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Allegations Against Deshaun Watson Bring Renewed Scrutiny To Pro Sports And Sexual Violence

The Texans quarterback has denied allegations from 19 women. Sports and gender experts say there’s lessons to be learned about the intersection between men’s professional sports and sexual violence.

AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo, File
In this Aug. 25, 2018, file photo, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson prepares to take the field prior to an NFL preseason football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Los Angeles. Watson has been sued by 19 women who accuse him of sexual assault and harassments.

At least 19 women are suing Houston Texans' quarterback DeShaun Watson, saying in court filings that he sexually assaulted them during massage therapy sessions.

Watson has denied the allegations.

While the suits against Watson play out in court, the situation has again invited scrutiny of men's professional sports, which many gender and sports experts say have a history of intersecting with sexual violence.

For more context surrounding the issue of sexual assault in sports, Houston Public Media spoke with gender and sports expert Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, chair of the University of Southern California Political Science Department and director of the USC Dornsife Center for Leadership by Women of Color.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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When you learn about allegations by women against powerful men in pro sports, that involve specifically sexual assault, what are some of the questions that go through your mind?

When I look at the report, I generally do look at whether or not it is a single person reporting or whether there are multiple reports. I also look at whether or not there’s a pattern. One person might be "disgruntled," but the idea that 16 or 24 or five — that is probably far less likely.

What strikes you about the power dynamics when it comes to professional sports, gender and violence?

One dynamic that many professional athletes encounter has to do with the availability of women, and it becomes very hard to distinguish — if you’re kind of locked in a bubble — the difference between trained professionals such as a massage therapist or some other service provider and someone who is sexually available to you. The second power dynamic occurs after the incident when it’s made public. It’s actually, of course, a big factor in why people choose not to report or choose not to make it public, because the person who is the accused perpetrator is given credibility because of this general power dynamic that professional athletes are people that every woman wants to sleep with.

The reason why I always say we need to take an intersectional approach is that there is often also a racial dynamic. When we’re talking about athletes that we get upset about in terms of these kinds of actions, often they are prominent African American athletes. Sometimes there is this deep, knee jerk reaction, to defend them because of a long history of racism that then leads to accusations of Black men in particular. So I want to just acknowledge that that’s a reality, too, and that is an important part of the dynamic. I think it’s also an important part of the dynamic that lets the people who are actually perpetrating harms and crimes to escape under the radar, so while that is absolutely a legitimate narrative, we also have to recognize that just jumping to that conclusion automatically ends up letting people who are committing serious crimes get off the hook. That really creates a lot of trauma and makes it even more difficult for survivors to say, this happened to me and it was harmful.

What can regular people learn from watching these allegations play out?

These kinds of things do happen in high schools around the country, do happen in colleges around the country, do happen in all kinds of contexts. The first thing that we can really learn is that this is far more prevalent, perhaps, than we might want to believe. And then the second thing is to really think through, what are we teaching our boys? What are we teaching our young men in terms of how to deal with people who they think are sexually attractive?

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