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"It's On Us" to Change How We Talk About Sexual Assault in Sports

SB Nation has partnered with the It’s On Us campaign, an initiative aimed at fundamentally shifting the way we all think about sexual assault. Today we take a moment to think about what that means in terms of our football support.

Our photo options were limited for this topic. Thanks, Obama.
Our photo options were limited for this topic. Thanks, Obama.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

In late July, I got my first tattoo. You'll be shocked to learn that it reads "You'll Never Walk Alone." My Liverpool fandom has been marked nearly every season by the constant struggle to reconcile that sentiment against the frequently frustrating player issues that crop up. Whether it's allegations of racism or continual biting of opposition players, speeding and drunk driving or domestic violence incidents, there were times when it has been very little fun to support the club in the last four seasons. And that's before taking into consideration Hodgeball, the slow descent back up the table, and whatever it is Liverpool are currently passing off as football.

It seemed fitting that my tattoo appointment happened in the thick of Liverpool triggering Loïc Rémy's release clause, as if the football gods were purposely trying to torment me. "You want that permanently marked on your body, eh?" they said. "We're going to test your conviction a little bit, just for fun." It's there in black ink, indelible. For better or worse, and not even until death do us part. YNWA is in me.

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For a brief period of time, it looked as though Rémy was likely to be a part of Liverpool FC, for better or worse, until transfers do us part. In our ongoing coverage of the transfer story, we asked that our members not delve into discussion about the rape charge Rémy faced in May 2013 that was dropped earlier this year after police chose not to further pursue the investigation. This request was made not in order to silence discussion on a very controversial aspect of an incoming player's history, but because that topic is sensitive and uncomfortable and deserves to be addressed by more than a passing comment or two.

Rémy's transfer never materialized, and we never had to have that serious discussion about sexual assault and rape in football. But it's not a topic that goes away when a player signs with another team, when charges are dropped, or even on the rare occasion when a sentence is served. SB Nation's partnership with the It's On Us campaign comes in the midst of the storm surrounding Sheffield United Football Club's decision to let Ched Evans train with the club upon being released from prison after serving time for a rape conviction. Rémy and the allegations that came with him are long gone from our thoughts, and Evans' story has replaced it. Tomorrow, it will be another player.

In situations where there are allegations without criminal conviction, it's hard to talk about player-as-rapist-or-not-rapist because we don't know. We just don't. We can't know. What we can talk about, though, is our reaction to those stories. How we as football fans talk about those stories can reveal a lot about us, our priorities, and how we intersect with sports and culture. How the language we use is often couched in the same terms that help perpetuate the normalization of sexual violence in our lives. How we present falsehoods about rape as facts and how it's uncomfortable when people challenge us on those falsehoods. How none of this occurs in a hermetically sealed vacuum that allows us to isolate these particular stories from any of the others that came before them (or will come after). It ceases to be about Rémy or Evans in the specific and becomes about how we talk about supporting players with problematic histories in general.

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I can't know what Loïc Rémy did or didn't do, but what I do know is that the way we talk about his rape allegations is well within the boundaries of the problematic way we talk about most other rape cases, both within sports and outside of sports. If you spent five minutes on Twitter in July reading Liverpool fan thought on the subject, it would have become quickly apparent that few if any people are terribly well informed on the statistical realities of rape and rape accusations. You could easily fill up a rape bingo card reading a few dozen tweets alone.

Because the statistical realities are these:

  • 60% of rapes go unreported. (1)
  • Of rapes that are reported, 65% of them never make it past the investigation stage, often due to systemic issues in the justice system itself surrounding rape prosecution. (2)
  • Only 3% of rapists will ever spend time in prison. (3)
  • Only 2-8% of rape accusations are considered unfounded (4 (PDF)), and of that percentage most come from vulnerable populations such as young adults, children, and the mentally ill rather than those with malicious intent (5).

When we want to give someone the benefit of the doubt, especially if rather unseemly charges against them have been dropped, then there are ways of doing that without resorting immediately to claims that the victim must be lying / asking for it / trying to extort vast riches from a player / trying to ruin a career. When we use rhetoric that flies in the face of fact, we don't do any favours to the person to whom we're trying to give a fair shake. We can do better than that as a group, and we expect that we'll do better than that when we talk about this subject.

liverpool blog fc sbn

The thing about sports is that it's all about winning, and too often by any means necessary.

When Liverpool mathematically qualified for Champions League last season, player after player in the team spoke enthusiastically about how Liverpool were back where they belonged after too many years of mid-table mediocrity. Liverpool Football Club — like any football club, but specifically Liverpool FC — is about winning things, and a European title is one of the richest plums of all. The club and fans alike want nothing but the best and the brightest talents at the club, the better with which to win those titles and that silverware. It seems like an easy equation.

When a player with a problematic history transfers to the club — or a current player becomes embroiled in something controversial — we begin to bargain with ourselves over that player, to dial down his responsibility. In part it's to absolve him of his role in whatever it is that happened, but it's also to absolve ourselves from the awkwardness of supporting someone we presume to be good but who may have done something not-so-good, something we may even have done ourselves in the past. We want to win, and we want to do it with him because he's that talented. It's a pretty natural inclination.

It's also one to be mindful of. It's not uncommon for sports fans of all stripes to excuse or ignore many varied and unsavoury behaviours — except disloyalty, never disloyalty — in the name of winning. That's a choice each fan will make for themselves, but in choosing to ignore the unsavoury, we can also make the choice to not reinforce harmful, often victim-blaming, ideas about those behaviours when we're discussing them.

How do you support a player with a problematic history? Carefully and critically. You'll Never Walk Alone isn't a prescription for blind faith in a player or a club, but it is a call to action to stand alongside the beaten down. It's a challenge to the status quo, and it frequently asks us to define the nature of our support. How we weigh the bad versus the good is a choice we each have to make individually, and we're not all going to end up with the same answer.

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