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Sugar Ray Leonard Says He Was Abused By Coach

In his forthcoming memoir, boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard describes being sexually assaulted by an unnamed Olympic boxing coach. This is the first time Leonard has publicly identified himself as a survivor.

According to the summary in the New York Times, Leonard first became suspicious when the coach had him and another fighter take a bath together and watched them from across the room. He was about 15 years old at the time.

Several years later, the article doesn't say exactly how many, the coach got Leonard alone in a car and gave a speech about how important winning a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics would be for Leonard's career, and proceeded to unzip Leonard's fly and sexually assault him:

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. [NYT]

Anthony McCarthy of Echidne of the Snakes responded with a post entitled, "Sugar Ray Leonard's Claim of Sexual Assault And Why I Have A Hard Time Believing It."

McCarthy doubts Leonard's story because he thinks no coach would be so reckless as to assault a dangerous boxer like Sugar Ray at a pivotal moment in his career:

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.

When it comes to sex crimes, and sex in general, arguments from the premise that "Nobody would be so reckless..." are highly suspect, especially when the aggressor is a powerful man who is already counting on his high status to deflect consequences. Who would have thought that Dominique Strauss-Kahn would be so reckless as to assault a housekeeper on the eve of his presidential bid? Who would have guessed John Edwards would start an illicit affair during his presidential campaign? What kind of elected official would send dick pics on twitter?

McCarthy says the straight world is missing important context. He thinks that, as a gay man, the coach would have known better than to assault Leonard because of the existence of a "gay panic" defense that effectively immunizes men who kill men who make unwanted sexual advances towards them. This is a real fear that gay men live with.

The idea that Leonard is probably lying because "a gay man would know better..." is at least as dubious as "nobody would be so reckless." Sexual orientation may be innate, but knowledge of U.S. criminal law is culturally transmitted. There weren't any openly gay Olympic boxing coaches in the seventies. If the coach was an outwardly straight guy who focused his sexual energies on young athletes, why would he know any more about the "gay panic" defense than the next guy? Even if he did know, he could have been confident that the young, straight, Sugar Ray Leonard didn't.

According to McCarthy's logic, no coach would ever abuse big, strong boys as long as "gay panic" was recognized as a defense. Yet there are scandals involving male coaches and male athletes all the time. Male coach/female athlete abuse is much more common, but male coach/male athlete cases are hardly unknown.

The odious "gay panic" defense lives on to this day. Should we therefore doubt the word of any male boxer, wrestler, martial artist, linebacker, or hockey player who says he was assaulted by a male coach?

McCarthy's argument ignores the psychology acquaintance rape. Maybe boxers are more likely to react violently to unwanted same-sex contact than your average person. I don't know of any studies. Or, maybe when a beloved, trusted authority figure violates without warning, a boxer can be just as flummoxed as anyone else. Physical strength may not even be a factor. Victims often report feeling frozen or detached from reality during the assault. There's no reason to assume that how someone reacts to planned, consensual violence in a boxing ring predicts how they're likely to react to unexpected non-consensual sex.

McCarthy thinks that Leonard is just using the story to excuse a lifetime of bad behavior including violence against women, and substance abuse. You can take his claim seriously without accepting his psychobabble.

McCarthy also thinks that Leonard is being homophobic by making the rape allegation the centerpiece of his book.

If indeed Leonard is making it all up, then yes it's homophobic as well as dishonest. The Phantom Gay Coach is akin to the Imaginary Big Scary Black Guy--an ugly stereotype that people with poor imaginations fall back on when they want to make false allegations without fingering anyone in particular.

It's disturbing how eager McCarthy is to debunk Leonard's story based purely on stereotypes. At best this kind of reasoning could establish that such an event was unlikely. But we already agree that sexual assault is anomalous. Most coaches don't rape their athletes, and maybe most of the would-be rapists are deterred by the factors that McCarthy cites. That doesn't cast doubt on the claim that this coach raped this athlete on this occasion. Unusual things sometimes happen. 

When people make autobiographical claims, we tend to take them at their word unless the claims are wildly implausible. In general, we assume that most people are telling the truth most of the time. When it comes to accounts of sexual assault, we immediately leap to a heightened level of scrutiny. There's an unstated, untested assumption that someone who claims to have been sexually assaulted is much more likely to be lying.

Leonard also writes about seeing his mother stab his father with a switchblade. That's pretty unusual, but I don't see people going out of their way to cast doubt on the claim.

I'm not saying we should reflexively accept all claims of sexual assault at face value, I'm saying that we should jettison the stereotype that lying about sexual assault is so much more common than lying about other things that these claims automatically deserve heightened scrutiny. It's not that people don't lie about rape. Anything that can be claimed can be lied about. The problem is that that simply making the claim automatically raises the specter that you're lying. "Rape" and "lie" are linked in people's minds in a way that doesn't apply for other claims, even other allegations of crimes. 

I'm not going to bet the farm on anything I read in a celebrity autobiography, but I find it disturbing that so much effort is being expended to cast doubt on a prima facie plausible account of rape.

If someone writes in her memoir that she contracted a rare form of childhood cancer, we tentatively accept that. If we want to check it out further, we look for real-world evidence. We don't just say, "That's a really rare form of cancer. She's lying."

[Photo credit: atlnav, Creative Commons.]

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