The fallout of the media portrayal of the Steubenville rapists sheds much needed light on how grossly manipulative the language of sports culture has become. Sadly, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this, nor the last.
ThinkProgess – a site that I’m not particularly fond of linking to due to its direct biases – managed to put together a pretty apt summery of how various news reports on the Steubenville rape case and verdict heavily portrayed the football players in a positive light. They were not horrendous monsters who took gleeful advantage of an inebriated sixteen year old teenager, but apparently nice if confused boys who ruined their futures due to a “mistake” perpetuated by some drunken sixteen year old girl. While it was hard to invoke a particular perspective on the girl since her name was withheld, the opposite approach – utilizing a fall from grace narrative while implying a potential comeback – was just as filthy and foolhardy.
As I follow this story, I keep thinking of the Manti Te’o incident.
To wit, Te’o, a promising linebacker out of Notre Dame, had a girlfriend. She apparently was in car accident, was in the hospital for several days, and then died. And then she came back to life. You see, Te’o’s girlfriend was imaginary, a product of a hoax perpetuated by one Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. Te’o never visited her. Not even when she was in the hospital because “it never crossed his mind”. It was such a bizarre series of events that even attempting to figure it out would be logistically impossible.
Or maybe it isn’t. At the risk of hurting some of my credibility, has anyone thought that maybe Manti Te’o might just be a fucking idiot?
When the Te’o story broke, and news reports came flooding, I was particularly struck by the tone of the language and the direction of the information. It questioned Te’o’s mental state, sure, but only passingly. More analysis was about his NFL stock price and the broad meaning of it all in relation to football, and in particular, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo got the most coverage as some kind of Joker-esque, closeted homosexual prankster, instead of some dude who got caught up in some kind of joke he couldn’t possibly believe he was getting away with. Even Jon Stewart, a personality known for calling out fucking morons, spent waaaaaay too many episodes cracking jokes about Ronaiah Tuiasosopo fooling people, along with his particularly-strange name.
It was fascinating. If any other average person was fooled or mistaken at such a high level – like this woman who fell for the Nigeran prince scam or this woman who accidentally drove 900 miles out of the way to pick up a friend – reporters and commenters alike who joke, directly or in a rib-nudging way, of these people inherent gullibility. If these people treated those victims like they treated Te’o, we’d have large-scale reports on Nigerian scams and the fallibility of GPS systems.
Sports culture is out of control. The incredible lengths that people and reports will go to glorify its venerable athletics is, at best, sad, and at worst, disgusting. The idea of a computer gamer having a made-up gamer is responded with derision and laughter. The thought of a NFL draft prospect having a made-up girlfriend is responded with think-pieces, in-depth interviews, and some of the most laughable round-tables in the history of sports. I didn’t watch too much ESPN when the incident hit the airwaves, but I probably would have thrown-up in disgust. ESPN, mind you, was the network that spend days on the replacement refs screw-up in the Seahawks/Green Bay game, all but guaranteeing that this wouldn’t affect NFL/referee negotiations, only to do EXACTLY THAT.
But beyond that, sports reporting has gone from the factual exploration of the game and the effect of it on rules, team, franchise, etc., and into a creepy narrative of player exaltation. The worshiping of questionable murder accomplice Ray Lewis, the redemption of dog abuser Michael Vick, the complete brushing off of the sexual misconduct of Ben Roethlisberger – it’s a grotesque re-interpretation of awful human beings based on their physical success. (And yes, football is a particularly egregious case, but people like Kobe Bryant and Roger Clements are just as guilty.) And yet the media glorifies them to no end. So, yeah, it’s no surprise that this rape case has been less about the problematic freedom athletes seem to think they have (particularly towards women) and the redemption narratives that the media so awkwardly cling to. It’s Storytelling 101, and it really needs to stop.
I see two uncaring monsters up in that picture up there, monsters who thought they could get away with anything (including debasing and ruining a young girl’s life), and in some ways, they did – their sentences were relative slaps on the wrists, and although the bitching about their ruined football careers is loud and clear, they aren’t exactly out of the running. Either way, it’s disgusting, vile, and embarrassing for everyone involved. So of course, we’ll be seeing it again real soon.