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Athletes Part of a Violent Trend

Kobe Bryant Charged

Victims' advocates say athletes have a better chance of acquittal than other men accused of crimes against women.

July 19, 2003|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

On a typical day in the United States, 8,200 women are battered, 2,345 are raped and 11 are murdered. According to statistics also compiled by law enforcement agencies, domestic violence is the leading cause of serious injury to women ages 18-49, and murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in this country.

Male athletes contribute to these troubling statistics, accused of committing an average of two reported acts of violence against women per week, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

Kobe Bryant of the Lakers now stands accused, charged Friday with felony sexual assault for allegedly raping a 19-year-old woman who worked at a Colorado resort where he was staying late last month.

Frequent media reports give the impression that professional and college athletes commit a disproportionate number of violent acts against women.

Although there is little conclusive evidence that athletes are more inclined to commit such crimes than other men, studies suggest that the problem of violence against women is particularly visible in sports.

"Nobody can tell me that there is not a problem with athlete violence," said Kathy Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes in Littleton, Colo. "These types of cases happen all the time."

Since Bryant's arrest two weeks ago, another prominent NBA player, Washington Wizard guard Jerry Stackhouse, has been charged with assaulting a woman by allegedly grabbing her around the neck and throwing her to the ground.

Other high-profile athletes recently accused of abusing women include:

* Running back Michael Pittman of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers allegedly used his Hummer to ram his wife's car, which also contained their 2-year-old son and baby sitter. Pittman was on probation for two domestic violence cases from 2001.

* Atlanta Hawk forward Glenn Robinson became only the second NBA player (Ruben Patterson was the first in 2001) suspended for committing crimes against women after his conviction on assault and spousal battery.

* Ricky Clemons, basketball standout for the University of Missouri, was jailed after violating his probation on charges of false imprisonment and assault, three months after he had been charged with restraining and choking his girlfriend.

"It's no surprise that these types of assaults are occurring because this is our everyday reality," said Jan Baily, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Harrisburg, Pa.

Baily said the public's perception of violence against women is "the classic myth of a stranger who is lurking in the woods somewhere. The truth is that the person who commits sexual assault is a neighbor, a person in your family, a person in authority, a celebrity.... Sports communities are part of that institutional system."

Baily, quoting statistics compiled by her office, said one in four females will be sexually assaulted by age 18, and females aged 16-19 are 3 1/2 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general public.

Because athletes are popular and generate money for colleges and pro teams, they have a better chance of acquittal or lighter sentences than other men accused of violent crimes against women, according to victims' advocates.

"The more powerful you are," Baily said, "the less likely the victim will be believed."

Redmond, who became a victims' advocate after she accused a Nebraska football player of raping her in 1993, said athletes typically receive favorable treatment in the criminal justice system.

She cited the case of Denver Bronco tight end Dwayne Carswell, who recently was charged with his third domestic violence offense after allegedly picking up his girlfriend by the neck. He has never been sentenced to anything more than probation.

"He still hasn't missed any playing time," Redmond said. "There are people walking around who should be in jail. They gain so much from a system that protects them.

"We need to start treating athletes like human beings, not gods."

Using Bryant's case as an example, Redmond said female victims deserve the same level of consideration as accused athletes.

"Kobe is probably not getting hate mail and death threats," Redmond said. "This girl could be. I know the police are. I know the [district attorney] is. I know I am.

"What I want people to do [is] think if this were your relative -- your mother or your sister. Would you say the same thing?"

That's not to say athletes have not been the targets of unfounded claims. In 1997, a woman accused Michael Irvin and Erik Williams of the Dallas Cowboys of sexual assault before recanting her statement less than two weeks later. Well-paid athletes, like movie actors, can be targets for blackmail and monetary gain.

Sports sociologist Richard Lapchick asserts that men in general commit violent acts against women at the same rate as athletes, calling it an epidemic that encompasses all class distinctions.

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