The Downside of the Vanderbilt Rape Convictions

A rare win for justice, it nonetheless highlights the many ways the system is stacked against victims.
Updated on

Tarnished star.

Photographer: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Two former Vanderbilt University football players were convicted yesterday of raping a fellow student back in 2013. While it was a rare win for justice in such cases,  it nonetheless highlights the many ways the system is stacked against victims.

It was a muted victory, as those in sexual violence cases tend to be. You hope it gives the victim some semblance of healing, but we should also remember all those who didn't get their day in court. After the jury handed down guilty verdicts for 16 felonies, including aggravated rape and sexual battery, the now-21-year-old woman issued a statement to those who have endured similar ordeals: "You are not alone. You are not to blame." One detective working the case called her, "one of the strongest women I've ever met."

Yet it was no surprise that some sports commentators tried to steer the conversation toward sympathy for the attackers. "Why, despite all this, do I feel so awful for what happened to the victim yet still feel such empathy for these four players and their families?" asks Fox Sports's Clay Travis, adding that he had "hoped the case wouldn't go to trial, that a plea agreement could be reached, and everyone involved could try and remake their life."

There's a real conversation to be had about what leads men to commit these acts and bemoan the unfortunate reality that, as journalist Jessica Luther tweeted, "prison is a horrible space that reifies rape culture." But casting this case in the eyes of the attackers is a slippery slope. Mostly, it highlights how easily dismissed the victims are in other cases. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, video images, horrific details and admissions of guilt, some people still paint these men as good guys who just made a mistake. (Which, incidentally, was their legal defense, blaming alcohol, peer pressure and a campus culture that emphasized the "ease and availability of women" to football players.)

The verdict is also a reminder of the burden placed on those victims who don't have the benefit of  all that material proof. So many things in this investigation had to go the victim's way:

  • That, at a time when students are increasingly accusing universities of actively deterring them from reporting sexual assault, it was Vanderbilt that first reported the incident to police after viewing surveillance footage of students carrying the unconscious victim into a dorm.
  • That, at a time when the cozy relationships between big-sports schools and local officials increasingly raise suspicion of cover-ups -- from Florida State to Mizzou to Notre Dame -- Nashville detectives managed to obtain graphic video footage of the attack from one of the defendant's cell phones.
  • That, at a time when Ma'lik Richmond can walk back onto the Steubenville High School football team and Jameis Winston can win a Heisman and go on to possibly be the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, the Vanderbilt players were swiftly dismissed from the football program after the attack.
  • And that, at a time when a victim having been intoxicated discredits her in the eyes of much of the public, the video and testimony of other people in the room removed any shred of ambiguity that what took place was, in fact, rape.

A single breakdown in the investigation's chain of events could have easily derailed this case, like so many others before it. Luther has attempted to document every college football rape case dating back decades, and was dismayed at how often they end in dismissed charges and players returning to the field.

Those who play down the rape problem in this country tend to explain away such dismissals by citing the supposedly enigmatic nature of consent -- a point that was, fortunately, rendered moot in the Vanderbilt case by the footage. Thinking back to other recent off-the-field scandals, we see how such evidence is required for the system to work for the victim. Some found it plausible that Janay Rice provoked Ray Rice to beat her -- until they actually saw her being pummeled in an elevator. It was easy for a basketball community and corporate sponsors to overlook Donald Sterling's history of racism until the whole world heard him disparaging black people.

But racism in the NBA isn't gone, and there's no guarantee that the next battered NFL wife will receive the same benefit of the doubt if there's no tape, no matter how many Super Bowl ads proclaim domestic violence to be "no more." One worries that prosecutors won't be as willing to take up future rape cases that aren't open-and-shut as Vanderbilt.

We can't let the Vanderbilt verdict lull us into believing that assault victims receive a fair shake. After all, the university is one of 95 facing a federal Title IX investigation over their handling of campus sexual assault.

If you're so inclined to proclaim that Jameis Winston is "a huge exception in the campus rape debate," then note, accordingly, that Vanderbilt is a huge outlier when it comes to rape by college athletes. Those of us quietly celebrating this verdict are doing so out of awe that the system actually worked this time and uncertainty that it will the next.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.