A friend sent me an e-card this week. It's a woman spraying a can of Mace into the air, and the caption reads, "I can't wait to see what strategic defense the Jets use against a gigantic rapist."
The card made me laugh, and I hoped again that the Steelers would lose, even if that meant the Jets would win, for the simple reason that Ben Roethlisberger is at worst a rapist and at best a sexual bully. But then someone reminded me about Mark Sanchez.
It took a Google search, and a voyage to a time before that October 2009 GQ photo spread, but I was reminded: In April 2006, Mark Sanchez was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault. He was 19 years old, a redshirt freshman who was considered the next Matt Leinart at a time when that actually meant something good. But Sanchez went out one night (using a fake Arizona ID that listed his name as "Jordan Traver Uttal"), and he apparently did a good bit of drinking, and at some point the following day a female USC student felt compelled to call the police. Here's what the Los Angeles Times reported:
Los Angeles Police Department officers took the 19-year-old redshirt freshman into custody about 4 p.m., after a female USC student told police she had been sexually assaulted by Sanchez in the early morning. Sanchez, from Mission Viejo, was arrested at the Cardinal Gardens apartment complex at 3131 McClintock Ave.
Police would not say where the alleged assault occurred.
The security system at a nearby club Sanchez visited late Tuesday night shows him leaving at 12:59 a.m. Wednesday.
Witnesses to the arrest said the area just north of campus was swarming with police and campus safety officers as Sanchez and sophomore linebacker Brian Cushing were led away from Building E in the sprawling complex.
Cushing was released at the scene.
Sanchez was never charged, and the case was dropped a couple of months later after investigators determined there was a lack of evidence. (Medical examinations of Sanchez and the alleged victim were inconclusive on "the issue of force," as the Associated Press put it. Prosecutors said it was "essentially a 'one-on-one' allegation.") Sanchez went on to earn the starting job in his junior season and was picked fifth overall by the Jets in the 2009 NFL Draft.
And still this week, with story after story about Roethlisberger's redemption two-step, and even considerable mention of New York wide receiver Santonio Holmes's assault — still, almost the only place I've seen Sanchez's history mentioned is in the comments sections of the articles that omit it. There are reasons both logical and stupid why the rape allegations against Roethlisberger remain so much a part of his public image and the ones against Sanchez have largely been forgotten. For one thing, Roethlisberger had been accused of sexual assault before he ever set foot in the Milledgeville restroom, and in the latter incident we can be certain he was guilty, at the very least, of drunken and boorish sexual behavior (whereas no details like this ever emerged from the Sanchez case). For another, Roethlisberger was already known to be kind of an asshole.
But the media seem to have gone out of the way to be sympathetic to Sanchez, and it illustrates just how flimsy and manufactured an athlete's public image can be. The press went so far as to turn the rape allegation into your standard-issue bit of sports-world adversity schlock. After he was drafted, the New York Daily News ran a brief story that touched upon the 2006 incident: "In best of times, Mark Sanchez talks about worst day of his life." Sanchez is portrayed as a repentant, deserving young man who learned from a bad experience and became an NFL-caliber quarterback because of it. "The only record connected to Sanchez's name after that was his win-loss mark as he went 12-1 with a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State," the article explains. (Imagine someone making a similar pun in a story about Roethlisberger.) Bad reputations have been built on a lot less than an unsubstantiated rape allegation. At draft time and in the run-up to the 2009 season, for instance, people made plenty of vague allusions to Percy Harvin's "character issues," which consisted of nothing more than testing positive for weed. All people talked about regarding Sanchez — who, remember, had spent a night in jail on suspicion of sexual assault — was his poise. It's amazing what some good genes and a nice set of dimples can do for your rep.
For all we know, Sanchez really was innocent and totally deserves the public image being crafted for him. But it's hard not to think that the fact he is a young, good-looking quarterback — one with a young Namath's charm and a gentle ancestral immigration story at a time of great anti-immigrant unease — made it all too easy to ignore the uglier stuff. There's a story everyone wants to tell about Sanchez, and his getting popped on a rape accusation doesn't fit.