Rape one for the Gipper? Rape culture, maudlin sentimentality, and sports

Besides Monsignor Meth, the other irrestistible WTF story of the week was, of course, the Manti Te’o fake dead girlfriend saga.

Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o continues to adamantly maintain that he had absolutely no idea that his supposed girlfriend Lenny Kekua was fake; he claims he was catfished. This seems highly implausible, and various hypotheses about what really happened abound. I’m kind of liking the “Te’o is gay-o” theory myself; Te’o both belongs to a religion (the Mormon Church) and plays for a sport that is homophobic, and the Kekua fiction could have provided a distracting cover story for a gay affair.

But whether, and to what extent, Te’o was in on the hoax is much less important than a bigger question, which is, why is it that the sports press and sports fans cared so much about this story? Why did they find the idea of a young woman dying so tragically, in the prime of life, and a young man using her death as an inspiration to achieve great things, so very entertaining?

Feminists who have written about the Te’o hoax have made the point that while Notre Dame officials showed such touching concern over the fake dead girlfriend, they showed no sympathy whatsoever for a real young woman named Lizzy Seeberg, who in 2011 committed suicide after allegedly being sexually assaulted by a member of the Notre Dame football team. No one was ever punished in that case — both the alleged perpetrator of the assault and his friend, who sent Seeberg threatening texts warning her not to pursue the case, got off scot-free. Moreover, the Washington Post’s Melinda Henneberger has reported that several months after Lizzy Seeberg’s death, another young woman at Notre Dame said she was raped by a member of the football team. However, the second woman never officially reported attack; after being barraged by texts from other players warning her to keep quiet, she refrained from pressing a criminal complaint.

This suggests a pattern of callousness about sexual violence at Notre Dame. And it’s not just at Notre Dame: a similar callousness seems to be widespread in football. For example, there’s the infamous case involving an alleged rape by members of the Steubenville, Ohio high school football team. There was the murder last year by Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker Jovan Belcher of his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, followed by his suicide; much of the sports press’s coverage of the case indulged in victim-blaming and classic domestic violence denialism. And of course, in 2011, there were the shocking revelations that beloved Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky had, for decades, been systematically sexually abusing young boys, and that Penn State football officials, including head coach Joe Paterno, enabled the abuse. And these are only the most recent examples. There have been many others over the years. This 1989 case, which occurred in a suburb close to the one I grew up in, was particularly horrendous, and rightfully became infamous. But there are countless other examples — I’m sure you can come up with your own.

It is clear to me that rape culture is woven deep into the fabric of sports culture, and in particular football culture, in America. Does this mean there is anything inherently rapey about a group of humans tossing a pigskin ball around an empty field? Of course not. But there’s something about the outsized prestige we bestow on athletes; the fierce loyalties that sports fan cultures encourage; the all-male institutions that develop, where the men in them never have to deal with women as equals; and, in college and professional sports, the huge financial stakes involved — all of these things, in combination, can be toxic. Sports and the men who play them are worshiped, athletes are encouraged to develop attitudes of extreme sexual entitlement, and everyone around them covers up for their egregious behavior.

As a society, where crimes of sexual and domestic violence are concerned, we’ve come far, albeit not far enough. But the sports world in general, and the football world in particular, lags significantly behind in terms of the progress we’ve made in these areas.

Which brings us back to Manti Te’o’s fake dead girlfriend and the flip side of football’s rape culture, which is the maudlin sentimentality. In some ways, it is amazing to me that sports are coded as “macho” in our society. Yes, of course, the fact that the players of the most popular sports are almost always men and the fan base is predominantly male has something to do with it! Seriously though, sports culture tends to be nauseatingly sentimental, a quality we tend to code as female. But I’d bet your average Twilight fangurl probably has a more hard-nosed, realistic attitude about the true nature of the relationship between Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattinson than many sports fans and sports writers have about their athletic heroes.

We’ll start with Notre Dame, which historically has always been among the most mawkish offenders. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that much of the mythology about the Raping Fighting Irish is totally made-up BS. Knute Rockne and George “The Gip” Gipper were, respectively, a shady sports gambler and sketchy pool hustler, and a more recent Notre Dame hero, Rudy Ruettiger, turned out to be a stock scammer. Te’o’s fake dead girlfriend fits right in with this lachrymose bogusity.

But there’s more. Why is it that not just the Notre Dame legends, but nearly every sports movie Hollywood ever made from Pride of the Yankees to Brian’s Song to The Blind Side has been so freaking sentimental? Why did most of the sports press (national treasure Charlie Pierce was a notable exception) try to sell us such a bill of goods about that shining paragon of virtue, Tiger Woods? Why is Olympics coverage interrupted with tearjerking biographical vignettes about the athletes involved that are so heavy-handed they’d shame the writers of your average telenovela? Why, for decades, was Joe Paterno treated like God the Father and Jerry Sandusky like his only begotten son, the Lord Jesus Christ?

It is no accident, comrade, that sentimentality and sports go hand-in-hand. I would argue that the sentimentality is a necessary fiction, to cover up the brutality (for example, horrific head injuries), economic exploitation (see: Taylor Branch on the NCAA), and, yes, rape culture that seem to be endemic to sports culture in this country.

Jerry Sandusky, for example, brilliantly exploited the sentimental fiction that he was a saintly altruist with a single-minded devotion to “his kids.” All the better to rape them! What continues to amaze me is that he got away with it for so long, that apparently no one questioned his cover story. In this day and age, shouldn’t we all be at least a little suspicious of grown men who contrive to spend nearly every waking moment with other people’s kids? But it illustrates the power of the sentimental in sports culture, and the way sentimental lies serve the function of distracting everyone from the ugly truth.

I don’t know if Te’o was in on the hoax about Lenny Kekua, or if he was, why he did it. But particularly in the context of sexist sports culture, I’m more than a little creeped out at the way fans and the sports press ate up the story of the dying girlfriend like it was ice cream. It seemed to play especially well in the context of a Catholic institution like Notre Dame, which is all too familiar with Catholic-women-as-martyr tropes.

It continues to be deeply troubling that Notre Dame as an institution has shown so little interest in investigating what happened to Lizzy Seeberg, meting out the appropriate justice, and instituting procedures to avoid similar tragedies in the future. But I suppose it’s not surprising that a wholly imaginary dead woman has attracted far more compassion than a real one at an institution called Notre Dame.

UPDATE: This post has been changed to reflect the fact that Lizzy Seeberg had alleged she was sexually assaulted. She did not, as I had originally written, allege that she had been raped.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee