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Male Athletes and Rape Culture: Structural Violence in the World and at Haverford (TRIGGER WARNING)

Shlomo's picture



Dear friends,

As has become my custom, I would like to introduce this web event with a short description of my motives and hopes.  I want to tell you how this web event came to be (a long story in this case), what I hope to communicate through this web event, and what future directions are possible.

            Allow me to start at the beginning.  In the past few weeks, I have found myself increasingly aggravated, confused, and above all inspired.  My aggravation stems largely from Haverford’s policies regarding rape and sexual assault, which seem to become more and more inadequate the more that I learn about them (for anyone who hasn’t already done so, I strongly recommend reading AmyMay’s web event Biological Discourse and Rape Culture at Haverford College and jmorgant’s web event “Consent is Sexy” at Haverford: Not Yet).  While my belief that the Haverford policies are insufficient was immediately strong and clear, I grew confused about how to effect change.  I pondered a variety of questions, including:

  • Is it possible for me to change Haverford’s system?
  • Where does change at Haverford start?
  • Whose responsibility is it to continue that change?  We are a school with a strong tradition of student governance, but there has to be a point where it the duty of the administration to take the reins and make changes.  After all, they are the ones who are trained to make changes.  And even though I hate to bring money into it, they are being paid to make changes (whereas student activists basically end up logging hours upon hours of volunteer work).
  • I know it’s my responsibility, but is it my place to contribute to the change?  I know that Haverford’s policies need to change—it is, for me, an ethical fact.  But is it my place, as an ally and not a survivor, to take to the battleground?  Am I overstepping myself?  I want to help, but I also want to be sensitive to the perspectives, opinions, and needs of survivors.

This muddled confusion was coupled with frustration at feeling helpless to change Haverford’s rape culture and sexual assault policies.  All in all, I was not in a happy place.

            It was at this point that I talked to a friend and survivor.  I told her my doubts about being an activist for change as an ally.  She told me that she appreciates any ally who speaks out, and she made me realize that the movement needs the voices of allies in order to be successful.  I started to feel compelled to do something, although I wasn’t sure what.

            Then, when I met with Kaye to discuss web event options, she helped me realize that I am deeply troubled by the role of athletes in both sexual assault cases and the perpetuation of rape culture.  The notion that athletes may be strongly linked to rape culture is not a new one, and it is present, though we may try to deny it, at Haverford College (it is not a coincidence that the Consent is Sexy campaign posters were torn down from both Drinker and the Lloyd suite occupied by the men’s lacrosse team).

            Kaye suggested that I focus my web event on these issues, and that is exactly what I decided to do.  I had a lot of trouble finding any information about rape and sexual assault at Haverford, so this web event largely focuses on rape culture among sports teams at other colleges and among professional sports teams.  I want to make it clear that I am not accusing any Haverford sports players of rape or sexual assault, nor am I saying that playing sports turns men into rapists.  I am simply making three points: first, that men’s sports teams often perpetuate rape culture; second, that when a male athlete is accused of sexual assault or rape, he is more likely to get off scot-free than a non-athlete in the same position is; and third, that based on my experiences at Haverford College, some of the hallmarks of male sports teams perpetuating rape culture are present on some of our sports teams.

            I am writing this as a sort of activism.  I believe it is activism because I am calling out what I see as structural violence, hopefully in a clear and reasoned way.  Of course, this paper is not sufficient activism toward ending rape and sexual assault by any means, but it is what I chose to do for my final web event.  I strongly hope to become more and more active in the fight for justice for rape and sexual assault survivors.  This is meant to be a small, first step.

            I hope you find my web event interesting and thought-provoking.  I hope it compels you to continue discussion regarding some of the issues it describes.  I hope it leads you to question some of the activities of sports teams around the world and at Haverford.

            Thanks for reading.






            In the year 1995, male athletes at 10 representative United States colleges, about 3.3% of the total male population at these colleges, were responsible for 19% of the reported sexual assaults (Gallery of Dangerous Women).  What’s more, from 1980 to 1990, sports teams committed a large fraction of college gang rapes, second only to fraternities (Neimark).  Another, more recent study found that out of 168 sexual assault allegations against athletes from February of 1992 through December of 2003, 46 cases reached a plea agreement, 22 cases went to trial, and six athletes were convicted (Weir and Brady).  In percentage terms, 27.4% of the cases reached a plea agreement, 13.1% went to trial, and a measly 3.6% led to conviction.  The combined plea agreement and conviction percentages result in an overall conviction rate of 31%.  In 1998, the rape conviction rate in the 75 largest United States counties was 52%—over 20% higher than the conviction rate for athletes (Weird and Brady).  Simply put, there can be no denying that male athletes breed their own special brand of rape culture.  The way that our world idolizes sports and what it expects to get from athletes results in serious structural violence, which basically forces male athletes to adopt and perform a certain, harmful masculinity.  In turn, these athletes are allowed—even expected—to perform structural violence against women.  In short, structural violence ensures that male sports teams are linked with both high numbers of rape and sexual assault allegations and a greater likelihood of getting away with rape or sexual assault.

