By Mark Esposito, Weekend Blogger
We’ve been subjected to some depressing football stories this year. Most came from the professional ranks, but the colleges and high schools have their own share of mayhem to unleash. I detailed some of the predatory behavior in a post a couple of weeks ago (here). Now, perhaps the most disturbing story so-far as five California (PA) University football players allegedly beat and kicked a man senseless for defending his girlfriend from presumed harassment all the while chanting “Football Strong” as they made their getaway. “Football Brave,” too, I see. Doctors confirm the man sustained a traumatic brain injury and that “the lower part of his brain has shifted 80 degrees.”
The attack started around 1:45 a.m. at a local pub in California, PA known as “Spuds.” According to police reports, five varsity players, James Williamson, 20, of Parkville, Md., a junior defensive back; Corey L. Ford, 22, of Harrisburg, a senior defensive back; Jonathan Jacoma Barlow, 21, of East Liberty, a sophomore defensive lineman; Rodney Dwight Gillin, 20, of West Lawn, Pa., a junior defensive back; and D’Andre Jamal Dunkley, 19, of Philadelphia, a redshirt freshman tight end, were charged. One of the payers made a comment to Shareese Asparagus, 22, who took exception. Lewis Campbell, a friend of Ms. Asparagus, came to her defense and the reputed mob assault was on. After it was over, Campbell lay bleeding on the ground. “He was seizing, basically lying on the ground, vomiting and not necessarily responsive, basically in a state of shock,” said club owner, Jeff Shuman. A footprint was pressed into Campbell’s face
The players fled the scene only to be arrested at practice the same day. All are held on $500,000 secured bond and charged with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, harassment and conspiracy while police sort out the actions of each defendant. All have been suspended from all University activities.
A near-deadly concoction of testosterone, weigh training and alcohol is almost always to blame for such incidents but the latter hasn’t been confirmed yet by officials. Another factor is usually present, too — harassment of women.
The case points up the increasingly violent exploits of football players and their proclivity for attacks or threatening behavior against women. The Ray Rice incident is just the most recent and most prominent incident that was seared into our consciousness by a violent video. However, Rice is not alone. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston is set to undergo a hearing before a retired Florida Supreme Court justice for a claimed sexual assault against a Florida State co-ed. The problem of sexual assaults on or near college campuses has mushroomed in recent years prompting the Obama Administration to call for a summit and push for more protection for female students. (here). Increasingly, women are becoming targets for sexual violence at the places most Americans think is the safest — America’s cathedrals of higher learning.
Just today here in Richmond, VA another summit is going-on to combat sexual violence against women on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. In a story published in the Richmond Times Dispatch, Tom Tremblay, former commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Safety, is quoted as saying that he has sat in interrogation rooms with young men who “would argue to the end of the earth” that they did not commit rape. “But when I said, ‘Tell me what happened,’ what they explained was rape.” (here).
Virginia is reeling from the allegations of rape and murder involving former Monticello (Va) High School football star, Jesse L. “LJ” Matthew Jr., who is implicated in one rape and at least one death. He was also the last person seen with murdered UVA co-ed Hannah Graham in a sensational case still under investigation. The defendant apparently used college campuses as a hunting ground while affiliated with the school’s football team. In 2002, Liberty University, where Matthew was a scholarship player, expelled the defense tackle and former state heavyweight wrestling champ with a penchant for aggressiveness against women when a rape allegation was filed by a fellow student. In the war of words, that such cases devolve into (usually over the issue of consent), Lynchburg police were unable to bring charges when no corroboration was found and the accuser backed down. A similar situation got Matthew booted from his second team at Christopher Newport University less that a year later when a co-ed claimed that Matthew had assaulted her. Virginia has no database for monitoring those accused — but not convicted — of sexual assault crimes.
