Brock Turner's College Athlete Privilege Compounded His White Male Privilege
After spending three months in jail, having being convicted on three felony counts for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, Brock Turner was released in the early hours of Friday morning. He only served half of his original six-month sentence, due to "good behavior" and overcrowding in local jails. Judge Aaron Perksy's decision to give Turner a short sentence earlier this year was almost immediately met with backlash, but, frankly it was unsurprising — not only does Turner benefit from white male privilege, but also college athletes often serve little to no time in jail or prison if it's their first time being convicted of sexual offenses, according to CNN.
CNN reported that these short — or nonexistent — sentences can typically be attributed to the athletes' age, record, and support from the community. It is easy to tell that this applied to Turner's case. Persky cited positive character references from Turner's friends and family members as proof that he would not be a danger to other people, and that he therefore merited a shorter sentence. These "character references" largely requested leniency in determining Turner's sentence, the Guardian reported. Persky also argued that serving time in a state prison would have a "severe impact" on someone as young as Turner, who was 19 years old when two men found him assaulting a woman behind a dumpster and intervened.
Cassia Spohn, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, told CNN that these passersby made a huge difference in Turner's case. They were one of the main reasons he served any time at all, she said.
"In some ways, the most remarkable aspect of the Brock Turner case was that he was actually arrested and prosecuted," Spohn told CNN. "If you look at cases like his, many of them either don't result in an arrest, or if the police make an arrest and present it to the district attorney, the district attorney refuses to file charges because of the problematic nature of the case."
It is not easy to quantify the lack of criminalization college athletes face in sexual assault cases, as there has not been extensive research done on the subject in recent years. However, in 1997, the Sociology of Sport Journal published a report that found that both college and professional athletes are less likely to be convicted on felony counts of sexual assault than the general population. The authors of the report used data collected between 1986 and 1995, based on 217 police-reported cases of sexual assault. However, it doesn't seem as though much has changed since this report was released. Last year, NBA champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — a former college athlete — cited this research in a Time article in which he urged college campuses to challenge rape culture.
In 2003, USA Today released its research into 168 sexual assault allegations against athletes over the course of 12 years. According to USA Today, only 22 of the 168 allegations — which involved a total of 164 athletes — had cases that went to trial, and only six of those cases ended in convictions. Two-thirds of the athletes who faced allegations were never charged, had their charges dropped, or were acquitted.
While the research is not definitive, Turner's case is certainly not unique, except that he actually served some time in jail. Just last month, a high school athlete in Massachusetts was sentenced to two years of probation after pleading guilty in the sexual assault of two unconscious women; the judge ignored prosecutors' recommendations to give him a two-year sentence, The New York Times reported.
It is significant that Turner was actually convicted, and that he actually served some time in jail. Nonetheless, his short sentence and early release were unsurprising; had he not been a white male athlete, his case would likely have seen a very different outcome.