A newspaper reporter who said Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick would have been "better off raping a woman" than being charged with dogfighting has apologized and will no longer appear on the local sports panel TV show where he made the remark. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Paul Zeise made the comments Sunday night on the Sports Showdown show on KDKA-TV, a CBS affiliate. He was disagreeing with another panelist who said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should suspend Vick for the rest of the season because he was indicted on federal dogfighting charges July 17.
"It's really a sad day in this country when somehow ... Michael Vick would have been better off raping a woman if you look at the outcry of what happened," Zeise said. "Had he done that, he probably would have been suspended for four games and he'd be back on the field. But because this has become a political issue, all of a sudden the commissioner has lost his stomach for it." Zeise apologized Monday.
I'm pretty sure Paul Zeise was not comparing the killing of a dog to the raping of a human female. And I'm not sure if he was trying to say that dogfighting is no big deal and therefore Vick should not be punished, or that rape is no big deal. If so, then he ought to be off the air.
But here's the thing.
The gist of his statement--as reported--is not necessarily wrong.
Back in 2003 during the Kobe Bryant situation, research into rape allegations against professional athletes showed that data for "168 sexual assault allegations against athletes in the past dozen years suggests sports figures fare better at trial than defendants from the general population. Of those 168 allegations, involving 164 athletes, only 22 saw their cases go to trial, and only six cases resulted in convictions. In another 46 cases, a plea agreement was reached. Combined with the six athletes convicted at trial and one who pleaded guilty as charged, that gives the athletes a 32% total conviction rate in the resolved cases. That means more than two-thirds were never charged, saw the charges dropped or were acquitted. "I would say almost the exact opposite would be true in the normal course of business," says Nancy O'Malley, who chairs the sexual assault committee of the California District Attorneys Association and who is Alameda County's chief assistant district attorney. "In some areas, the conviction rate is 80-85%" at trial, O'Malley says...National statistics also suggest most ordinary defendants charged with sexual assault are punished. In May 1998 the U.S. Department of Justice tracked rape charges in the nation's 75 largest counties and found 52% of the defendants in 586 cases were convicted of rape and 14% were convicted of some other crime, either at trial or through pleas.
"It's not surprising that it's a relatively low conviction rate" for prominent athletes, says Linda Fairstein, former head of the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan district attorney's office in New York and a board member of the National Center for Victims of Crime. "These are cases where frequently even if the claim is legitimate there is enormous pressure on the victim not to press charges, that you're ruining his career," Fairstein says. Prosecutors who have handled these high-profile cases say they also face a hurdle because of the "he said-she said" nature of sexual assault trials, particularly when a celebrity defendant's word is pitted against that of an accuser unknown to jurors..."
Dogfighting charges are harder to beat because you can't really impugn the character or chastity of dogs. You can't find "reasons" why the general public should believe that the dogs deserved it, or why they are lying. You can't find anything in a dog's past to imply that that dog is not stable and therefore unreliable. You can't, via fan hate mail, convince a dog to drop the charges because he'd be ruining your career. And you can't convince the public that you can be a nice guy and kill dogs, but somehow you can find ways to imply just that when it comes to ethically-questionable sexual encounters with an acquaintance.
The sad truth is that athletes accused of sexual assault are indeed in better luck than those accused of dogfighting. Zeise didn't say anything untrue. What he said was ugly and uncomfortable for us as a society to contemplate, but it wasn't technically false.
His firing shows how far we have to go towards honestly acknowledging that fact.