Had one been in place, Charlottesville (VA) investigators looking into another sensational co-ed murder case, Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington, five years ago might have stopped Matthew. In that case, Harrington, who was attending a Mettalica concert in Charlottesville’s John Paul Jones Arena, was brutally raped and murdered. Her badly decomposed body was found on a farm in nearby Albemarle County and an autopsy revealed the assault was so barbaric that some of her bones had been broken. DNA linked to Matthew has been connected to the Harrington case along with a brutal rape in Fairfax involving yet another young woman. Matthew has maintained his innocence — and his ties to football. When arrested he was serving as a volunteer coach at the prestigious Covenant School. The school headmaster claims he was properly “vetted” before getting the part-time coaching job. (here). Covenant is a coeducational school for children in grades K-12.
Statistics tell us that incidences of violence against women by NFL players per capita is actually much lower than for all similarly aged males in the general population (here). (A scary stat either way you look at it.) But those stats don’t stand a chance in the court of public opinion compared to images of thick, brawny men hitting smaller, softer women. Whatever the connection between football and assault on females, it needs to stop for the safety of women first and foremost. And that is surely reason enough.
But the game itself needs the violence to stop as well. Sports remain viable only so long as their fans remain loyal. Ask NASCAR or Professional Wrestling (although calling that a “sport” is probably a stretch) or boxing. Remember the last Big Fight? Wasn’t Muhammad Ali in there?
The NFL has known for years that male fan interest has peaked with about 53% of all American men being fans. In 2006, the most the NFL could hope to achieve was a female fan base of 33 1/3% (here). Now, with targeted marketing and women specific attractions like smaller form-fitting NFL team jerseys in fashion colors, about 47% of the estimated 150 million NFL fans (just under half of the U.S. population) are now women (here). The NCAA is not late on the bandwagon with women specific merchandise in their stores as well. And the strategy makes sense because women make or influence the spending decisions for about 85% of the nation’s disposable income.
Right now that fan base looks as rabid as ever but cracks in the dam are beginning to show on the upriver side. The National Organization for Women called for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s resignation, saying the league “has a violence against women problem.” A recent Sports Illustrated poll shows “[Ray] Rice’s actions diminished the opinion of fans most (55 percent said his actions lessened their opinion of the NFL), while [Cardinal RB and accused domestic beater] Dwyer drew the lowest negative response (48 percent).” (here). Still most all fans (75%) say they won’t curtail their watching of NFL games including most women.
More ominous for the NFL though is recent polling showing it is taking a beating among millennials (defined as Anericans who entered adulthood around the year 2000) for whom trust is the single most important consideration for brand loyalty according to a survey by Smith & Streets Sports Business Journal (here):
■ 48 percent of respondents identified the NFL as a “sleazy” organization (millennials: 61 percent). That description comes from respondents being asked to rate the league on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “respectable” and 10 being “sleazy.”
■ 54 percent said they don’t trust NFL players (millennials: 67 percent).
■ 74 percent believe NFL players take illegal steroids to improve their performance (millennials: 78 percent).
■ 54 percent believe the NFL is anti-gay.
■ 54 percent believe the NFL’s image on matters of sexual orientation will not improve even with the drafting of openly gay player Michael Sam.
And, if you’re a league executive accepting of the notion that future NFL growth will come from women now in their 30s, the next fact should give you chills: ” Women [millenials]were 13 percent less trusting of the NFL than men; that’s an 8 percent higher level of distrust compared with the average of other sports leagues.” And that’s among a group that values “trust” above all.
If King Football expects to remain free to rampage across the gridirons of America it will have to stop the rampage against women and make it clearly known that any such actions will not be tolerated or excused.
For its part, tiny California University, a pre-season favorite to make the NCAA playoffs, has taken an important first step. In the wake of the allegations of assault, it has cancelled and forfeited it’s game against Gannon University saying “California University does not tolerate violent behavior, and the five student-athletes charged in connection with this incident will face University sanctions, along with any penalties imposed by law.”
‘roid rage? Overly aggressive behavior? Treating women as sex objects ? They exist in many other sports. While there is very little overt about the sport that you can tie directly to violence against women, the growing instances of football players behaving badly towards them cannot be ignored.
It’s time to cancel not just games but the freedom of football players who think their license to commit violence extends outside of the white lines. And keep them off the playing field permanently. A national shared data base of sexual assault charges –both founded and unfounded — with access limited only to law enforcement would be a way forward,too.
~Mark Esposito, Weekend Blogger
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