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Feminspire | April 23, 2014

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Abusive Basketball Coach? Fired; Rape and Sexual Assault? That’s Trickier

Abusive Basketball Coach? Fired; Rape and Sexual Assault? That’s Trickier

Trigger warning for rape, slut-shaming, and suicide.

Mike Rice, former head men’s basketball coach at Rutgers University in New Jersey, was fired two weeks ago after a former assistant leaked video footage of him exploding during team practices. His firing has galvanized a debate on collegiate coaching. Former players have come forward saying he was tough, but never acted towards them the way he did in the video footage. Former forward Will Royal (in a piece for the NY Times, said he thought that similar explosions occur in gyms across the country, behind closed doors. This explosion, however, has resulted in Rice’s firing and a public apology. Rice’s firing has been lauded as a visible representation of a sea change in how we, as a society, handle bullying. With rising awareness of the psychological trauma that bullying inflicts, it looks as if there is more and more willingness to stop it.

Yet, while Rutgers fired Rice, there is somehow more room for debate in the cases of Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott, two teenage girls who committed suicide due to bullying. Parsons was from Halifax, Novia Scotia. She was 17. She claimed a group of four boys raped her. They sent humiliating photos around her school and greater community. She killed herself last weekend, after months of being told that the police would not prosecute anyone. Audrie Pott was 15, from San Jose, CA. She hanged herself seven months ago, eight days after her assault. The three boys weren’t arrested until last Thursday.

How and why can our society deal decisively with evidence of verbal abuse and basketballs being thrown at players but we can’t deal with evidence of rape and sexual assault with anything close to that same decisiveness? Yes, yes, but Steubenville, some say. Without the efforts of hacker group Anonymous, it’s not entirely clear whether Steubenville would have been handled as it was, or whether charges would’ve been pressed at all. And while cases of rape and sexual assault, particularly ones that involve alcohol or drugs, particularly ones that involve acquaintances, and particularly ones that involve minors, are much less clear-cut and require much more thought, deliberation, time, and resources than firing a basketball coach, that doesn’t change the fact that the Rutgers basketball team is being insulated and protected from an “animal” (in the words of NJ Gov. Chris Christie) while young girls are being left out to dry. And yes, it’s much easier to fire a coach than to navigate most legal systems. And yes, there was footage, proof, of Rice’s actions. But there were photos taken of Rehtaeh Parsons and of Audrie Pott. They were posted online. There was proof.

And while cases of rape and sexual assault are complicated, while there are, in some cases, two sides to the story, in these cases it’s hard to find that second side. Audrie Pott was unconscious. The boys who raped her, who were 16, took photos on their cell phones and those images went viral. The bullying began, and eight days later, Audrie hanged herself.

Rehtaeh Parsons was raped at a friend’s house. A photo was taken, and the image was spread around her school and community. The bullying and slut-shaming began. Rehtaeh felt so isolated she moved away to start over. The bullying continued. She placed herself in the hospital for six weeks. The bullying continued. She moved back, started to put her life back together. The bullying continued. The police investigated. No charges were pressed, because of lack of evidence. The bullying continued. Last weekend, she, too, hanged herself.

These two girls are dead, and Mike Rice is no longer a college basketball coach. It feels as if there is something missing, some piece that we fail to grasp. If we recognize that bullying is traumatic, that there is a line between tough and crazy for coaches, how can we not realize that slut-shaming and bullying stemming from rape and sexual assault are even more horrifying, with even worse psychological consequences? Two girls committed suicide. We need to reevaluate how we teach our kids, what we teach our kids, and the conversation surrounding rape and sexual assault. We need to reevaluate how schools and other institutions cope with bullying of the kind and the scale that Parsons and Pott experienced. No athlete should have to play for a coach that hurls things at them, and no person should have to go through what those two girls had to endure.