They call them “gawker slowdowns.” Delays caused by curious spectators unable to resist checking out a major accident. While we may shake our heads and feel bad for the victims, there’s often a bit of relief, maybe even some sadistic satisfaction it wasn’t us involved in that car wreck.
I grew up in the Twin Cities, earned my degree from the University of Minnesota and went on to cover sports for much of my career. So, late in 2016, when details of a sexual assault scandal broke in Dinkytown, I had more than a passing interest.
The incident involved an attack on a female student, which led to the suspension of 10 Gopher football players. After several months of investigation, four players were expelled, one suspended for a year and five had their suspensions overturned. All of the accused were young African American males. Lines were drawn about who to blame.
At the time, it seemed fashionable to chalk this one up as another case of pampered and privileged athletes, immature and out of control. Some pointed at the administration. Others surmised that these were players from broken homes. Many of us wondered why it always seemed to happen at Minnesota, lamenting the fact that Gopher athletics had already earned a reputation for having an unfriendly culture toward women, with the stunning departure of then athletic director Norwood Teague in 2015. He’d admitted to groping women and sending graphic texts, before stepping down in disgrace.
Fast-forward to 2018. Lest you believe that sexual assault only exists in isolated incidents or with predictable participants … think again. Last week’s conviction of Larry Nassar should both sicken and alert you to the realization that we’ve all been closing our eyes too long and pointing our fingers in the wrong direction.
Once viewed as a world renowned sports physician, Nassar participated in four Olympics and treated Team USA’s foremost gymnasts. He won the prestigious Jack Rockwell Award for his sports medicine contributions. Sadly, he also abused young women and girls. For decades. In record numbers.
What Nassar did to warrant a sentence of 40 to 175 years is shocking enough. For the length of time he was allowed to do it seems incomprehensible. Nassar has been rightfully assailed for his betrayal and manipulation of vulnerable victims, labeled a “pervert” by some and a “monster” by others.
Where there’s smoke, there’s often fire. Nassar got his start at Michigan State University, so now that school has come under fire for allegations of a long-time pattern of denial and coverup to protect its largely successful sports programs. The university’s president and athletic director have already resigned. High-profile coaches Tom Izzo and Mark Dantonio are facing tough questions about the degree of their involvement. Welcome to the pool, MSU. The water is warm and getting warmer.
The “Me, too” movement isn’t going away anytime soon, nor should it. Instead it’s time all of us dispose of our preconceived notions and become part of the solution, not the problem.
Let’s start with the “Who.” While we prefer to believe these violators are individuals nothing like ourselves, the reality says just the opposite. The demographics are all over the map. Rich and poor. Black and white. Young and old. Democrat and Republican.
Athletes. Comedians. Politicians. Movie stars. College kids. Journalists. Film producers. And now … even doctors.
Without mentioning names, try on a few of these profiles for size:
- Celebrated osteopathic physician. 150-plus accusers.
- Stand-up comedian, actor, TV star, writer, producer. Winner of four Emmys, 10 Grammys and the Kennedy Center Honor. 60-plus accusers.
- Film producer. Knighted in France. Honored by the Queen of England. Academy Award winner. Seven Tonys. 40-plus accusers.
- Chief Justice in a State Supreme Court. Candidate for U.S. Senate. Accused by at least nine women of inappropriate sexual or social conduct with some as young as 14.
- Nationally renowned TV talk show host. Walter Cronkite Award winner for excellence in journalism. Emmy and Peabody awards. Seven-plus accusers.
- U.S. senator, comedian. Seven Emmy nominations and considered a champion for women’s social causes. Eight-plus accusers.
- A 22-year old Minnesota man from a wealthy white family, attending the University of Wisconsin. 30-plus charges.
- A 26-year old African American former basketball star from Michigan State and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Born with a learning disability, whose mother died at 41 from an asthma attack and whose father did drugs and wasn’t around. Lauded for turning his life around and raising large sums of money for cancer. But now released from a G-League team for a pending rape charge from 2010.
About those car wrecks. We may hate to admit it, but isn’t it always easier to say, “I told you so” when we don’t know or care about anybody involved in the accident?
