Activist on Serena: ‘It’s ignorance’

Serena Williams is at the top of her game heading into Wimbledon, which begins at the All England Club next Monday. But on Tuesday, it was a statement made to a Rolling Stone writer that had the world’s top women’s tennis player in hot water off of the court.

In an excerpt from a just-released Rolling Stone feature — one first published by Deadspin — journalist Stephen Rodrick describes a moment in a hotel room when Williams reacted to news of the Steubenville (Ohio) High School rape case. Here’s how it played out, per Rodrick:

We watch the news for a while, and the infamous Steubenville rape case flashes on the TV—two high school football players raped a 16-year-old, while other students watched and texted details of the crime. Serena just shakes her head. "Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don’t know. I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could have been much worse. She’s lucky. Obviously I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different."

Williams’ comment was certainly surprising and out of line, and — as is the case with any statement that has ever started with “I’m not racist, but…” or “I’m not sexist, but…” or “I’m not homophobic, but…” — victim blaming isn’t made OK because Serena tried to qualify it by saying that wasn’t what she meant.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, Serena Williams posted a statement to her website addressing her comments on the Steubenville rape case in Rolling Stone magazine.

In her 148-word note, Williams does not admit to having made the comments attributed to her, but refers to the quote as "what I supposedly said." Williams also said she is reaching out to the Steubenville victim let her know that she is "deeply sorry for what was written."

Here is Serena’s statement in full:

“What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved – that of the rape victim and of the accused. I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.

I have fought all of my career for women’s equality, women’s equal rights, respect in their fields – anything I could do to support women I have done. My prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent sixteen year old child.”

Unfortunately, intentional or not, Serena’s opinions on Steubenville are ones that that far too many out there still genuinely agree with — people Kathy Redmond encounters every day as the founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.

“I honestly believe it’s ignorance, and I believe that ignorance transcends all races, it transcends all cultures, all everything,” Redmond told Tuesday evening when asked about Williams’ reaction to the Steubenville case. “And it is purely ignorance that she could say, ‘I’m not trying to victim-blame, but…’ You wait for that ‘but’ and that’s the asterisk that’s supposed to prove otherwise.”

Redmond knows of what she speaks. She was raped twice by Nebraska Cornhuskers nose tackle Christian Peter in 1991, and her Title IX case against the University of Nebraska put the issue of rape culture in athletics at the forefront of the national discussion in 1997.

Today, she speaks to students and athletes all over the country about incidents just like the one in Steubenville, and she has served as a consultant in several high profile rape and domestic violence cases, including the Kobe Bryant scandal, the University of Colorado rape scandal and the Air Force Academy sex scandal.

“The issue is societal and that it’s not just men or women; this isn’t something where there’s one side of women who just say, ‘Oh, this is horrible,’” Redmond said.

“…I think it’s something that we’ve been taught, that a lot of our worth comes from being accepted by men. … There’s this female belief — and I can’t broad-brush everybody — that basically says, ‘If I can make excuses, if I can show why this girl or this woman was at fault and how what she wore or how she drank led to her rape, it’s not going to happen to me.’

“…When you have somebody as prominent as Serena, and you have as many girls that look up to her as a role model, that’s what bothers me. Because, in essence, what she is telling these girls is, ‘If you are drunk, it is your fault, and you shouldn’t report anything, and this is what’s to be expected.’ And she’s also telling the boys, ‘This is what’s to be expected of you.’”

Redmond says the issue isn’t restricted only to sports, but that the culture of athletics lends itself to female athletes sympathizing with males who commit such reprehensible acts.

“When I go and talk to female athletes, they’re very quick to stick up for the male athletes, even those who have gotten in trouble, and victim-blamed, because they want that acceptance,” Redmond said. “Even if it’s a prominent athlete like Serena Williams, they want that acceptance from the male-dominated sports culture.”

Redmond also said the key to making progress on the issue of rape culture, especially in sports, is educating both males and females equally on what is and isn’t OK.

“We should be teaching the boys that leaders, that real men don’t do that — that the real men protect someone, protect the girl who might be drunk or might be passed out,” Redmond said. “They protect her and they make sure she’s secure and safe, they get her home. And if something does happen to her, they step up and they come forward and they speak out about it.

“Unfortunately, the way that we’re programming the boys, especially via a message like this from Serena Williams, what we’re telling the boys is, ‘You have no self control, you’re expected to be rapists, you’re expected to behave this way, and the girls have to protect themselves against you.’ If you really look at what we’ve created as a society, we’re creating hostile genders.”

In Serena’s case, Redmond said a sincere apology and effort to move forward on the issue is the only thing that might salvage Williams’ reputation after what she told Rodrick in Rolling Stone.

“I’m thinking about the victim that’s reading this, and I’m thinking about all those high school boys that might read it and say, ‘Yeah, see, even the woman agrees,’” Redmond said.

“And for a powerful woman to … make an ignorant statement like that, it makes me cringe. Because I deal with this attitude in college, I deal with this attitude in the pros, I deal with this attitude in high school.

“The only good thing that might come out of this is if she issues a statement that might make up for all of it. And because she said such an ignorant thing recently, that she now has that kind of attention where people are waiting for the statement.”

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