In June 2016, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Brock Turner to six months in a county jail and three years of probation, following his conviction on three felony accounts including assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman. The victim was found unconscious with clothes removed behind a dumpster, with Turner on top of her. Turner faced a maximum of 14 years in prison, with prosecutors recommending six, yet Persky asserted that a positive criminal reference and lack of a criminal record had persuaded him to be more lenient. Perksy said that a positive character reference submitted by a childhood friend “just rings true” and “corroborates the evidence of his character up until the night of this incident, which has been positive”.
Becoming an internationally reported case, media outlets have often referred to Turner as “Stanford swimmer”, with his swimming talents alleged to be one of the aspects of his promising future which encouraged the lenient sentence. Both letters from his mother and father have expressed how a harsh sentence would affect him, with his father’s claim that prison is “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action” going viral for its crass depiction. In a powerful and articulate hearing statement, the victim has made reference to Turner’s athletic promise, asserting to the defendant that “your damage was concrete, stripped of titles, degrees, enrolment. My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me”. She continues to say, “The fact that Brock was an athlete at a private university should not be seen as an entitlement to leniency, but as an opportunity to send a message that sexual assault is against the law regardless of social class”.
Whilst it is relevant that his swimming ability may have affected the judge’s decision, to refer to him first and foremost as a swimmer is to do his victim an injustice. I don’t care if a sex attacker is an athlete, a celebrity or a miracle healer – I don’t care if they have won prizes or medals, and I don’t care about their outstanding talents or skills. No matter how successful, a profession or skill exonerates neither crime nor lack of morality. In reference to their crime, refer to them as a criminal. I do not see him as an ex-Stanford swimmer, I see him as a sex attacker, in the same way in which any rapist who makes the news with no remarkable hobbies is only ever referred to as a rapist.
It is this sanctity of men in high places which discourages victims to speak out – quite frankly, people are uneasy to condemn the successful career, the family man or the charming celebrity. It is all too easy to brush over it, or act as though we feel the remorse of someone we’ve never known because of their ‘potential’, whilst ignoring the pain of the victim who is just as much a stranger. We don’t have to look hard to see it – only recently there was an uneasily slow response to consider Johnny Depp of allegations of domestic abuse towards Amber Heard, with it far simpler to accuse Heard of being the liar.
And whilst Brock Turner may not be a celebrity, this is certainly not the first time sporting prestige has been used to deflect a serious crime. In 2014 Ma’Lik Richmond returned to his school football team in Stuebenville, Ohio, after being released from juvenile detention less than a year after he was found guilty of raping a 16-year-old girl. The victim was unconscious, and the crimes were committed, filmed and shared with lewd messages on social media by the perpetrators. Yet CNN’s Poppy Harlow reported on their sentencing that it was “incredibly difficult, even for an outsider like me, to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart”.
In the United Kingdom, Ched Evans was found guilty of rape in 2012. The conviction has recently been quashed and he is due to face a new trial this October, but when he left prison in October 2014 (having served half his sentence), the conviction still remained. He revealed he wanted to play football again, and subsequently his former team Sheffield United said they would let him train with him again. (This decision was later changed due to public outcry, promoted partly by athlete Jessica Ennis-Hill who demanding for her name to be removed from the Bramall Lane stand.)
No matter where his case stands now – it is not for me decide his conviction and at the time of writing he is not convicted as guilty by a court of law – the fact that a major football club was willing to completely disregard the fact that Evans was at the time convicted as a rapist depicts a culture which cares more about the potential of a sportsman than upholding morals and taking a stand against sexual abuse. Further still, a Telegraph article relaying information on his upcoming trial date includes a video titled ‘Ched Evans: How good at football is he?’, featuring statistics on his sporting successes. Why? Is it relevant to the story? Is it relevant to the case? Are his 35 goals in the 2011-12 season for Sheffield United going to be presented as evidence in a court of law? Regardless of the outcome of the case, by even including this kind of gimmick or information in amongst reports the trial suggests that his profession is somehow as, if not more, important as a sexual abuse case.
It is disgusting, it is dangerous, and it is damaging. To hold a person with ‘potential’ in such high esteem among cases of sexual abuse discourages anyone who has been abused by someone in a position of power to come forward. It implies that the future of anyone with a talent is not only more important than that of a defendant born without innate ability or privilege, but more important than the body, mind and life of their victim. It is disrespectful to the victim for the talking point of a trial to be whether or not the defendant will make the sports team.
As Turner’s victim so astutely commented in her statement, “As this is a first offence I can see where leniency would beckon. On the other hand, as a society, we cannot forgive everyone’s first sexual assault or digital rape. It doesn’t make sense. The seriousness of rape has to be communicated clearly, we should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error”.
by Lizzie Scourfield