Opinion: When fans turn vile we all lose

Report: Duke accusers feared fan backlash
Report: Duke accusers feared fan backlash

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Story highlights

  • People who have accused athletes of abuse report backlash from fans
  • Even those reporting on accusations have faced criticism and bullying
  • Why does society accept unacceptable behavior when talking about "your team," Sara Ganim asks

Sara Ganim is a CNN correspondent who has reported on NCAA reform efforts and college sports scandals. As a reporter with The Patriot News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, she earned a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story of the grand jury investigation of Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State football defensive coordinator, on allegations of sexually abusing children. Follow her on Twitter, or email at sara.ganim@cnn.com. The views expressed here are her own.

(CNN)They didn't come forward, because they were afraid. Afraid of the fans.

Afraid of the harassment. Afraid of the online trolling. Afraid of the bullies.
Two women reportedly confided during separate campus retreats at Duke University that they were victims of sexual assault at the hands of a basketball player, according to an investigative report by The Duke Chronicle. But they didn't dare file official complaints -- not after watching others be vilified by fans.
    Duke will play its first game of the 2015 March Madness tournament as a No. 1 seed on Friday, and thousands of fans will cheer vehemently for them and for the other teams. Pride in collegiate sports is not what the women feared -- it was the kind of obsession that often crosses over into delusion.
    In this case, the full story is still unclear.
    The player, Rasheed Sulaimon, was dismissed from the team in January, but we don't know exactly why. The Chronicle story says legendary Coach Mike Krzyzewski and others in the administration knew about the sexual assault allegations for 10 months, but didn't dismiss Sulaimon until one week after a student staff member in the basketball office voiced concern. Krzyzewski has said he cannot discuss the issue due to federal privacy laws. Sulaimon's advisor, Bob Ekstrand, declined to comment to CNN.
    No one at the school will say if there is an official investigation into what exactly happened and whether anyone did anything wrong -- but there should be one.
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    Email your story ideas and tips to CNNtips@cnn.com.

    The problem is that any investigation would be difficult without the victims coming forward, and the women are afraid to come forward, according to the Chronicle, because of "fear of backlash from the Duke fan base."
    That same fear was real for Erica Kinsman, the Florida State student who accused star quarterback Jameis Winston of sexually assaulting her. Winston said the sex was consensual and police investigated, but Winston was never charged. He also wasn't found to have violated the student conduct code. But long before the investigations concluded, Kinsman said she felt driven off campus. Her attorney John Clune told me tires were slashed at her sorority house and fans threatened to burn it down. She and her brother were sent graphic and offensive tweets.
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    Clune also told me that an investigator on the case warned her that Florida State is a big football town, and she should think long and hard before deciding to pursue a case.
    That fear was also real for Lizzy Seeberg, a student at St. Mary's College, who committed suicide about a week after accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexual assault in 2010. Before she died, she was threatened by text message by a fellow student, "Don't do anything you would regret. Messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea."
    Her heartbroken father told me those threats gave Lizzy tremendous anxiety before she killed herself. The player she accused denied the allegation, and the police investigation ended when Lizzy died.
    Kathy Redmond, who runs the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, said she's seen countless women decide not to come forward with criminal cases because, at first rumor of an allegation, the social media vitriol is so bad that they are too afraid to move forward. Once, she said, a coach responded to an allegation of gang rape by four players saying, "The bitch shouldn't have been at the party."
    I saw this unfold at Penn State, when former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was accused and convicted of child rape. Sandusky is now in jail for the rest of his life, but his legacy of abuse lives on through websites that harass witnesses and victims.
    Some of these so-called fans are grown, well-adjusted men and women, who are productive members of society, who otherwise would be considered rational and objective. They take time out of their days to bully people who they've never met, in defense of someone they've never met. It's unbelievable.
    "They can either stop liking the player and team or slam on the accuser. ... It's a coping strategy. You're not going to pretend it doesn't matter to you. You're going to find a way to make it better again," said Daniel L. Wann, a professor of psychology who teaches on this topic at Murray State University.
    In the Penn State scandal, victims' names, addresses, and the names and addresses of their families were posted online.
    Witnesses have been chased, heckled. One victim was bullied out of high school for "getting Joe Paterno fired." (Paterno is the legendary coach whose reputation was tarnished when Sandusky was arrested. An assistant coach testified that he told Paterno he witnessed Sandusky doing something sexual with a boy in a shower, and a jury convicted Sandusky of indecently touching that boy.)
    I once saw a man launch into a profanity-laced tirade about the investigation while outside of Penn State's Beaver Stadium, clad in a blue and white jersey while holding his 5-year-old daughter in his arms. I'll never forget that, and I bet his daughter won't either.
    I've seen -- and been the target of -- taunting and chasing. One woman, a Penn State fan, tweeted that she was going to rip my face off while sitting behind me in court.
    Matt Baker, the reporter in Florida who covered the Winston case better than anyone in the country, had it worse than any of the other reporters I've heard talk about this abuse. He was bullied. Fans worked hard to make his life miserable. Aside from death threats, he says FSU fans made fun of his wife, put his cell phone number on Craigslist ads and gave out his number so he'd get incessant harassing calls.
    What really baffles me is that somehow we've decided as a society that this behavior is acceptable when you're wearing certain colors, or talking about "your" team. In what other context would we collectively accept that a 50-year-old man can harass an 18-year-old woman who says she has been raped?
    I'd bet all the money in my bank account that none of this passion -- they use passion as a euphemism for hatred -- would exist for a stranger accused of rape if that stranger didn't happen to play for their beloved team.
    I've talked to a lot of people about this. The delusion is that these people actually believe they are defending a member of their family. That they are being selfless and sticking up for what's right. Please.
    In almost every case, they're fighting on behalf of someone who doesn't even know who they are.
    Psychologists tell me that's because this is rooted in something selfish, not selfless.
    Fans who behave so terribly do it because they want desperately to feel like they are a part of something that they can brag about. Something that makes them look better. They don't actually care about the well-being of the athlete or the coach as an actual human being.
    If you need convincing, consider this: There are very few University of Florida fans who still think former championship-winning head coach Urban Meyer is a great guy now that he's moved up north to coach Ohio State and is no longer "theirs."
    No, this is all about the fan. That's why when one of the worst academic fraud scandals in history happened at the University of North Carolina, so many of those sneering on Twitter proudly stated that they were fans of rival Duke. It was fun for them to see their arch-enemy in pain. But the root of that pain, and a solution to the greater problem? Nah, they didn't seem to care one bit about that.
    Wann told me it's a desperate attempt to protect something extremely important to them: the team brand.
    "Their fandom is very central to their identity, and we defend those things central to our identity even in the face of logic," he said.
    So when a fan sends me an obnoxious email, I ignore it, because I know what it's really about. It's about protecting their school, their pride, their legends. All they want is to be able to go to a bar tonight and gloat that their university is better.
    Idol worship of athletes and coaches is so unhealthy. You might as well stick your head in a dirty toilet.
    So-called fans are kidding themselves if they don't realize the harm they're doing when they hold these people up as gods.
    It's not fair to you. It's not fair to them. It's not fair to the victims.