“Stanford Swimmer”

Jun 8, 2016

Thanks to convicted rapist Brock Turner, the term “Stanford Swimmer” now carries the same connotation as “Duke Lacrosse Player”…

Before we begin, open another tab on your browser. Type in the term “Stanford swimmer” and see what comes up. It’s not the men’s eight national titles, or 62 conference titles, or the 43 Olympians that have swum for the Cardinal. It has nothing to do with a tradition of excellence that is difficult to match in any collegiate sport, ever.

Instead, here’s what you’ll find: First, a mug shot of a scared and red-eyed kid, with shaggy hair and bright red lips. He looks hung over and hating life – and so he was. Hours earlier he’d been caught sexually assaulting a passed out girl behind a dumpster. Scroll down from that pic. Every single search result is about one person: Convicted rapist and lifetime registered sex offender, Brock Turner. There’s the new shameful face of one of the proudest programs ever to grace a swimming pool.

Turner was a freshman, barely half a year into his college career, when the assault occurred on the night of January 18th, 2015. He’d never represented Stanford in any competition of consequence. He was good, as is every kid who swims there, but he was hardly a stud. The fact that he was an athlete at all should not matter one bit.

But it does. Oh, does it ever. “Stanford swimmer” is in every headline. That’s the shorthand tag to his identity, and just like “Duke lacrosse player” it says it all. Both of those school-sport identifiers are code for the same thing: Spoiled, entitled white jock. Smug pricks that don’t think the rules apply. Jerks that can hide behind their athletic accomplishments and take what they want… Including the dignity of young women.

That’s awfully unfair, but there it is. The Duke boys were acquitted for Christ’s sake, and this little shit Brock is not representative of Stanford swimming’s proud tradition. But don’t pretend these programs weren’t on trial too. The fact is, both programs have a long earned reputation for a certain level of smugness. They’re good at what they do; they’re young and cocky, and almost entirely white. Which is to say, they’re easy to hate.

And so it’s with particular irony that much has been made of the judge’s background in this case. Judge Aaron Persky was… wait for it – the captain of Stanford’s lacrosse team when he an undergrad there. Sweet Jesus, man, really? That wouldn’t even be a believable plot point in a fictionalized thriller about this case. That’s who tried it – and who sentenced poor Brock to just six months in prison. Judge Aaron Persky, a guy who’s gotta be wishing he’d come down a whole lot harder right about now.

The softball sentence has turned this case into a viral firestorm. The world is outraged; a lot more blood and pain was hoped for. He’s barely being punished at all cry the legions. The hysteria has reached a point this week where it often seems as though folks longed for years of prison rape as just punishment for Turner.

The sentence is pathetic, there’s no question about that, but what’s really fueled this outrage is not Judge Persky’s decision. It’s the brutally well written letter by the victim. The day after she read the statement in court, BuzzFeed published the entire 7,244-word piece online. It’s now been viewed over five million times. CNN anchor Ashleigh Banfield read it in its entirety live on the air.

Take the time to read it. As a piece of writing it is astonishingly good. As a war cry against white male privilege and the failures of the justice system in sexual assault cases, it has succeeded where justice did not. (It also did not hurt that the letter written by Brock Turner’s father was, by contrast, a tone-deaf piece of clueless defense for his unaccountable son…)

The victim’s letter begins with this sentence: You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today. Damn, that’s good. It’s like a knife to the stomach. It stops you cold and forces you to sit up and take notice. They’re words written to wound, and they do. And she’s just getting started. By the end you can almost taste the blood in your mouth. You want this kid to break down and beg for forgiveness and admit his guilt once and for all.

But he is yet to do so. As the letter makes so clear, Turner tried his best to spin his crime into a referendum on ‘campus drinking and promiscuity.’ Thanks for the context, kid, but you’re missing the plot. The booze can bring out demons, sure, but it also tends to bring out true natures. It can bring a character to the surface. Violence against an incoherent helpless woman cannot be explained away by alcohol. There has to be something very dark within you for something like that to happen. And make no mistake: that darkness is in Brock Turner. He just won’t admit it. Not yet anyway. Maybe this madness over his sentence, maybe his victim’s eloquence in the face of legal failure, will help him finally account for himself.

At the moment though, he has singlehandedly torched the term “Stanford swimmer.” Like those Duke lacrosse players before him, it’s become vicious shorthand for a certain kind of American devil: The talented white boy in a privileged sport who can get away with anything…

It’s a shame we keep having reasons to believe that stereotype.