            The statistics cited above are shocking, but they become even more powerful when they are given faces, names, and stories.  Take, for instance, the story of Meg Davis, who was gang raped by seven college football players over the course of three hours.  As one player sodomized her, she lost consciousness, only to wake up while being forced to perform oral sex on another player (Neimark).

            Or, look at the story of the three high school freshmen who, while attending their school’s football training camp, were sodomized using broomsticks, golf balls, and pinecones, all of which had been coated in mineral ice.  After the rapes were reported, the players who had witnessed the rapes refused to speak against the rapists.  Many people’s sympathy lay not with the survivors but instead with one of the rapists, who lost his father two months after the conclusion of training camp.  One classmate said, “The kid that did it, I feel so bad for him.  I don’t even care what [he] did.”  When asked whether he felt bad for the rape survivors, he responded, “Two of the kids are underclassmen, little kids.  They really couldn’t do anything about it.  But one kid who got it in the shitter, he’s just like a fag.  Yeah.  I heard the kid liked it” (Kolker).

            There is also the case of Hillaire Soignet, a high school cheerleader who was sexually assaulted by a football player.  After reporting the incident to school officials, she was told that she should basically keep her head down by not attending homecoming activities and by not eating in the school cafeteria.  When the perpetrator was playing in a school basketball game later that year, Soignet refused to cheer for him and was, as a result, thrown off the cheerleading squad.  She took the school to court.  The case made it to an appeals court, which ruled that her school was within its rights, since her refusal to cheer “constituted substantial interference with the work of the school because, as a cheerleader, [she] was at the basketball game for the purpose of cheering, a position she undertook voluntarily” (Ms Magazine Blog).

            So why are rape and sexual assault so prevalent on male sports teams, at least in comparison to the rest of society?  The reasons for this phenomenon are incredibly varied, and they are not fully understood.  However, most reasons are connected to what society expects of male athletes, and as such constitute structural violence.  Possible causes include the need to prove one’s masculinity, the perpetuation of a gender binary, the parallels that athletes may draw between their sport and real life, the strength and pervasiveness of the bond between male athletes, and the entitlement athletes feel as their community’s heroes.  That last cause goes hand-in-hand with the major reason male athletes get away with sexual violence: their communities protect them.

            The need for male athletes to act masculine is perhaps the most prevalent explanation for the sports world’s perpetuation of rape culture.  Men “fear . . . being dominated by other men (Kimmel, 145-146).  Perhaps this is especially true in the competitive world of sports, where domination is so important on the field.  Being dominated results in a loss.  Perhaps proving oneself the most dominant, or conversely the least likely to be dominated, equates with athletic success.  In any case, the fear of being dominated results in the performance of excessive masculinity (Curry, 120).

            There are two ways in which this performance takes shape.  First, it takes place in the realm of sexual and risk-taking behavior.  Basically, “real men” are supposed to have sex with abandon, at times in risky ways (Kimmel, 142).  Forcing oneself on women is a way to have sex in a risky, dominant way.  Along with this attitude comes the perception of sexual intercourse as conquest.  According to the psychologist Chris O’Sullivan, “Sports fosters this supermasculine attitude where you connect aggression with sexuality . . . I talked to one pro-basketball player who says that for years he raped women and didn’t know it.  Sex was only satisfying if it was a conquest” (Neimark).

            The second way in which the performance of excessive masculinity takes shape is through the objectification of women.  By making women seem less human, men can make themselves seem superior.  This is apparent in the following locker-room dialogue:

Athlete 1: I just saw the biggest set of ta-tas in the training room.

Athlete 2: How big were they?

Athlete 1: Bigger than my mouth (Curry, 129).

The woman is being described not as a woman, but as an object—in this case, a completely dehumanized body part.  And it is clear that violating an object is much easier, morally, than violating a thinking, emotional human being.

