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

8 thoughts on “Rape an “unfortunate distraction”?

  1. Colleen Kingsbury says:

    Bruce – thanks for saying what so many are probably thinking. As a current grad student at the U, I’ve caught all the “news” the University has produced and distributed about the new stadium and how great a boost to the University the new football stadium will be.
    This new allegation of criminal activity sickens me – for the lost innocence, pain and suffering of the woman involved. Sadly, the Star Tribune article probably reflects what the UMN Board of Regents and UMN Foundation – a distraction from the football program and fund raising efforts for the new stadium.

  2. Kelly Groehler says:

    Didn’t this happen to the Vikings a few years back (involving a young woman, a few players, and one of their top executives), threatening the delicate nature of their own stadium proposal? While a self-professed “SportsCenter” junkie, it sickens me that collegiate or professional institutions haven’t taken stronger action with their talent – i.e. their employees (regardless if they’re on a full ride, making $30M/year, or famous for throwing chairs). Nothing should excuse this behavior.

    Problem is, domestic violence – including rape – is still viewed as unfortunate circumstances that people “allow themselves to be in.” Whether or not its written in the copy, resulting stories tend to harbor an automatic assumption that she either made it up as part of a grander conspiracy to tarnish an esteemed reputation, or “she asked for it.” I’m sure I could tune in to KFAN this morning and catch a similar undercurrent. (Prove me wrong, Superstar.) Let due process determine if she made it up. (That’s a freebie to anyone who points to the Duke lacrosse team debacle as validation for a carte blanche “she made it up” attitude in situations like this.)

    Bruce, your viewpoints are worthy and wholly appropriate for a letter to the Strib editorial desk. I think I speak for more than a few women who would applaud such action, and hope you will consider taking such action. Thank you.

    P.S. – nice to see your boot back in your mouth, Imus.

  3. TH says:

    Coach Brewster also said, “We’re going to stand by these guys 100%.”

    Not exactly the words a sodomized young woman would care to hear, especially after the cops reported that her accusations are very credible.

    If Brewster had a pair, he’d kick their asses out until or unless they’re vindicated.

    One gets the sense that the U athletics is returning to its old hapless, bumbling roots.

  4. Norman Paperman says:

    Wait a minute. Slow down. Everyone take a breath.

    Last time I checked these young men had not been charged when the story in question was published. Hence, the spring game should not have been cancelled in favor of a women’s study course, the head coach should not have kicked the players to the curb (he did right by suspending them), and the reporter should not have used every available column inch writing about the alleged rape (he was there to cover a spring game and did the right thing by devoting a large portion of the story to the alleged rape).

    Before we vilify the U of M, the Athletics Department, the reporter and the players (really), let’s wait and see:

    A) if the players are charged
    B) how the University and the Athletics Department respond (charges or not)
    C) how Scoggins and the Star Tribune cover the emerging story (charges or not)

    While these allegations are disappointing, shocking and frustrating, (from the story in question, by the way: “Nobody, however, could deny the undercurrent of disappointment, shock and frustration that pulsated throughout the Metrodome.”) it is too soon to call for everyone on the team or involved with the team to quit football or quit reporting about football.

    Wait and see, if charges are filed. If they are, the U will change its tone and tenor, and the Star Tribune will cover the issue more in-depth.

  5. Good caution Paperdude. Things still look murky:


    It’s awful if there was a rape, and awful if there wasn’t one and these guys somehow got falsely implicated. It’s hard not to side with the victim when victim are so often unfairly dismissed, but we do have to know more.

    However, regardless of how this all turns out, I sure don’t understand why the coach would go out “100%” behind the players when so little is known. Coach Rahrah needs to chill until an independent investigation is completed.

  6. jl says:

    Previous comment was from loveland, not benidt. I was logged in under bruce’s name. Sorry for the confusion.

    – Joe Loveland

  7. John Gaterud says:

    Two years ago, four hockey players at Minnesota State questioned by cops — yet not arrested — re alleged sexual assault at late-night Mankato party. Players suspended from team as Blue Earth County DA investigated. Mankato Free Press decided to publish names of “suspects,” followed soon after by campus paper, The Reporter, which lifted FP material and reported same (“acc to FP” kind of stuff). Weeks passed, and still nothing from cops or DA: no arrests, no charges — just a “narrative” running loose about the incident based on police-blotter ink. Then Star Tribune decided IT should be chasing same story (Myron Medcalf, former Reporter editor & now beat writer w Strib, sent to Mankato to cover) — but still without any “news” (let alone hook) other than context of Duke, presumably, which was concurrently unfolding. Staff at all three papers argued that, in effect, “since it’s talk in town, it’s news.” No, wait, players are “public figures,” too. (Well, “limited,” at least, maybe, sorta. I think. Whatever.)

    Bottom? Charges never filed. DA dropped case. Players missed balance of season. And the woman? No idea, though her ordeal perhaps more difficult any anyone’s…who knows?

    Among questions, a colleague asked at the time: So what happens when an employer Googles some MSU puck-pushing grad’s name for an internship or job reference, and the first hundred hits that land say, “Maverick players suspects in downtown sex assault”?

    That said, everything Bruce noted above is also correct: College athletics smell, top-to-bottom. From academics to parking perqs, players get away with murder (i.e., are allowed, sanctioned, encouraged). University sports programs perpetrate (perpetuate?) their own versions of capital crime (allowed, sanctioned, encouraged) at the expense of almost everything else a university represents. And in Minnesota, the U is Grand Gopher Poobah of them all. (Three billion, four-hundred zillion for a flippin basketball coach?)

    From perspective of a low-rung teacher pushing papers at a second-rank state school, it’s an old story. But it still holds the power to mortify every time a Brewster opens his mouth — or, in this case, Sid decides to keep his closed altogether, as he did this morning (though, to his credit, he did use the words “Clem Haskins” once).

    Gotta gotta gotta have that stadium. Can’t wait.

  8. Great discussion. Reminds me of my first week as a reporter, when I asked my editor in a small town why we printed the names of people arrested — they might never be charged, might be innocent.

    “We don’t have secret arrests in this country, we need to know who the police are arresting. It protects everyone,” Jerry Ringhofer said.

    Yes, those arrested have a blot accessible forever on data bases. And the three UofM players have been released without charge, at least for now. The investigation continues.

    But the issue isn’t whether this incident happened. It’s how the U responds, and how the program creates an atmosphere that may spur violence off the field. For our purposes on this blog, where we look at communications, I’m interested in how the U defines what’s important in how it communicates.

    In today’s Minneapolis paper, we hear from a spokesperson that the U “Takes this very seriously.” The idiot mantra that PR people spew reflexively. It’s so lame. What are you going to say — “Ah, we’re blowin’ this off”?

    If all your PR people can come up with is — as with NBC scuttling away from Don Imus with “We take this matter very seriously” — fire them!

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