Blog ››› ››› JULIE ALDERMAN
A Media Matters analysis found that nearly one-third of the total time that ESPN and its three sister channels devoted to coverage of sexual assault and domestic violence in the beginning of 2017 consisted of repeatedly airing a documentary on sexual assault allegations made against the Duke lacrosse team in 2006. By devoting so much time to one case in which the charges were dropped, ESPN gave fuel to the conservative myth that men are often targeted by women who baselessly accuse them of sexual misconduct.
Media Matters found that across ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and ESPN News, the documentary Fantastic Lies aired 11 times in the first three months of 2017. The 2016 ESPN-produced documentary revisits statements made by Crystal Mangum, a black woman who was hired as an exotic dancer, that three members of the Duke lacrosse team raped and sexually abused her. The lawsuit against the three players, who were all white, was later dropped after prosecutors couldn’t substantiate what Mangum had said.
The same Media Matters analysis found that reports of sexual assault and domestic violence by athletes were prevalent in the first three months of 2017, and that ESPN and its sister channels devoted minimal time to the subject. By frequently airing Fantastic Lies and not covering current cases fully, the ESPN networks are feeding into the conservative myth that women often falsely accuse men of sexual assault. For years, right-wing media figures have been pushing this myth to minimize the ongoing sexual assault epidemic on college campuses. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, only between 2 and 10 percent of rape accusations are falsified. This statistic, however, may include reports that were true but unverified, which the International Association of Chiefs of Police says should not be counted as false allegations.
And sexual assault is an epidemic. As much as right-wing media continue to downplay it, sexual assault is rampant on college campuses. The Centers for Disease Control found that one in five women will experience sexual assault while they are in college. Just this year, the University of Texas at Austin reported that 15 percent of its female undergraduate students have been raped.
The Duke lacrosse case specifically has become a focal point for the far right and is emblematic of the stereotypes that men’s rights activists and “alt-right” figures highlight in defense of their movements’ misogyny. The Duke case has now become “a dog-whistle to many on the far right,” according to New York magazine. “Alt-right” leader Richard Spencer told New York magazine, “The Duke lacrosse case changed the course of my career," after he was commissioned to write about the piece for The American Conservative. Spencer later dropped out of college to write for the magazine full time. And Stephen Miller, who is now an adviser to President Donald Trump and has white nationalist ties, became one of the most vocal advocates for the lacrosse players 10 years ago.
By airing Fantastic Lies so frequently, ESPN is skewing the way people view sexual assault. ESPN’s viewers, who are overwhelmingly male, are presented with a documentary, repeatedly, that reinforces conservative myths about sexual assault. Denying and downplaying this epidemic is irresponsible and no way to reduce the trauma that thousands of women experience.
Dayanita Ramesh created the graphic for this piece.