            It must be noted that the performance of excessive masculinity is encouraged and reproduced through generations of athletes by coaching staff.  This is apparent from the infamous coaches’ habit of calling their male players by female names.  In the words of one male athlete, “You’d never want to be a guy that plays like a girl.  And that’s a term that gets thrown around during our practices.  ‘Nancy’ [laughter from the team] . . . That’s an insult.  Coaches more than us—I mean, we laugh at it—they seem to think it’s the biggest insult ever” (McMahon, 10).  Or take the following example of an athlete performing in a sensitive, “non-masculine” way in the locker room and being shunned by his coach:

            Athlete 1 to 2: I’ve got to talk to you about [whispers name].  They go over to an empty corner of the locker room and whisper.  They continue to whisper until the coaches arrive.  The athletes at the other end of the locker room make comments:

            Athlete 3: Yeah, tells us what she’s got.

            Athlete 4: Boy, you’re in trouble now.

            Assistant coach: You’ll have to leave our part of the room.  This is where the real men are (Curry, 128).

            The need for male athletes to act masculine goes hand-in-hand with the second hypothesized reason that men’s sports perpetuate the rape culture: the gender binary.  The gender binary springs from the natural human tendency to group things into opposite categories.  In the case of gender, the widely accepted biology of the two sexes leads to two easy categories to group things in: men are seen as the strong and dominant gender, women are seen as the weak and submissive gender (Curry, 124).  Clearly, this plays right into the overexpression of masculinity discussed above: men can seem more masculine by emphasizing their strength and, once again, dominance.

            But there are three additional binaries that come into play in perpetuating rape culture.  The first is the male sexual being versus the female reserved or even resisting being (Boswell and Spade, 134).  A man assaulting a woman fulfills the man’s characteristic sexuality, proves that he is not womanly, and once again objectifies and ignores the woman.  Second, there is a binary between controlled men and emotional women.  To assert his manhood, a man may seek to exert control over a woman, with the same results as the above binary.  Finally, there is the binary between insiders and outsiders.  As a cohesive team unit, male athletes are insiders and women are outsiders (Curry, 120).  Women who are invited to spend time with the team are expected to play by the team’s rules.  As one woman said (about fraternities), “It is their environment that they allow us to enter; therefore, we have to abide by their rules” (Boswell and Spade, 140).

            A third hypothesis explaining the link between male athletes and rape culture is the inability to separate goals aims on the field from real life.  On the field, aggression and refusal to bow to the opponents’ demands can often lead to victory.  In the words of sociologist Ed Gondolf, “For some athletes there’s an aggression, a competition, that’s heightened in team sports.  You come off the field and your adrenaline is still flowing, you’re still revved up, and some of the guys may expect to take what they want by force, just like they do on the field” (Neimark).  The lines between life on the field and life in the real world are further confused by language.  It’s commonplace to refer to having sex as “scoring,” which is undoubtedly a sporting term.

            The difficulty that athletes may have in differentiating between what is appropriate on the field and what is appropriate off the field may have its roots in the sheer amount of time spent with the team.  Obviously, professional athletes’ time on the field is their career, and can be expected to be vast.  But collegiate athletes playing at big sports schools can spend 30 hours a week at practice (Curry, 125).  Being exposed to the patriarchal culture of the male sports world for so long every week no doubt normalizes the sports culture, resulting in its appearance in the non-sporting world.  Indeed, this normalization begins early, as even Little League players have been found to adopt sexist worldviews (Curry 120).

            Undoubtedly, the amount of time spent with the team strengthens the bond between players, which is another contributing factor in the association between male athletes and rape culture.  The bond, which is largely based on sameness (they are all men, all playing the same sport, all representing the same team), further solidifies the gender binaries examined above.  What’s more, the bond results in general reluctance to report or testify against any teammate who has done wrong.  When this reluctance to turn a teammate in is taken to its natural extreme, it can result in aiding and abetting a criminal teammate.  After all, being coconspirators can make one feel wanted and needed, which is a strong emotional motivator.  The director of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica Hospital, Gail Abarbanel, said, “It’s more important to be part of the group than to be the person who does what’s right” (Neimark).

            The final major reason for the male athlete-rape culture connection is the entitlement that comes with being an athlete (particularly with being a star athlete).  And with the special treatment that many student athletes receive, who wouldn’t feel special?  As Dr. Gondolf says, “If you’re an athlete in college, you’re given scholarships, a nice dorm, doctors, trainers, a lot of support and attention and fans and cheerleaders who ogle you.  That sense of privilege influences you, and some guys may then think, ‘I deserve something for this.  I can take women, the rules don’t apply to me.’  They feel they’re above the law” (Neimark).

