This year’s Super Bowl was the most watched event in television history. With millions of fans tuning in to see the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, Steelers quarterback “Big Ben” Roethlisberger had the chance to win his third Super Bowl and join a truly elite group of NFL quarterbacks. While the Steelers wound up losing the big game, there is no doubt that Roethlisberger still holds a place of admiration for many young men. His athletic performance may warrant such devotion but Roethlisberger’s actions off the fields are another story. He began the season with a four-game suspension by the National Football League for allegedly sexually assaulting a young woman in a bar last March — the second sexual assault allegation against him in a year. (Neither allegation resulted in criminal charges.) How can we talk to the young men in our lives about the dangers and problems of elevating Roethlisberger to such a high status?
Jackson Katz, author and culture theorist on working to dismantle violent and sexist masculine cultures, wrote a column for the Huffington post laying out step by step, the ways to have this discussion with young men (and young women).
1. Our culture sends kids a lot of mixed messages:
On the one hand, most kids are taught to respect those around them and that “might doesn’t make right”. Simultaneously though, kids (especially young men) see images all over of men who abuse women (and other men) still being rewarded financially and socially. This is true not only of athletes, but also of corporate executives, entertainers, politicians and others. How do we reconcile this contradiction? In the case of Roethlisberger, Katz suggests that we can say “sure, he’s a great quarterback, he’s rich and famous. But do people respect him? Look at how carefully the television announcers choose their words when they talk about him. He might be a champion on the field. But beyond his football achievements, is he truly worthy of admiration?”
2. Ben Roethlisberger created a huge mess as a result of his own actions:
“Big Ben” has suffered consequences because of his behavior in the bathroom of a bar in Georgia last year when he allegedly assaulted a 20 year old woman. Although he denies the rape allegations and no criminal charges were brought against him, the incident was serious enough that he was suspended for four games. His reputation as a person and a leader took a huge hit. BUT let’s remember that Ben is NOT the victim here and since he could have been charged with first degree rape, he really got off pretty lightly.
3. Sexual Violence is a big problem in this country and affects many boys and girls that you know:
Approximately one in four girls and one in six boys will be a victim of sexual or physical assault. Think about the people in your lives that you care about and how you would feel if someone assaulted them. Young men, especially athletes and student leaders, can play an important role in preventing assault by making it clear to teammates and friends that mistreating anyone is wrong and that you won’t tolerate it.
4. Leadership in sports means leadership on and off the field:
While Big Ben may be a winner in athletic competition, the measure of a true leader is how they conduct themselves on and off the field. While people in the US might respect Roethlisberger’s athletic abilities, he has a long way to go to prove he is worthy or respect as a leader and as a man off the field.
5. Men who mistreat women verbally, physically, or sexually are never proving their strength or manliness:
Sexist actions are actually just displaying a person’s belief in the idea that men are entitled to treat women like objects or property that they can control and discard. They are also displaying shortcomings in their character.
6. Friends and teammates have an important role to play in interrupting and preventing violence against women:
Eyewitness accounts from the incident last March reveal that Roethlisberger was surrounding by bodyguards and friends who failed to raise any objections to his sexist comments or aggressive behaviors towards women. If you see a friend or teammate acting disrespectfully or abusively towards women, don’t just walk away. Be an active bystander (for more information on how to be an active bystander, check out UNC’s One AcT training)!
7. Alcohol does NOT cause men to assault women:
Drinking alcohol might cause people to lose their inhibitions and facilitate abusive behavior, but it does not cause it. Alcohol allows people an excuse to act out preexisting, anti-social feelings or beliefs. If a person you know acts out an aggressive and violent manner when he drinks, then he needs to stop drinking. As peers, you need to support him and confront him if the drinking continues.
8. False reports of rape do occur, but they are rare:
A lot of people think that women lie about being raped. False reports are incredibly rare though (approximately 2-5 percent) and most rapes are never reported. Women who have been raped- especially if the alleged perpetrators is a popular guy- often face incredible pressure from his and her friends to remain silent.
None of this excuses the actions of people who falsely report rape. If a young man is the victim of a false allegation, it is devastating and damaging experience. One suggestion for men and boys…don’t ever put yourself in a situation where sexual consent is not clear. If you have doubts stop. If you see a friend who looks like they are in an ambiguous situation (a woman looks like she may be too drunk to consent etc) where consent is not perfectly clear, interrupt him, confront him and stop him.
8. Media depictions of men “scoring” with women are not the same as real life:
The sexual scenarios that many of us see online or in movies and magazines are staged performances by paid actors and actresses. In real life, women don’t enjoy being degraded and objectified. It’s not funny when men pressure women to drink too much and then coerce them into having sex. If men treat women the way they are treated in movies, TV and porn they’re not only being disrespectful, they may find themselves committing acts of sexual assault.
9. Your actions affect others:
What each guy in a peer group does, how he conducts himself in public and how he interacts with girls reflects not only on him and his family, but on his friends as well or in the case of athletes on his teammates. In the case of Roethlisberger, he not only damaged his own reputation, but that of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
10. Ask yourself what matters most in life:
Football is a very popular sport in the United States. Millions of people watch it or play it. But there are more important things in life that sports. Big Ben’s actions helps all of us examine what is truly meaningful in our lives and the lives of those around us. Hopefully this discussion can help more young men treat women with dignity and respect and speak out when they see others not treating them this way.
Katz’s points are excellent example of ways we can all step in to stop relationship violence and sexual assault. Teaching young men and women early what are acceptable ways to treat romantic and platonic partners promises for a safer, more meaningful world in the future.