What happened in the parking lot of Philthy McNasty's on the night of Aug. 31 remains in dispute. Rutherford claims that a woman he knew threw a glass of liquor at him in a dispute and that he responded by breaking the window of the car she was riding in. The woman claims Rutherford grew angry when she rejected his advances and tried to yank her out of the car, smashing its window when she pulled away from him.
In either case, Rutherford was later charged with misdemeanor counts of indecent assault and sexual assault as well as a summary charge for criminal mischief. He also received an incredible amount of media attention, nearly enough to turn him into Pittsburgh's answer to Kobe Bryant, the basketball star facing much more serious charges of raping a Colorado woman. In fact, even Rutherford's purported victim may be surprised at the coverage her charges have received. In the course of reporting a half-dozen stories about the Rutherford incident -- all repeated for each half-hour news broadcast -- WPXI News quoted the alleged victim's aunt, who told the station, "My niece had no idea...her accusations would cause so much publicity."
Rutherford's accuser, meanwhile, has received no publicity at all. The names of victims are routinely withheld in alleged sex crimes, and for good reason: Because of the intensely personal nature of a sexual assault, says Melissa Tai of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, "Rape is already the most underreported crime. And there are studies indicating that fewer victims would come forward if they feared their name being released to the public." The stigma of rape can victimize a woman long after the crime has been committed.
But the very anonymity that is supposed to reduce that stigma may be making it worse in Rutherford's case. I know people who assume that the woman in question was raped -- simply because they've seen reports Rutherford has assaulted a woman whose name is not being revealed by police or the press. They assume, naturally but wrongly, that she alleges being the victim of something much worse than a misdemeanor. In the court of public opinion, the accuser's anonymity in this case has worsened the punishment for the accused, and may have deepened the stigma for herself as well.
While acknowledging, "looking at the guidelines [for reporting victims' names] is a good thing to do," Tai says that any victim of any sex crime should have the option to remain anonymous. "Sexual violence occurs on a continuum, and we feel on that continuum it's best if [the victim's] name is protected," she says. In general, that may be a sound argument. But in the absence of more information, the public's own prejudices -- about race and sex especially --are coming into play.
"I got a couple letters assuming it was a white girl being assaulted by a black football player," says Post-Gazette sports reporter Paul Zeise, who has covered the story for the paper. In reality, both Rutherford and his purported victim are African American. "That's my issue with not reporting names: Anyone can say anything," Zeise adds. "Even if it isn't true, all anyone remembers is that he was involved in something."
In fact, Zeise says that during Pitt's recent loss to Toledo, "One of the NFL scouts who was there was asking me about the incident: â€˜He seems like a pretty good kid, but what happened with this incident?'"
For the moment, at least, the incident doesn't seem to have done much damage to Rutherford. He had to sit out the start of Pitt's season opener against Kent State. That's it. After Pitt's offense sputtered for a while, he took over, threw a TD pass on his first drive, and guided the team to an easy victory. Since then, he's been named Pitt's player of the week. If Rutherford did what he's accused of, that's not punishment enough, or at all.
But if he didn't do what he's accused of, if smashing a car window was all he did, he may already have been punished too much. Zeise notes that Steelers running back Jerome Bettis was once accused of sexually assaulting a woman outside a bar, and while her accusations later proved to be an attempt at blackmail, "You still hear people say he's a rapist." Hardly anyone remembers the name of his false accuser, by contrast, even though she committed the only real crime that transpired.
For some who think the pendulum has swung too far towards protecting women at the expense of the accused -- and of men in general -- cases like Rutherford's point to the perils of "political correctness." And advocates of "men's rights" aren't the only ones who think so: Geneva Overholser, an ethicist with the media training center, the Poynter Institute, opined in July that "When journalists depart from the commitment to telling the whole story, to naming names, to getting at painful truths, we tread on dangerous ground."
But the problem with using high-profile incidents to discuss such issues is that the issue gets distorted when the incident is high profile. In most cases, after all, the woman can't embarrass her aggressor with his own celebrity. Who knows how many incidents similar to the allegations against Rutherford happened in the parking lots outside area clubs since Aug. 31? The women in those incidents were also granted anonymity, but so was the alleged perpetrator, whether he deserved it or not.
Perhaps the problem lies not in how we bestow anonymity, but in how we bestow celebrity. The charges against Rutherford and other athletes, after all, are compelling largely because athletes are supposed to be better than everybody else. They're supposed to be role models, whose exploits on the field translate into virtue off it. They're supposed to be heroes, better than the rest of us.
It is, of course, this very attitude that gives some athletes the sense that they can do whatever they want, treat others in whatever way suits their whim. Rutherford may not be one of those athletes, but the headlines are full of sports "heroes" who qualify. For the sake of athletes our universities pervert their academic standards, our cities build stadiums while schools crumble. We act as if athletes are more deserving than the rest of us, and then we're hurt when they act like it. The same undeserved virtue we confer on athletes results in an undeserved infamy.
Either Rod Rutherford or the woman in that car were the victim of those values.
Or maybe they both were.