryants, and Jameis Winstons of the world: they blame the victim.


In the case of Ched Evans, some sort of justice was served. He served time in prison, albeit a small amount of time, and as of yet has been unable to sign with any professional soccer club, not for lack of trying. But he still gets to be Ched Evans, while his victim is on her fifth new identity. He will move on from this. She will be defined by it. We need look no further than Monica Lewinsky for proof of that. And while Ched Evans laments the presumed end of his career, his supporters continue to harass his victim, exposing her identity whenever they can. And meanwhile, Jameis Winston, who won the Heisman Trophy despite the sexual assault allegation, is currently on the roster with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And Kobe Bryant, at age 36, is still playing successfully for the LA Lakers. We have a long way to go.


Author Bio:


Rebekah Frank is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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