The NBA cares. I know this because during commercial breaks of televised games, the NBA goes to great lengths to notify me, trotting out their most marketable players to do 15 second spots about the joys of giving back to their communities. It’s not just basketball, though. Throughout their respective seasons, professional athletes of various sports star in commercials showcasing their work in the community, mostly working with children in low-income neighborhoods, or dealing with terminal illnesses.
During the month of October, NFL players donned pink wristbands, socks, team caps, and other paraphernalia to show their support for Breast Cancer Awareness month. A few weeks ago, the NBA decorated their hardwood floors with large green logos and had the athletes sport green headbands to highlight their “Green Week” and issues pertaining to the environment and energy conservation. But April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and the major sports organizations, including the MLB which just kicked off its season, have been noticeably, curiously quiet on the subject.
Granted, it would be nearly impossible for them to champion every single worthy cause and societal concern. April is also Autism Awareness Month, National Child Abuse Awareness Month, National Arab American Heritage Month, and National Poetry Writing Month. We can hardly expect to see LeBron James driving to the basket and having to adjust six different color wristbands in the process. However, given the gravity of the issue and the influence professional athletes wield in this country, the three major sports leagues (NBA, NFL, and MLB) could all help contribute to the much needed conversation regarding sexual assault.
It’s particularly necessary considering the target audience of these sports. Young boys and men constitute a great majority of the fans, and it’s this demographic that requires more information regarding sexual assault and rape. Too often conversations concerning sexual assault tend to focus in on the behaviors and choices of the women who are most likely to be victims, devolving into a parade of victim-blaming, removing any responsibility from the perpetrators.
We have a culture that would rather tell women not to get raped than to tell men not to rape. This can not stand, and in order for a shift to occur more outreach and education must be done, specifically with men and boys. If the athletes they look up to are seen confronting this issue head on, it may not solve the problem, but it could be an inroad to much larger national conversation where real solutions to ending sexual assault are discussed.
But sexual assault is touchy subject in male-dominated sports world. Men in our society already operate with a perceived sense of ownership over women’s bodies, and with their physical stature and material wealth, these athlete’s sense of entitlement is compounded. There are far too many headlines that involve professional athletes involved in instances of sexual assault, and even more that go unreported. Last fall, a young woman committed suicide nine days after reporting a sexual assault at the hands the Notre Dame football team. Current New York Jets starting quarterback Mark Sanchez was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault as a 19-year-old freshman.
More infamously, there was the 2003 investigation of Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant in connection with an alleged sexual assault in Eagle, Colorado. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been accused on two separate occasions of sexual assault, in 2008 and 2010. None of these accusations have resulted in jail time, in some cases no charges were filed, but it speaks to a culture of silence and acceptance of vile acts toward women that, even in this era of cracking down on athlete behavior, has been allowed to go unchecked.
In part, this is why it would send such a strong message if these leagues were to step up and take a strong stance against sexual assault. It would represent a reversal of a long-standing and damaging silence and set a much needed example for future athletes and their fans. Sexual assault is intolerable; there is simply no place for it in our society. We all have a role to play in its elimination, but the men we call upon for sports entertainment who have become role models and icons in our culture exercise such a great influence, their words and actions could have far-reaching effects.