Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sugar Ray Leonard's Claim of Sexual Assault And Why I Have A Hard Time Believing It [Anthony McCarthy]

The Olympic gold medal winner and professional boxer, Sugar Ray Leonard has written a memoir in which he says he was the victim of a gay sexual assault when he was 20. Here is how the New York Times reported it:

Two pages later, Leonard delivers the book's bombshell while indirectly addressing a growing concern in the sports industry at large. He reveals publicly for the first time that he was sexually abused as a young fighter by an unnamed “prominent Olympic boxing coach.”

Leonard writes that when the coach accompanied him as a 15-year-old and another young fighter to a boxing event in Utica, N.Y., in 1971, he had the teenagers take a bath in a tub of hot water and Epsom salts while he sat on the other side of the bathroom. They suspected “something a bit inappropriate” was occurring but did not want to question a strong male authority figure.

Several years later, Leonard describes sitting in a car in a deserted parking lot across from a recreation center, listening intently as the same coach, said to be in his late 40s, explained how much a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics would mean to his future.

Leonard was flattered, filled with hope, as any young athlete would be. But he writes: “Before I knew it, he had unzipped my pants and put his hand, then mouth, on an area that has haunted me for life. I didn’t scream. I didn’t look at him. I just opened the door and ran.”

He adds that when he first decided to discuss the incident in the book, which is written with Michael Arkush, he offered a version in which the abuser stopped before there was actual contact.

“That was painful enough,” Leonard writes. “But last year, after watching the actor Todd Bridges bare his soul on Oprah’s show about how he was sexually abused as a kid, I realized I would never be free unless I revealed the whole truth, no matter how much it hurt.”

Later in the Times piece, after citing the numerous incidences of his violence - especially against his first wife - , adultery, drug and alcohol abuse this is said:

Greenburg speculated that it was counseling that helped him finally come to grips with the sexual-abuse episode of his youth.

“Having to hide a situation like that made it worse, I would think,” he said. “You have these dirty little secrets, and you feel as a man, and one in a tough-guy world like boxing, that you can’t share it with anyone. I would think that would probably affect every aspect of his life.”

I've had several discussions about this in the past couple of days with straight men and women who uniformly take what Leonard says at his word. One, a lawyer, said that it had a ring of truth to it. I'm afraid that as a gay man who is intimately familiar with what it's like to have been gay during the time in question and who remembers 1976 very well, I am having a very hard time believing it as reported.

My first problem with what he's said is that Leonard has refused to name the man he is accusing, even though he says that the man is dead. Not naming the man carries a number of problems.

This casts suspicion on any boxing coach in his late forties who might have been in contact with Leonard during the Olympics and who might have had some connection with him five years earlier. I have no idea how many of those there are but I do know that raising suspicions of this kind should be avoided when possible. Leonard could clear up that much by naming the man he's accusing and ending the possibility of innocent people being hurt*. Furthermore it reinforces the picture of all gay men as sexual predators. "A gay man" doesn't assault someone a specific man does. If that man can be named, he should be and he should face the consequences of his actions, those shouldn't be left hanging as a finger pointed at all gay men.

Leonard could possibly dispel any likely doubt by naming the man and seeing what other people could say of him. It's possible that there were other, credible, incidents. Or it could risk none of those coming forth and casting doubt on what he said happened.

But, unlike many, many of other stories of sexual abuse by older men on younger men and boys, Leonard's doesn't seem probable to me because of the facts he alleges.

First, as things stand, he claims that the assault took place shortly before his all important match at the Montreal Olympics, in the context of a conversation in which the coach was telling him of the importance of winning gold. He says that he had suspected the coach had sexual interest in him since he was fifteen, so for about five years.

I have a hard time imagining that a very middle aged gay man would have chosen Sugar Ray Leonard to make a sudden, un-negotiated, physical sexual assault against just as he was about to win a gold medal in BOXING. Boxing, repeatedly and skillfully and forcefully hitting an evenly matched opponent in the face and head in order to inflict damage up to and including knocking him unconscious. Boxing is not track and field, it's not gymnastics, it's the training and practice of how to do physical damage to someone. No matter how physically attractive Leonard was, the possibility that he might beat you to a bloody pulp if he didn't welcome your entirely unannounced, unapproved physical advance would have made him an unlikely man to choose to make one on.

