The XX Factor

Should the NFL Be the New Justice League?

The accusations against Ben Roethlisberger, like any number of the other instances of male-sports-star violence Josh Levin laid out yesterday in a post on Slate ‘s Brow Beat , are notable to me for two things: the willingness of the women involved to put themselves at the mercy of the athletes, and their unwillingness, once it was over, to help the law in punishing their assailants (in some cases, also their husbands or boyfriends). Neither the college student who accused Roethlisberger of raping her in a bar bathroom , nor another young woman, a golf-course employee described in police reports as having said that Roethlisberger forcibly put his hand up her skirt , would help investigators to pursue the matters; the college student said a trial would be “a very intrusive personal experience .” Brett Myers’ wife bailed him out and refused to cooperate with prosecutors ; Jason Kidd’s wife also refused to talk to investigators at the time, although she divorced him later. Even the assault charges against Kobe Bryant were dropped when his accuser said that she would not testify at at a trial. What Rachael said last week of rape victims is also true for the women in the closer, domestic-violence situations-the only way to keep a man from repeating his actions is to speak up, speak loudly, and not go away. But the realities of the situation-the media attention, the difficulties of “proving” so intimate an charge-don’t reward women for standing their ground, and that’s a problem we haven’t been able to solve.

There’s no question that the Ocmulgee Circuit District Attorney, Fred Bright, would have had a difficult case to make against Roethlisberger even with the accuser’s full cooperation. The Georgia rape statutes are notorious for setting a high bar; they require proof of both force and lack of consent. Without the accuser’s testimony it would have been hopeless. (As long as she was technically available to testify, no jury would be allowed to consider any of the statements that you can read so easily on The Smoking Gun .) His hands were tied. One result of that is that we’ll never really know whether Roethlisberger actually committed any crime, and that makes it easy for fans and sponsors alike to overlook his less-than-admirable behavior. It also makes it easy for the next girl, in the next bar, to let Roethlisberger put a hand on her knee and tell her that he’s really just misunderstood. I support the NFL for stepping up and suspending Roethlisberger, whatever its motives, but I can’t help but wonder how we’ve ended up with a system in which the only institutions capable of punishing athletes for possible criminal behavior are those that govern their sports-and worry that we’ll let the various leagues stand in for justice. Reluctant victims and the difficulties of prosecuting have left these guys truly above the law.