Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Sports, Sex, & Small Towns: It's Scandalous!

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on January 19, 2006.)

The media loves a good teacher/student sex scandal. Whenever teachers and students, like the proverbial lions and lambs, lay down together in peace and harmony, local papers, blogs, even major media outlets flock to these stories with some combination of horror, tragedy, and comedy. So what happens when it's a scandal -- any kind -- (Marcus Vick, are you listening?) -- that involves young athletes? Strange as it may seem, we take our sports much more seriously than our sex.

Two years ago, in Colonie, New York – a suburb of Albany and part of the 55th largest media marketSandra Geisel had sex with a 16-year old student at Christian Brothers Academy. Geisel herself taught English at a Catholic high school, at least until she had sex with one of her 17-year old students. In 2004, Debra Lafave, a middle school reading teacher on the outskirts of the Tampa Bay media market (12th largest),was arrested for having sex with a 14-year old. Last July, she entered a plea of insanity as her lawyer compared putting Lafave in prison is like putting raw meat in with lions.

And in August, on the fringe of the 30th largest media market, Nashville, Pamela Rogers, a former elementary school teacher and coach, was sentenced to 270 days in a county jail after having an affair with a 13-year old star athlete. Her husband was the county high school basketball coach (they have since divorced) and her father is a state championship high school basketball coach in a nearby county.

Of course, the best known teacher-student sex scandal in recent memory is Mary Kay Letourneau, who last year wedded the student she once bedded. That’s damn near a miracle given not only their age, but also the fact that she was prohibited from seeing her future husband upon release from prison in 2004. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer comments: “What they both called love the law clearly defines as child rape.”

These stories all come across surprisingly tongue in cheek. An understated theme of the stories from the Lefave and Rogers stories was “Holy shit! She’s hot, married and having sex with a little kid!” This is particularly true once you read some of the blog entries devoted to Rogers or even glance at the internet coverage of Lefave. The more recent stories of Mary Kay Letourneau all carry a tone of “All’s well that end’s well;” strange, when you consider that her marriage began as molestation.

Chances are, had the sexes of the minors and adults been reversed in these cases, the news would have contained more outrage. A female teacher who beds a teenage boy is a means by which he becomes a man; a male teacher who beds a teenage girl is a dead man walking.

That observation, however, is for another column and another website. This one is about sports and how we watch them. If you want more teacher-student sex van field trips, check out Lafave’s Wikipedia article.

Scandals involving youths and sports, unlike sex scandal involving youth and adults, feature surprisingly little tongue-in-cheekedness. That would take away too much time from the moral outrage that dominates most of the coverage.

Let’s begin with the most infamous youth and sports scandal of the last five years: Danny Almonte. We all remember Danny Almonte, right? Little 12-year old guy, pitched a perfect game going through the Little League World Series back in 2001. Everyone in the country marveled at his 70 mph fastball. How could a 12 year old do that?

Turns out – 12 year olds can’t, but 14 year olds can. In 2001, instead of smoking preteen batters from the pitchers mound, he should have been stealing their lunch money and teaching them valuable lessons about bullying. Both sides quickly tried to assume the moral high ground in the media.

“Anyone who would knowingly undermine the trust in Little League is guilty of doing serious harm to children,” said Stephen Keener, the president of the organization.

Rolando Paulino, whose All-Stars Danny played for, said “Every time a Hispanic team, even though the majority of [the players] were born here, triumphs, people will look for whatever way to take away what they’ve done…Most of those people are bad losers, bad sports.”

Others also pointed to race as a factor. ESPN Page 2 even named it the 6th (SIXTH?!) worst sports scandal ever, ahead of the University of Minnesota basketball team's academic cheating conspiracy and Florida State football players free clothes scandal from the early 90’s.

In none of the articles was there a line like “What Danny and his family call his unaging, gestation period, Little League calls the first two years of life,” reminiscent of what the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote regarding Letourneau. Even in articles written in the last year, Danny is known for the scandal and not for being a legit pitching prospect.

In an earlier column, I wrote about Damien Tacito, a high school quarterback from my home town who was pulled over and charged with drunk driving and possession of marijuana. The town was outraged and disappointed, as he had to sit out a winnable playoff game the next day. What never got as much notice from either the Union Leader or the Nashua Telegraph was that the judge who heard Damien’s case dismissed the charges. The police illegally stopped and searched his car.

Granted, that doesn’t excuse his behavior at all, but the local papers didn’t seem to give much thought to correcting the impression of a youth sports scandal. We take it too seriously.

Sometimes these stories should be taken seriously. The New York Magazine published an excellent article on members of a Long Island high school football team who were accused of sexual assault. The writer, Robert Kolker, appreciated how awful the crime was, and how horribly and darkly comic the anger of the town’s residents was. Because according to Kolker’s guess, only half the town was angry at the possible truth of the accusations; the other half was outraged that the football season was canceled.

What Kolker brings to his article that all the preceding stories lacked was perspective. Danny Almonte and his family cheating on his age to gain a baseball advantage is bad, but should not be treated with greater moral indignity than a teacher who abuses her position with a student.

And Damien Tacito messed up, but if he is going to be exonerated to one degree or another, that exoneration should generate as much news as his arrest. That, of course, is in stark contrast to Mary Kay Letourneau, whose “All’s well that ends well” story received so much press that it might be on the verge of becoming a Lifetime movie of the week, for all we know.

Small towns, where most of these scandals seem to take place, are small enough as it is. By giving people there and outside of them something juicy to talk about, they become almost claustrophobic. Media that doesn’t treat these topics with the right sense of appropriateness exasperates the problem; just because a teacher’s tongue was in her student’s cheek, does not mean the story must be written tongue in cheek.

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