If you think Hollywood producers are “sleazy,” you probably weren’t surprised to hear about Harvey Weinstein’s troubles. Maybe you even enjoyed it.
Not from Alabama? Didn’t vote for Donald Trump? My guess is, you shook your head at those backward Southerners crazy enough to want Judge Roy Moore to be a U.S. senator.
Until you heard about Al Franken. Your state? Maybe your party?
Or you watched Charlie Rose deliver the details of those breaking stories with his usual professionalism. Only to have the man you admired all those years suddenly disappear, too, after charges of groping, nudity and lewd phone calls. Then again, if you don’t trust the media, you probably really piled on when you heard Matt Lauer’s name added to the list.
Can we stop taking sides for a moment and wake up? Sexual harassment is not about social status. Or race. Or party. The people committing these acts represent all of us. In fact, this isn’t even solely about men. The Michigan State University president who stepped down last week amidst the Spartan scandal is a woman.
No, sexual assault continues to occur because this is about a culture that allows it … even fosters it. For far too long, we’ve turned our heads to protect people or institutions in positions of power and authority-generally, men.
Credit my strong-minded and independent 28-year old daughter for gradually winning me over, after numerous spirited and sometimes heated discussions about how we men are unfairly under siege.
Every time I talked about guys getting a raw deal, Ashley reminded me about all those moments in her life when she worried about walking home alone. Or felt unsafe at college parties. Or noticed deferences to men in business meetings. Sometimes, subtle. Maybe, sometimes not.
Oh, I admit. I am still bothered by the Pitchfork Nation mentality that seeks immediate retribution for bad behavior. I continue to contend that not all sexual harassment cases are alike. Sometimes, men can be falsely accused, reputations unfairly ruined, and each case should be examined on its own merits.
But make no mistake about it. Sexual harassment is never OK. And until men begin condemning it with as much conviction as women, it will continue.
Here are some general thoughts about what needs to change.
- Stop blaming the victims. Too often we like to conclude that “provocative clothing” played a role. Or “the victim should have known what they were getting into.” Consensual relationships are one thing. Forcing one’s will on another, particularly those in positions of power or authority, is never acceptable.
2. Lose the belief that victims are waiting too long to report the assaults. Put yourself in the survivor’s place for a moment. Since the accused almost always holds the upper hand, fear of repercussions and embarrassment are very real concerns. In the Nassar case, the victims were both young and impressionable. Not only did they and their parents trust the doctor, they were caught up in a rigid Olympic training culture where gymnasts were expected to “tough it out” under any circumstances. Then, to top things off, when victims DID report the assaults, they were strongly discouraged not to discuss it with anyone. Despicable.
3. Quit assuming that good people aren’t capable of making bad choices, particularly if the culture enables them to prey on those they’re allowed to control. A quick look back at those profiles I listed displays evidence that most of those offenders also had otherwise impressive resumes.
4. Men, in particular, need to be more sensitive and speak more prominently in addressing this issue. A Michigan State chancellor was ripped last week when he tried to suggest the school had more to worry about than “that Nassar thing.” No wonder critics question his priorities. Tom Izzo is one of the most respected coaches in college basketball. But even he’s taking heat for looking uncomfortable and refusing to answer questions about his handling of sexual assault charges against several of his former players. In fairness to Izzo, the charges occurred eight years ago, and he’s caught between a rock and a hard place when his attorneys want him to keep silent. But with the current climate at MSU, the tough questions won’t go away. Blame the reporters if you like … some of them may have unscrupulous motives. Yet while it’s understandable for him to feel defensive, it will be crucial for Izzo to support the survivors, be as transparent as possible and let his fair-minded reputation speak for itself.
5. Finally, I wish education would trump punishment from time to time. Yes, people like Nassar and Weinstein deserve harsh sentences. Even jail time. But instead of wishing all of these aggressors would just disappear forever, why not put them to good use and evoke change? Charlie Rose harassed women but was also a darn good journalist. Have him interview victims and explain where he went wrong. Harvey Weinstein could produce a movie. Al Franken needs to be out there, too, even if not as a U.S. senator.
It’s time for those gawkers on the highway to pull over and do something, instead of slowing down and causing congestion. Who knows when one of the victims might be someone you know? And forget about the fancy cars. Let’s start saving the people.