            The idolization of athletes continues even after allegations of rape or sexual assault surface.  In 2006, during the infamous Duke men’s lacrosse team sexual assault scandal, Duke’s bookstore saw a three- or four-fold increase in lacrosse paraphernalia sales (Rovell).  Furthermore, when big stars are accused of rape or sexual assault and go on trial, their celebrity protects them.  Jurors might feel as though they “know” the famous defendant through years of watching him play sports; to them, the survivor pressing charges is, to them, a nobody (Weir and Brady).

            Thus, the entitlement that athletes feel is strongly connected to the fact that people in their community typically cover for them after they have been accused.  This seems to be the main reason why athletes so frequently get away with rape and sexual assault.  And unfortunately, in a system like ours that so idolizes sports culture, it’s easy to see why people protect athletes.  An athlete found guilty hurts the team, which in turn brings down the community (be it a school or a state).  The fact that people so strongly identify with their sports teams makes them want to protect their teams at all costs (Penn State Teaches Rape Culture 101).  This phenomenon is clearly illustrated by the case of Lisa Olson, who was sexually harassed by several members of the New England Patriots.  She won her lawsuit but was soon forced to flee the country in the wake of tremendous persecution: her apartment was broken into, her tires were slashed, and she received death threats (Finkelman).

            There are additional ways in which communities protect their players.  Frequently, there is a conception that the survivor was “asking for it.”  When a sexual assault scandal erupted with an English rugby team in 2008, one blogger wrote, “Girls who party with rugby players till all hours of the night and then think that nothing will happen – must be crazy” (Halloran).  Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that so many women seem to accept this logic.  A collegiate female athlete said, “When we go out to parties, and I see girls and the way they dress and the way they act, and then how close the guys come up to them, and just the way they are, under the influence and um, then they like accuse of them [sic] of like, oh yea, my boyfriend did this to me or whatever, I honestly always think it’s their fault” (McMahon, 14).  The idea that it is the survivor’s fault is further illustrated by the high profile Kobe Bryant case of the early 21st century.  Bryant’s lawyers tried to use data on the survivor’s sexual history as a form of defense, as if a woman’s past sexual choices have anything at all to do with whether or not she was raped or assaulted (Weir and Brady).

            Another common way in which communities protect athletes is by completely denying the survivor’s story.  Many people assume that any woman accusing an athletic star of rape or sexual assault must be doing it for the attention or for the payout, not because her story actually has merit.  For instance, during the 2008 rugby case, another blogger wrote, “Here we go again with another woman supposedly being raped.  Another party girl trying to cash into what is now getting a bit ridiculous” (Halloran).  The refusal to believe survivors’ stories is truly heartbreaking, especially because the percentage of women who falsely report rape is equal to the false report rate for all other crimes (Cara).

            In addition to receiving protection from their community, athletes receive substantial protection from their coaches and other officials.  In the wake of the rugby case, one official said, “The whole episode has been unsatisfactory, but you have to remember that New Zealand [the survivor’s home nation] are still bitter with us over their exit from the world cup” (Cara).  The idea that this official considered the allegations to be part of an elaborate plan to bring down the team is truly despicable.  Furthermore, one coach, while discussing rape and sexual assault allegations, said, “[We] don’t give up on a player just because he makes one mistake”(Finkelman).  This coach makes it sound like his player got in a car accident or got caught drinking underage, when in fact the allegation was much more serious.

            All this cover-up has the horrific result of making women appear “unrapeable.”  In other words, society basically argues that, first of all, any particular woman can’t have been raped.  Second, if she was raped, well, it was somehow okay (Cara).  This shows how truly embedded in the system the structural violence is.

            Unfortunately, the structural violence seen with male athletes and rape culture is not limited to big universities and national sports teams.  We see it at Haverford College.  It’s rather well hidden, but it’s also easy to find it you look for it.  The Consent is Sexy campaign, which plastered the campus with positive messages about the importance of consent, was met with disdain by certain members of male sports teams.  The fact that the posters were torn down and crumpled up at the residences of both the baseball and lacrosse teams indicates a general lack of respect for the campaign and a blatant refusal to listen to the campaign’s message.  One team even altered one of the campaign’s posters to be pro-rape, then posted the image on Facebook.  What’s more, there’s a reason many women, myself included, feel uncomfortable at parties hosted by these teams.  The Jell-o shots and Jungle Juice (a potent drink made with Everclear) present at these parties are, in the eyes of many around campus, just there to get girls drunk faster (just as Everclear is used by university sports teams to get unwitting women drunk (Neimark)).  Drunk women are more likely to participate in Jell-o or mud wrestling, and wrestling women (often half-naked) are easier to objectify.  While I have no proof of any definitive connection at Haverford between male sports teams and rape, it is a campus-wide secret that certain male sports teams perpetuate the rape culture.

