Brock Turner lies at the intersection of every kind of privilege – not least, that of the college athlete

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Minimum prison time prescribed by state law for three sexual assault offenses: 2 years

Time sentenced to Brock Turner: six months

Time served by Brock Turner: three months

In a 1958 piece with the anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell on young male athletes, the sports journalist Gay Talese made the assertion that “the athlete in America is often a padded pawn who exists to fulfil other people’s dreams”. The media’s treatment of Brock Turner – convicted of sexual assault but still “a Stanford swimmer” to many news outlets – demonstrates that this phenomenon still remains. Moreover, the attempts of Turner’s family and the judicial system to exculpate him only entrenches it. And what is it exactly that compels people to persist in this quasi-absolution of a convicted sex offender? The fear that American society’s archetypal “good kid” – white, male, an athlete, someone a father (possibly a former athlete) and a coach (almost definitely a former athlete) would be proud to call their own – is nothing more than an illusion.

As evidence for this, we need look no further than the letters in defence of Turner which were sent to presiding Judge Aaron Persky. Here, the sexual assault itself is all but forgotten, silently elided with the fact that Turner had been drinking and may have been subject to peer pressure from his elders :

“[The culture of drinking] was modeled by many of the upperclassmen on the swim team” . . . “He was a shy and awkward 19-year-old, far away from home trying to fit in with the swimmers he idolized” . . . “A series of alcohol-fueled decisions that he made within an hour timespan will define him for the rest of his life. Goodbye to NCAA championships”.

Every statement above engages in a cognitive dissonance whereby any measure of Turner’s worth as a person focusses on his athletic pursuits but necessarily excludes the fact of his sexual assault. In fact, the assault is so euphemistically referenced that you would think that Turner had only been convicted of excessive alcohol consumption. The survivor of Turner’s attack puts it best:

Campus drinking culture. That’s what we’re speaking out against? You think that’s what I’ve spent the past year fighting for? Not awareness about campus sexual assault, or rape, or learning to recognize consent. Campus drinking culture. Down with Jack Daniels. Down with Skyy Vodka. If you want talk to people about drinking go to an AA meeting. You realize, having a drinking problem is different than drinking and then forcefully trying to have sex with someone? Show men how to respect women, not how to drink less.

The first article which the survivor read about the attack against her felt the need to list Turner’s swimming times. Around Turner, the media have abetted a narrative encouraged by his age, gender, race and sporting prowess. It is not a difficult narrative to harness: unlike the survivor who will forever remain defined, anonymised and objectified by cynically-placed epithets – “unconscious”, “intoxicated” – any talk of Brock Turner can allude to his probity, whether by referring to him as a former Stanford student or by including a picture of his blue-eyed self, in suit and tie.

Turner’s police mugshot is typically neglected from news articles. By rights, Turner has the powerful weapon of an identity, and that brings with it a script: a young athlete on an upward trajectory, whose life has been ruined by the actions of his drunk self (apparently separable from his own identity). His solipsism is breathtaking:

“I want no one, male or female, to have to experience the destructive consequences of making decisions while under the influence of alcohol . . . I want to let young people know, as I did not, that things can go from fun to ruined in just one evening.”

When it came to Turner’s sentencing, his status as a college athlete was always going to work in his favour. How old is he? What is his previous record? What is the attitude of the community towards him? Crucial to the case of Turner is that, to many, sporting performance provides a service to the community; this is particularly true in colleges whose identity is in some way defined by its sporting pedigree. This is athletic privilege in a nutshell and there is evidence that it counts as a mitigating factor in courts of law. According to judges, prosecutors and criminologists who spoke to CNN about Turner’s case, short – or non-existent – sentences are common among college athletes convicted of first-time sexual offences. A study cited alongside this, published in the Sociology of Sport Journal in 1997, found that, within a sample size of 217 criminal complaints between 1986 and 1995, 54% of arrests amongst the general population for sexual assault led to convictions, compared to 32% amongst college athletes arrested for the same crime. Although the absence of a database of college athletes arrested and charged for sexual offenses makes it difficult to verify current conviction rates, Turner’s case is elucidating. Judge Persky dwelled on what Turner was like before the crime, and what he might be like after the crime. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him. I think he will not be a danger to others.” The sexual assault itself was too often consigned. The survivor of Turner’s attack was too often consigned.

The case of David Becker, a Massachusetts high school athlete, paints a depressingly similar picture. Becker sexually assaulted two women asleep on a bed after drinking at a party. He pleaded guilty to indecent assault and battery on a person over 14 in the case. On the 15th August, Judge Estes not only ignored the prosecutors’ recommendation of a two-year sentence by sentencing him to two years’ probation, but he allowed Becker to serve his probation in Ohio, where he planned to go to college. Becker’s lawyer, Thomas Rooke, ignores the victim:

“The goal of this sentence was not to impede this individual from graduating high school and to go onto the next step of his life, which is a college experience. He can now look forward to a productive life without being burdened with the stigma of having to register as a sex offender.”

What links both of these cases? Entitlement. Not only entitlement to another person’s body, but entitlement to a future in which their crimes can be footnoted as a drunken lapse. Amidst self-centred wailings about the ruined lives of life-ruiners, the voice of the survivor is unforgivably marginalized. The letter which she wrote to Turner is lengthy, exhausting, and devastating. Her testimony against her attacker is unequivocal.

“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today. I am a human being who has been irreversibly hurt.”

You can read the survivor’s letter in its entirety here.

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