Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

When it comes to star athletes and sexual assault, don’t listen to the guys with an agenda

Deshaun Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, is simply following an old playbook.
Deshaun Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, is simply following an old playbook.
Photo: Getty Images

It was 8 years ago now that I wrote about my own sexual assault for a site I had only recently starting reading, called Deadspin. My purpose in writing it wasn’t to gain sympathy, or to “play the victim card” — the go-to insult a certain segment of Twitter pulls out every time a woman shares any kind of life experience. Rather, my goal was to educate those denigrating Jameis Winston’s accuser, Erica Kinsman, as a “liar” simply because her actions following the assault “didn’t make sense” to them.

Advertisement

Nearly a decade later, I’m both appalled and disheartened to hear the same tropes tossed around about the women accusing Deshaun Watson of sexual assault and other sexual misconduct. From “Why did she keep texting him, then?” to “He doesn’t seem like that kind of a guy,” to the old adage that every woman who accuses a pro athlete of misbehavior is out for a “money grab.” All the hits have been played. Repeatedly.

So let’s start very simply. You don’t know Deshaun Watson. You may think you know him because you see him on TV and read about him in the newspaper and follow him on social media. But you don’t know him. He’s not your friend. Celebrities, like all of us when it comes to the media, show you only what they want you to see.

Advertisement

Nor do you know the women making accusations against Watson. And just as it’s unfair for someone to assume Watson’s guilt based on the accusations, it’s unfair to assume you have any knowledge of these women, their credibility, or their motivations for filing suit. In America, when you’ve wronged someone, you open up your wallet and write a check. It’s the way we address grievances of all kinds, not just violence against women. Don’t treat a woman seeking redress for sexual assault differently than you look at a man who sues someone for breaking his arm.

But most importantly, don’t listen to men with an agenda. I’m talking specifically about Rusty Hardin, Waton’s attorney, who last week said, with a straight face, “The answer to the question of whether we are saying that all 22 plaintiffs are lying about the allegations of sexual misconduct by Mr. Watson is a resounding ‘yes.’”

You may know Hardin as the man who defended Adrian Peterson from child abuse charges. Or perhaps you heard of him when he represented Roger Clemens from charges that he perjured himself before Congress. He’s the guy who told us with a straight face that a decade-long relationship between Clemens and country singer Mindy McCready, that began when McCready was 15, never included sex. McCready killed herself in 2013.

Sure, Jan.

I’m sure it’s technically “possible” that we’ll find out every woman accusing Watson is lying, but I can guarantee you that’s not the case. And while Hardin is certainly affirming the world view of a certain kind of football fan — the fan who lives on Twitter and goes scorched-earth against anyone who accuses their favorite athlete of any wrongdoing — this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the real world. And before you start yelling about false allegations, you should know that the FBI puts the percentage of false sexual assault allegations around 8 percent, which means 92 percent of victims are telling the truth.

Advertisement

Even more odious that Hardin’s statement, which was clearly targeted at a certain segment of young men, were his efforts via court motions to reveal the identities of 13 of the 22 women who have filed suit against Waston, who to this point have been proceeding under the moniker “Jane Doe.”

Rusty Hardin
Rusty Hardin
Photo: AP
Advertisement

This playbook was written way back in 2003 during the Kobe Bryant trial, when the name of his victim was “accidentally” leaked to the public. Later, after receiving then-unprecedented harassment and threats, Bryant’s victim refused to cooperate with prosecutors, and the case ended in a still-undisclosed settlement. Since then, arguing that allowing a victim to proceed anonymously somehow harms the accused has been Defending Rape 101 for lawyers. This ploy was also used in the sexual assault trial of Derrick Rose, whose lawyers had to be repeatedly admonished for slut-shaming the victim. And of course, there are any number of shady “sports” and “gossip” sites out there that revel in the chance to help dig up dirt on a “gold digger” trying to take down one of their heroes.

As a former defense attorney myself, I can tell you that there’s only one reason the attorney in a case like this wants a victim’s name out there, and it’s to allow the public to put pressure on her to drop the case. Or to send them information, often taken completely out of context, which they can use to further smear the accuser’s reputation. As to Hardin’s allegation that the defense is at a disadvantage, not knowing who Watson’s accusers are, I’m willing to bet there’s a digital or paper trail left by every single one of these women that his team could uncover with a little effort. That’s what lawyers get paid for.

Advertisement

There’s no doubt that America needs a complete re-education when it comes to sexual assault. Rape culture is still rife in our society, just ask anyone who stans Ben Roethlisberger or works at LSU. But it’s on people who know better to call out cynical plays to rile up Watson’s fan base when they see them. The sad fact is that social media and guys like Rusty Hardin are where a lot of young men will get form their attitudes on sexual assault and violence against women. I’ve already seen Hardin’s takes parroted out by young men on Twitter, who think it’s entirely possible, and even likely, that 22 women would all get together to make up allegations against a famous athlete. Because that’s what women do, right?

Just today, MSNBC published an op-ed pointing out that violence against women is increasing at an alarming rate. “In the United States, preliminary data suggests that the number of men accused of killing their wives or girlfriends has doubled in some counties, while calls to domestic violence hotlines and to the police for domestic abuse soared, according to a 2020 analysis,” Liz Plank’s piece reports. And while many may not think of the allegations against Watson as “violent,” sexual assault and harassment are rooted not in libido, but in the desire to feel powerful by inflicting pain and discomfort.

Advertisement

Social media certainly doesn’t help matters. It affords an anonymous platform for men (and women!) — often with little understanding of the dynamics surrounding sexual assault — to spread misinformation, either maliciously or unintentionally, and to do so without any intervention by the platforms themselves. And with so much misinformation deluging us on a daily basis (limiting red meat to four pounds per year, really?), it’s harder and harder to educate the public — the jury pool — about what sexual violence looks like. Which is to say, probably not at all like what you envision.

When following a lawsuit, it’s important to remember that both sides have an agenda. One side wants to get his clients paid, the other side wants to keep her client from paying. Nothing the parties or attorneys say should be taken at face value. And sadly, the same goes for many media outlets, who are trying to balance preserving access to teams, leagues, and players with accurately reporting a story. This is where I’d be tempted to tell you “wait until all the facts come out,” but the facts rarely come out in cases where one party, via wealth, fame, or resources, has an inordinate amount of power over the other. Think of how many accusations have ended with a private settlement or a victim shutting down and refusing to go forward. And in how many infamous rape cases, it’s still unclear what happened.

Advertisement

What is clear is this: We’ve been going down this road for too long in this country. There are so many famous men going about their day without a thought to the allegations of sexual assault made against them that we don’t even talk about it anymore (hi, Armie Hammer!). We’re way past due for a reckoning with rape culture. I don’t know if or when we’ll get there. But we can start by not listening to guys like Rusty Hardin.

Co-host of The Ladies Room podcast. Author of "Sidelined: Sports, Culture, and Being a Woman in America." Former law-talking chick.