            Rape culture is widespread among male sports teams, both amateur and professional, and doing away with it will not be easy.  It is, after all, structural violence, and it is deeply embedded in our system.  However, there are several steps that can be taken at Haverford to limit the proliferation of rape culture.  First, people should be held accountable for their actions in defacing posters—not just by the creators of the Consent is Sexy campaign, but by the rest of the student body and especially the administration.  It is, after all, the administration’s job to protect students from harm, and I think pro-rape paraphernalia is definitely harmful.  Second, we can institute a campus-wide ban on Everclear, with the understanding that it isn’t safe alcohol and it largely serves to get women drunk as fast as possible—not an admirable pursuit.  Third, we can ask the athletic teams hosting parties to turn down the music and provide places for people to sit, which have both been linked to safer fraternity parties for women (Boswell and Spade).  Fourth, we can institute far better campus-wide education on rape and sexual assault.  Fifth and finally, we can learn to recognize rape culture around us, and thus better combat it.

            The link between male athletes and rape culture is a society-wide problem, and its roots are everywhere.  In essence, it stems from structural violence against men (which forces them to adopt false masculine personae) and results in structural and sexual violence against women.  However, the problem is not just with male athletes.  It’s with our society’s definition of masculinity, which makes rape culture inescapable.  But we must realize that as long as the current sports culture lasts, so will our culture’s definition of masculinity, because sports culture is a huge contributor to that definition. 



Boswell, A. Ayres, and Joan Z. Spade.  “Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture: Why Are Some Fraternities More Dangerous Places for Women?”  Gender and Society 10.2 (1996): 133-147.  Sage.  Web.  12 December 2011.

Cara.  “Sports Rape Culture Keeps On Thriving.”  The Curvature.  9 July 2008.  Web.  12 December 2011.

“Cheerleader Required to Cheer for Man Who Assaulted Her.”  Ms Magazine Blog.  15 October 2010.  Web.  12 December 2011.

Curry, Timothy Jon.  “Fraternal Bonding in the Locker Room: A Profeminist Analysis of Talk About Competition and Women.”  Sociology of Sport Journal 8 (1991): 119-135.  Web.  12 December 2011.

Farmer, Paul.  “Pathologies of Power.”  University of California Press: Berkeley, 2003.

Finkelman, Abby.  “Sports and the Culture of Rape.”  The Chronicle: Student News at The College of Saint Rose.  18 October 2011.  Web.  12 December 2011.

Halloran, Jessica.  “When a woman cries rape, a football code turns itself into a fortress.”  Sydney Morning Herald.  7 July 2008.  Web.  12 December 2011.

Harding, Kate.  “When sports culture meets rape culture.”  Salon.  24 July 2009.  Web.  12 December 2011.

Kimmel, Michael.  “Men, Masculinity, and the Rape Culture.”  Transforming a Rape Culture.  Ed. Emilie Buchwald, Pamela R. Fletcher, Martha Roth.  139-157.  Web.  12 December 2011.

Kolker, Robert.  “Out of Bounds.”  New York Magazine.  27 October 2003.  Web.  12 December 2011.

McMahon, Sarah.  “Student-Athletes, Rape-Supportive Culture, and Social Change.”  Department of Sexual Assault Services and Crime Victim Assistance Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.  October 2004.  Web.  12 December 2011.

Neimark, Jill.  “Out of Bounds: The Truth about Athletes and Rape.”  Web.  12 December 2011.

“Penn State Teaches Rape Culture 101.”  Ms Magazine Blog.  17 November 2011.  Web.  12 December 2011.

Rose, Scott.  “A Cheerleader’s Rape in Silsbee, Texas: The Victim on Trial.”  Ms Magazine Blog.  15 June 2011.  Web.  12 December 2011.

Rovell, Darren.  “Demand for Duke lacrosse gear soars.”  ESPN.  19 April 2006.  Web.  12 December 2011.

“Sports culture and rape culture, perfect together.”  Gallery of Dangerous Women.  8 November 2011.  Web.  12 December 2011.

Weir, Tom, and Erik Brady.  “In sexual assault cases, athletes usually walk.”  USA Today.  28 May 2004.  Web.  12 December 2011.