Mike Tyson 2.0 and the limited impact of #MeToo in sports

Photo of Mike Tyson giving a speech
Eva Rinaldi/Courtesy

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Content warning: sexual violence

In a small Indianapolis church, 50 Baptist ministers host a vigil in honor of former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. As chants of “We love Mike” ring throughout the parish, man after man clings to the lectern, begging God for a “merciful sentence” in Tyson’s ongoing rape trial. The chanting drowns out the organ, as Tyson himself hugs, kisses and shakes the hands of the ministers onstage. There is not a single prayer said for the survivor, Desiree Washington.

As the world’s youngest heavyweight champion, Tyson cultivated a reputation for unpredictable behavior, inside and outside of the ring. The controversy surrounding Tyson peaked in 1991 when 18-year-old Washington testified that Tyson raped her in a hotel room. Although Tyson claimed the sex was consensual, in 1992, he was found guilty of rape and was sentenced to six years of imprisonment. Despite being 25 years old, Tyson served his sentence in the Indiana Youth Center.

Although Tyson’s rape conviction may seem like old news, his return to the boxing stage has rehashed this controversy. Or so you would think.

Slated to fight Roy Jones Jr. in an exhibition match Nov. 28, Tyson has made a resurgence in the boxing world. In recent promotional clips, he seems to have ditched the tiger-taming, ear-biting persona that characterized his early boxing days. In fact, Tyson is admittedly remorseful of his past.

“God, I’m no angel,” he said in an interview with sports journalist Graham Bensinger. “I wish I was, but it is what it is.”

He’s especially vulnerable on his podcast, “Hotboxin’ with Mike Tyson,” where he smokes blunts with old foes (including Evander Holyfield, the victim of the aforementioned ear bite), rehashes his battle with drug addiction and wisens up his co-stars on the history of European conquerors.

However, in his tell-all podcasts and interviews, Tyson has seemingly left one story untouched: his rape conviction. Soon after serving his prison sentence, he vehemently maintained his innocence. However, a reborn Tyson has been reluctant to discuss his conviction. Furthermore, the press and boxing fans are equally silent about Tyson’s actual conviction. Instead, he has enjoyed a largely unproblematic return to stardom in his late age.

Unfortunately, the denial and subsequent forgetting of sexual assault have become a motif in sports history. Star athletes such as Kobe Bryant and Tyreek Hill have had illustrious careers that were unfettered by accusations and even convictions of sexual assault. In the era of #MeToo, we’ve expected transformative and sweeping change in the treatment of sexual assault. However, the reprise of Tyson and his seamless ability to sweep this conviction under the rug suggests that aspects of sports have remained untouched by #MeToo.

Now, before I am accused of going on an anti-sports tirade, I should address the problematic relationship between athletes and assault. It is unsurprising that many fans, writers and athletes find the topic of sexual assault uncomfortable. After all, had sexual assault allegations been career-ending sentences, Lakers fans would have never enjoyed Bryant’s dominance, Chiefs fans would have never witnessed Hill’s success and the boxing world would have missed Tyson’s hard-hitting punches. To undermine the achievements of athletes by remembering their crimes seems all too personal for sports fans. Admitting that idols are capable and guilty of heinous acts disrupts the idyllic images of athletes we adore. However, as a sports fan and amateur writer, I’d argue that only true fans are brave enough to address both the failures and successes of athletes. It is impossible to truly love someone without being cognizant and critical of their shortcomings.

Furthermore, sexual assault in sports has also unfortunately been linked to discriminatory attitudes toward Black men. However, I intend to separate assault from the myth that Black men are predatory and dangerous by discussing the abusive power dynamic between survivors and perpetrators of assault.

Despite the supposed autonomy of boxers in the ring, the outcomes of sports are tethered to a willing audience. In sports especially, there’s a tendency to put athletes on a pedestal — to pin our hopes, dreams and ideals on an athlete without considering their moral character. This phenomenon engenders inequality between athletes and survivors of assault. Throughout the Tyson trial, the uneven distribution of power, wealth and fame between Tyson and Washington was apparent and abused. While Tyson and his attorneys claimed that his status made him an “easy target,” Bonnie Morris, a UC Berkeley visiting lecturer of sports history, explains how survivors of assault are actually victimized by fame.

“We assume that as powerful men, athletes are hypermasculine,” Morris said when asked about the exploitive dynamic between Tyson and women. “We ascribe a high degree of sexual power to them and then act surprised when they act upon it.”

By contrast, survivors of sexual assault in sports were largely anonymous. Do you remember the name of the survivor in Tyson’s case? Neither did fans of Tyson throughout his trial.

“(Washington) had no personality to us.” explained journalist Joan Morgan in a documentary about Tyson’s conviction. “She had no name, no identity. We didn’t know who she was, … and Mike Tyson had everything to us.”

In the aftermath of Tyson’s conviction, it was evident that his supporters blamed Washington for allegedly subjecting herself to rape. To some, the fact that Washington was overshadowed by Tyson’s fame and success implied that her abuse was inevitable and that Washington herself was to blame.

“You’re bringing a hawk in a chicken yard and wondering why the chicken got eaten up,” said Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, in the documentary.

Farrakhan went on to criticize Washington for being “deceitful” and claimed that her saying no to Tyson’s advances really meant “yes.” The treatment of Washington throughout this case implies that when someone is assaulted by a famous athlete, their humanity is dispensable. At the minimum, we should demand that Washington and countless survivors are entitled to identity and decency when confronted by a predator with more status and fame.

It’s hard to ignore the role of the consumer in this uncomfortable dynamic. We are responsible for Tyson’s rise, for glorifying the athletic feats of his boxing career, without acknowledging its potential dangers. Yes, of course, athletes should be held responsible for their actions. However, as sports fans, we must acknowledge the dangerous pedestal we put athletes on. Refusing to do so is simply irresponsible. In the era of #MeToo, we’ve grown accustomed to change. Yet, we’ve allowed a man with a predatory history to seamlessly return to the spotlight. While I’m not arguing that Tyson should never be redeemed, the fact that his crimes remain unaddressed and denied speaks to the ambivalence that sports fans have developed toward their heroes.

Aiko Sudijono covers women’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].