What the Worst of Sports Taught Brett Kavanaugh—and What It Still Teaches Today

To reprise an old vaudeville joke, this week has been one of the longest years of our lives. It’s the squirmy dissembling of this clammy, gin-soaked, elitist mediocrity, Judge Brett Kavanaugh. It’s the monstrous Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump, creating indelible stains with their words, spewing the message that the survivors who come forward are just puppets of some kind of liberal plot. It’s the “What high-school boy hasn’t attempted rape?” analysis from Fox News and the evangelical hucksters. It’s those same talking heads that cheer the locking up of immigrant children and racist mass incarceration who all of a sudden have acquired a passion for due process and the presumption of innocence. It’s as journalist Chloe Angyal tweeted: the enraging logic that drunk boys are not to be blamed but drunk girls are.

In this maelstrom of toxicity, I’ve been thinking about the ways that sports—in the time before the #MeToo movement—was the site of the highest-profile, most widely discussed cases of sexual assault. From NFL quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Jameis Winston to the high-school football team at Steubenville, Ohio, to the too-many NCAA sexual assault scandals to list, these stories were the backdrops to where rape and rape culture were debated and discussed. We have seen who has and hasn’t escaped justice and who were the bystanders while these assaults occurred.

I’ve also been thinking about the several times in the last five years that I have been asked to speak to male high-school and college athletes in largely white, privileged institutions about sexism, consent, and—there is no delicate way to put this—why they shouldn’t rape. I wish I could say the Amy Schumer sketch parodying Friday Night Lights was far from the truth, but it really isn’t. The idea of affirmative consent was foreign to many of them. Most saw also themselves as flabbergasted victims of communities that had prejudged them to be rapists “just because we’re athletes.” They believed that there was some “war on jocks” going on, a barrage of political correctness that was branding them as inherently inclined toward violent sexual assault. They were—to state the obvious—young, frustrated, and bewildered.

When I would ask them if they had ever been at a party where an assault took place, they uniformly would say “no.” When I then would define assault as “taking advantage of” a person who was passed out drunk, then the answer was then “yes,” but always with pushback—always with the caveat—that “their friend” was also drunk and therefore if everyone is drunk, how can it be assault? The idea that they would be more than bystanders, that they would actually intervene if a teammate were assaulting someone passed out, was akin to me suggesting that they travel through hell in a gasoline suit. It was none of their business.

When I asked them for examples of what happens at parties, the stories of binge drinking were beyond anything I remembered from my own days. Instead of kegs and shots of whiskey, I heard stories of “knockout punch”—in which sedatives are mixed with fruit juice and grain alcohol—ladled out generously to all comers. When I asked how that was different than “roofying” a woman, I was told that it’s not the same because the punch bowl was clearly labeled with the word “knockout.” It was normalized that ambulances would come to pump people’s stomachs, stories which were told with laughs and fist bumps. That gave a party its luster.

Despite the above descriptions, the dominant attitude of these athletes wasn’t arrogance or hostility. It was confusion. These encounters made it painfully obvious that we do not teach affirmative consent in this country. It also became crystal clear that on too many sports teams the idea of the “team”—which in so many contexts can be a positive—also possesses the poisonous sorcery to create walls of silence and protect abusers. In this way sports is a microcosm of our society: of Hollywood, of government, of the Catholic Church, and of the fact that this country elected an admitted sexual assaulter as president.

Brett Kavanaugh is the product of this very triplet: privilege, entitlement, and high-school sports. These are cultures that nurture the very behaviors of which he is accused. That makes the way he’s been shielded for decades all the more obvious and odious. That makes this wind tunnel of controversy he’s endured way past overdue. Whether he becomes a Supreme Court justice or not, making him confront the essence of who he actually is matters. Not so much for his own personal growth, about which I could give a damn. But it creates the conditions for a long overdue reckoning way beyond the cushy confines of Bethesda, Maryland, about who we are, what we’re teaching our sons, and why they should strive to be nothing like Brett Kavanaugh.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com