Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Please Stop With the Sexual Assaults!



Today the Los Angeles District Attorney's office announced that it would not be filing charges against USC cornerback Eric Wright in an alleged sexual assault case that had prompted Pete Carroll to suspend Wright from participating in spring practice. As a Trojan fan, it's nice to know that the talented Wright will be on the field (and not behind bars) when USC begins its quest for an unprecedented third national title in the fall. But apart from our own hedonistic desire for the Trojans to field the best team possible, this most recent incident begs the question, "Just what is it with USC players, rape, and the DA deciding not to file charges?"

For the record, we're against sexual assault of any kind. If Wright had done what was alleged, then he should have been prosecuted and convicted, regardless of the impact that would have had on the fortunes of the Trojans. But these allegations, along with similar charges made (but not brought) against running back Hershel Dennis last fall, no doubt leave interested parties scratching their heads. How does this keep happening?

First, let's make a clear distinction between these rape allegations and the incident between Dominique Byrd and Steve Smith. They don't deserve to be grouped together, especially by those looking to back up the thesis that the sky is falling on the Men of Troy. The Smith/Byrd fight was, like Pete Carroll noted, much closer to a tussle between brothers than the manifestation of real animosity between teammates. The circumstances surrounding the incident indicate that Smith and Byrd are friends, and that they had a friendly disagreement that, regrettably, ended in Byrd suffering a broken jaw. Remember, these are top-flight athletes, so it's not surprising that a confrontation produced said results. Smith expressed remorse and regret over the foolishness of the situation; Byrd has not spoken to the press (or much of anyone, thanks to his jaw being wired shut). On a team of competitive athletes, confrontations likely occur every day (which Carroll seemed to imply in his comments), and though what happened was regrettable, it's not exactly the end of the world.

Now, if the same thing happens again between two different players, then we might start to get concerned that the Trojans really do have a problem on their hands. That's why, though the Hershel Dennis saga was troubling, the Eric Wright situation was much more deeply so. One could write off Dennis as an isolated incident, an instance of a single player exercising bad judgment. But for the same thing to happen to Wright? This deserves a closer look.

That's going to be hard for outsiders to accomplish, whether they be from the local or national media. Even the beat reporters from the local dailies don't hang around the players outside of practice or games, or attend parties at USC, or have friends who live at the apartment complex (Cardinal Gardens) where both of the alleged sexual assaults occurred. We, on the other hand, do.

The first thing you should know is that most of the USC football players are not exactly beacons of virtue. They might be great guys (the ones that we've met all are), but like most college students, they engage in such activities as underage drinking and casual sex. The drinking part we've seen with our own eyes; the sex has happened behind closed doors but we've either heard about it or read it in the LA Times.

Let's break down what we believe may have happened in the Wright case. We're using the Dennis case as a precedent, where it seems that Hershel engaged in consensual sex with a woman who later claimed that she had been raped. That they had sex was not in dispute, but the DA was unable to unearth sufficient evidence to prove that it was not consensual. Also, alcohol and/or drugs were involved. Dennis told the Daily Trojan that, "the girl, she was already intoxicated." So in this case, it seems that Dennis had sex with a woman who was drunk; whether or not she was in the state of mind where she could give consent to that sex was the issue.

Now, indulge us for a moment. You're a young, beautiful woman. You're at a party. Everyone is drinking. You become intoxicated. You wake up the next morning, and the events of the previous night are murky. And yet, you know that you had sex last night (as a female friend of ours once said, "You can tell when you've had sex.") You start putting the pieces together; you talk with some of your friends about who you were with last night. You were talking with a USC football player. You left with that player, your friends tell you. People saw you enter his apartment. You woke up the next morning in his apartment. Hmmm, you think to yourself, I don't remember wanting to have sex. Was I raped?

We imagine that the woman who made the sexual assault claim against Eric Wright may have gone through a similar experience. Like the Dennis situation, alcohol was clearly involved, this time at a fraternity party where Wright and the woman met and eventually left, together. At some point, they likely engaged in intercourse. The issue, again, was that of consent.

Let's take a look at what the law of the state of California says with regard to the issue of consent as it relates to sexual assault:
Consent: Positive cooperation in the act or expressing an intent to engage in the act pursuant to an exercise of free will. The person must act freely and voluntarily and have knowledge of the nature of the act or transaction involved. A person who is giving consent cannot be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, unconscious, passed out, coming in and out of consciousness, under the threat of violence, bodily injury or other forms of coercion, and cannot have a mental disorder, developmental disability or physical disability that would impair his/her understanding of the act. [Emphasis added.]
It seems clear, then, that if the alleged victim in either the Dennis or the Wright case was drunk when she had intercourse, she has been sexually assaulted, in the eyes of the law. We don't dispute that, but the reality is that at colleges and universities, intoxicated women have sex all the time, and rarely are claims of sexual assault or rape made. Often it is those women who are the instigators of the act. That's not to allege that happened in these two cases, but it's worth noting that it's not uncommon. What's certain is that once alcohol enters the equation, things get murkier. Buf if these were both cases of men having sex with intoxicated women, they seem to be fairly cut-and-dried, at least according to state law, as long as the prosecutor could prove that the victim was intoxicated. So why were charges never brought in either case?

The most likely hypothesis is that each of the accusers decided not to testify in court, something not uncommon in sexual assault or domestic violence situations. Another possibility is that the accusers (whose identities we do not know) may have been under the drinking age. Would that have had an influence on the prosecutor? It's hard to say. But if the central tenet of the case was proving the accuser was intoxicated, and that accuser was under 21, it may well have complicated the case. A third possibility is that these assaults never happened; that the women were in full control of their faculties and thus able to grant consent in both instances, yet for some reason they felt compelled to make these allegations ex post facto. We don't put much stock in that theory, though when the accused has some level of notoriety (as in these instances), it's not completely unheard of.

So what is a Trojan fan to take from these two regrettable incidents? First, that no matter what Pete Carroll tells his troops, they're probably going to keep finding their way into trouble. And second, if those players want to insulate themselves from facing similar allegations in the future, they ought to stop having sex with drunk girls.

UPDATE: An article in Thursday's LA Times seems to confirm much of what we had postulated:
According to the district attorney's charge evaluation worksheet, prosecutors were considering charges of forcible oral copulation, forcible sexual penetration and rape. The worksheet said the 18-year-old student who made the allegations against Wright was intoxicated on the night she met Wright at a party. When the alleged victim left the party, Wright put a blue pill he said was Ecstasy in the woman's mouth, the report said.

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