Not to be a downer during this week of Super Bowl countdown revelry, but it is an opportune time to cast an even brighter spotlight on the open secret of the NFL's feeder system: those in the ranks of certain high school and college football players who double as sex offenders, and whose communities routinely give them a pass.
I like football. I'll be watching Sunday. But why do so many communities, so many cops and prosecutors, treat high school and college football players as though the law does not apply to them?
For an answer to that question, let's examine the formative years of a hypothetical footballer. We'll call him Mike. The kid's got speed, size, talent. He excels in Pop Warner--they start them, in the "Tiny-Mite" division, as young as five, as small as 35 pounds.
Mike shines in middle school, attracts college scouts during his sophomore and junior years in high school, gets home visits from head coaches during the signing period of his senior year. He wins a fulltime athletic scholarship at a school known for the strength, bank account, and prestige of its football program, and for its record as a prime recruiting ground for NFL players.
From at least high school on, Mike is on a pedestal. He's helping the local team win ball games, and championships. He's a BMOC. He's special. And knows it.
And so does everyone around him, including representatives of the local criminal justice system, from beat cops to D.A.s. Some of these officials are alumni of the local high school and/or the college or university. They're fans, if not fanatics.
So when All-American Mike slips a young woman ecstasy and against her will or without her knowledge, has sex with her he has committed a crime, a serious crime. Yet, the police soft-pedal Mike's offense, or wash it out completely.
Let's say the police do the right thing. They present to the D.A. a thoroughly investigated case of Mike's alleged offense. Now, it's the prosecutor's turn to fail, by protracting the charging decision, and by demanding additional evidence, far more than if the alleged offender sold shoes or framed houses for a living.
Mike's case has now hit the papers, and TV and radio. The prosecutor's delays allow Mike to suit up for the next game, the next, and the next, and the one after that. Weeks then months pass. Then, even with DNA and other overwhelming evidence, the prosecutor declines to prosecute.
So, Mike goes on with his life, convinced he's untouchable. He signs a multimillion-dollar NFL contract.
Meanwhile the victim and her family suffer shame, humiliation, financial and emotional ruin.
It is not uncommon for a sexual assault victim to be so traumatized she can't finish school, get a job or return to work. She's lost her capacity to trust, to forge loving and lasting relationships. Some, like the 19-year-old woman, who last August, nine days after she reported having been sexually attacked by a Notre Dame football player, kill themselves.
Of course, it's not just cops and lawyers who drop the ball, as Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry point out in Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity, their riveting story of the University of Washington's 2000 season. Coaches, teachers, professors, athletic directors, alumni and other boosters, campus cops, fawning sports reporters, and university presidents, parents and friends can and often do collude with a system that excuses violent sexual assaults. (And drug dealing, kidnapping, hit and run violations, drunk driving, home invasion robberies, dope ripoffs, theft, animal abuse, child neglect, domestic violence, even murder.)
For the record, as chronicled in Scoreboard, Baby, Seattle police detective Maryann Parker did a superb job investigating allegations that Jerramy Stevens, a walk-on-water tight end for the Washington Huskies, raped and sodomized a young virgin at a Sigma Chi party in June of 2000. In fact, following a SWAT operation, Parker and her colleagues did arrest Stevens. The King County Prosecutor's office, following delay after delay after delay, during which time Stevens helped lead the Huskies to a 2001 Rose Bowl victory, ultimately declined to file charges. This, despite sufficiently strong evidence, including an eyewitness report, to let a jury decide.
Also for the record, most police officers are honorable, committed to doing the right thing. The same could be said of prosecutors, and other members of that 2000 UW team. And of every high school, college, and pro team in the land. Which makes it all the more tragic when the reputations of respectable cops, prosecutors, and law-abiding players are tarnished by teammates who believe they are above the law.
There's something terribly wrong when a cop behaves more like a fan, and a prosecutor more like a defense attorney in the face of such onerous crimes.
I have no doubt that young "Mike" will enter the NFL with the same sense of entitlement and power that comes from being a celebrated athlete. Having not been held to account for his past crime(s), he will likely commit more in the future.
How do we stop it? Simple: stop treating athletes as gods. Given probable cause, arrest them. With sufficient evidence, charge them. Upon conviction, kick them off the team and out of school--that's in addition to whatever jail time they get.
Not until these privileged few feel the sting of lost earnings, a wrecked career, and at least a tiny dose of the shame they have visited on their victims will we see any real improvement.