Rape an “unfortunate distraction”?

Three University of Minnesota football players are in jail on suspicion of raping an 18-year-old woman and University Associate Athletic Director Tom Wistrcill calls it “an unfortunate incident”? And the local newspaper treats the story as a distraction from what really matters?

The Star Tribune Sunday story by Chip Scoggins said, “In some regards, the entire team tried to use its spring game and its festivities (Saturday) as a distraction from the distraction.”

The rape is alleged, not proven. The three football players are innocent until proven otherwise, and the whole thing may never have happened.

But words have power. Rape isn’t unfortunate, it’s barbaric, criminal and life-shattering. And the UofM shouldn’t be trying to distract attention from the issue, it should be looking it full in its ugly face.

Football is based on violence and gut reaction, and on violently reacting as a team. Pro football is a hugely lucrative gladiator rumble, and the major universities that serve as its feeder programs coddle their stars and give them a feeling of privilege, a sense that normal rules don’t apply to them. We train young men that if they smash things in high glandular rage they’ll get money and fame — and chicks. And along the way in this Pavlovian program, if they skip classes and never graduate, no big deal, just keep the boosters happy by cracking enough heads to get to a Bowl Game.

The UofM has had good coaches and bad, good athletic directors and bad. But it has a tawdry history of legal and moral infractions and, overall, not much sense that there’s anything really wrong with the system and no recognition that criminal behavior isn’t really aberrant but could be anticipated.

Scoggins writes in Sunday’s Star Tribune, “Unfortunately for the Gophers, the arrests were the topic of conversation on a day when the focus should have been on the quarterback competition, the improved defense and changes brought in by the new coaching staff.”

No. That’s exactly the problem. The focus — including the focus of the media, which hype the gladiators rather than look at the root causes of problems in sports programs — should be on this alleged rape. On how the program works and doesn’t work. On attitudes and behavior by the University itself and its leaders, teachers, coaches, students and athletes. And on how language reveals values. And how reactions reveal values.

My women’s studies wife Lisa looked at this stuff this morning and moaned, “This problem is so OLD; it’s 2007, and this story could have appeared as is 20 years ago.” When Columbine High School was hosed down with automatic weapons fire, it wasn’t called “unfortunate.” At least for a moment or two, we were appalled and looked at the causes of something so heinous.

The possibility that three football players ganged up to rape an 18-year-old should stop us in our tracks. But the University’s response so far has been, in essence, “That’s too bad, now what about that great young quarterback.”

Words have value. These words reveal what the University of Minnesota really teaches.

-Bruce Benidt, UofM MA graduate