His identification of a boxing coach who had been associated with him for at least five years also gives me problems. For someone who had been cultivating an athlete for five years, watching them climb up the extremely steep hill to even get to the Olympics, knowing that any upset could quash their hopes of even getting a bronze, I can't imagine them taking the chance of coming on to their athlete during the very weeks in which they could ruin years of investment of their work and hopes, ruining any benefits that could be gotten from having coached an Olympic champion. Especially if he had the chance to make that advance for the five preceding years. I can't imagine an Olympic coach making their first and only actual sexual advance on an athlete in that context. I can't imagine him risking his professional standing. In 1976 any credible rumor of an Olympic boxing coach coming on to his unwilling athletes half his age would have been the end of any career in sports. In the media atmosphere of the mid-70s, especially the sports media, risking an athlete pressing charges would have be enormous.

Several of those who objected to my doubts pointed out that the alleged attacker was a boxing coach. But he was a boxing coach in advancing middle age, hardly a match for a young man about to win Olympic gold, someone who had systematically fought and won against increasingly able and skilled opponents in peak condition to reach the stage when he was about to fight against another, super elite boxer. I'd guess that an experienced boxing coach who had seen what Leonard had done to other boxers might have had more reason than most to not want to risk provoking an attack by him in the summer of 1976. There were far less dangerous men to come on to in Montreal that week.

The wider context of my having problems with the idea of a gay man doing that in 1976 is directly due to the fact that it was and remains possible for someone to beat or murder a gay man and to either get off without charges or to have a murder charge reduced to manslaughter by claiming a sexual assault. In many cases the mere allegation of an unwanted, gay sexual advance could get a man out of a charge of assault before it went to court. It was common knowledge that many gay bashers got away with it by telling that kind of story to the police and prosecutors.

If you doubt that is the case, there are law review articles debating whether or not the use of the "Gay Panic Defense" should be allowed to be raised by the defense in murder cases** or if that practice should be abolished.

Let me stop right here and repeat that. Today it is being debated whether or not to allow defendants in a MURDER CASE to claim they, usually brutally, killed a gay man because he made a pass at them. Today. Never mind in the mid-1970s.

In the mean time, right now, it is quite possible to use a claim of gay assault to get off on a very brutal killing, in which the physical evidence doesn't support the defendant's story that a sexual assault took place. Not in the deep South, in Illinois. the first state to decriminalize gay sex.

I will be writing about this apparently little known part of the law. Little known by straight folks, apparently, but very well known to gay men. Just as women can become the accused in a rape case, gay men murdered by straight men can be blamed for their own murders, qualified for unofficial capital punishment for doing something straight men do to women every day. I will be writing about that more, soon. It seems to be unknown to a considerable part of the straight, liberal, self defined non-homophobic, blogosphere.

* When Scott Brown said that he had been abused at a much younger age I said, a number of times, that he should have named the man, who, as far as I know, he hasn't yet. I don't remember anyone who was critical of me making the same point at the time.

** As the law now stands, a nonviolent homosexual advance may constitute sufficient provocation to incite that legal fiction, the reasonable man, to lose his self-control and kill in the heat of passion, thus mitigating murder to manslaughter. The author argues that this homosexual-advance defense is a misguided application of provocation theory and a judicial institutionalization of homophobia. Provocation defenses have their origin and rationale in tangled theories of justification and excuse, both of which divert attention away from the killer and onto the behavior of the deceased victim. The homosexual-advance defense appeals to irrational fears, revulsion, and hatred prevalent in heterocentric society, focusing blame on the victim's real or imagined sexuality. In allowing the defense, the judiciary reinforces and institutionalizes violent prejudices at the expense of norms of self-control, tolerance, and compassion that ought to reign in society. The defense affirms homophobia and undermines the ability of courts to produce fair verdicts by creating a lower standard of protection against violence afforded to an identifiable class of victims. The author concludes that we ought to expect more from our courts: judges should hold as a matter of law that a homosexual advance is not sufficient provocation to incite a reasonable man to kill. Murderous homophobia should be considered an irrational and idiosyncratic characteristic of the killer rather than a normative social aspiration incorporated as the homosexual-advance defense into the standards that govern jury decision making.

Note: It seems to me that a lot of the people who I've discussed this with seem to believe that the problems Leonard had with violence, drugs, alcohol and other things as an adult are attributable to this one incidence he alleges. I don't buy that at all.

A far more obvious motivation for him hitting his first wife is in his training in systematic violence, the brutality of boxing which he practiced professionally and for which he was lauded and which made him a hero to millions of people.

I can't imagine that not instilling a sense of permission in at least some elite boxers. Boxing is permitted, systematic and intended brutality. When a boxer practices brutality outside of the ring it should be the first thing suspected as a motivation, not an incident which could be as much an attempt at self-exoneration as it could be a factual account of what would be considered quite differently, by society and the media if it had been a man doing the equivalent to a woman.

Even if every word Leonard said about this incidence is true, that doesn't excuse anything else he's admitted he did.