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You Can’t Separate Derrick Rose the Knick From Derrick Rose the Defendant

A Los Angeles woman’s civil suit accusing the NBA star of gang rape raises questions about the very nature of sports fandom

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Recently, I was getting a hot towel shave at one of those barbershops where the barbers have full tattoo sleeves and lush beards and everything is a little too expensive. It’s relaxing. Part of the appeal, besides that it simply feels great, is that it’s something men do, have always done, and even by today’s more progressive cultural standards is totally fine. It’s ritualistic, a way to invoke the mores of masculinity — “we men” — without having to open and unpack any of the baggage.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to root for a team that includes Derrick Rose. I can’t say that I know. In August 2015, a woman with whom Rose had a previous relationship accused him and two friends, Randall Hampton and Ryan Allen, of raping her in her apartment in August 2013. She’s seeking $21.5 million in damages. The civil case (no criminal charges were ever filed) had been making its way through U.S. District Court in Los Angeles since last season. When the Knicks acquired Rose in June, awareness of the case increased. But it wasn’t until September, when ThinkProgress published a detailed piece, quoting public court documents, that the substance of the allegations became widely known.

This week, Rose’s accuser, who is being publicly identified only as Jane Doe, told her side of the story to the press for the first time. This is what she told ThinkProgress in an interview conducted on September 13:

As a Knicks fan, it would be easy for me to decide that Rose’s civil case doesn’t matter, and that off-court issues should stay there. But I cannot read those words and believe that it doesn’t matter.

Sports are an escape from life’s quotidian problems, so it’s not surprising that fans react with vexation when those problems — representing the real world — intrude. We treat athletes as characters in a story. Market forces turn those characters into brands. When those athletes do something delightful and on-brand — J.R. Smith strutting around shirtless, for example — we’re only too eager to highlight it. When they do something outside of that box, we become annoyed — stick to sports! If they do something bad, more often than not we simply ignore it.

I was talking with some friends about the Rose situation recently. One said something about sexual assault by athletes being a “hot topic right now.” I was struck by how accurate the statement was — the issue of athletes and sexual violence is increasingly part of the discussion around professional and amateur sports — and also how incredibly sad. To put it another way: After many, many years in which assaults of this sort have surely occurred, it has only recently become commonplace to think about what that means.

The Derrick Rose court documents are available on the internet. I urge you to read them. The two sides agree on very little. What they do agree on: Rose and the accuser dated nonexclusively for two years. They had already broken up when, on August 26, 2013, Jane Doe and a friend attended a party at Rose’s home in Los Angeles. Doe went home around midnight. Hours later, Rose and two friends arrived at Doe’s apartment, where they had sex with her.

The sides disagree on whether Doe was inebriated, whether Rose and his friends broke into her apartment, and, crucially, whether Doe consented to sex with all three men.

No one, except the persons involved, can know what occurred that night, sometime around 3 a.m., in Doe’s apartment. According to Rose’s deposition, Rose had asked Doe numerous times during their relationship, in person and via text, to engage in group sex. She had always declined. That refusal, according to text messages attached to court documents, played a role in Rose and Doe breaking up months before the incident.

To agree with Rose’s version of events, then, is to believe that Jane Doe, though she had never before agreed — again, per Rose’s testimony — to participate in group sex, decided to have consensual sex with Rose and two other men in August 2013, and is now lying about it. Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe Rose placing his used condom back in its wrapper and taking it away with him, as he stated he did in his deposition, is no big deal. I don’t find Rose’s version of events believable. The trial is scheduled to begin on October 4. Perhaps the evidence presented there will change my mind.

One thing I doubt I’ll change my mind about is Rose’s attorneys’ continuing attempts to reveal Doe’s identity, partially based on her Instagrams being “sexual in nature.”

From the District Court judge’s ruling on whether to publicly identify the plaintiff: “Defendant Rose argues as follows:”

This is gross. It’s also Sexual Assault Case Defense 101. The main reason to do it is to embarrass an accuser into taking a settlement or dropping a case altogether. The judge responded to Rose’s argument by saying:

How do I root for a team with Derrick Rose on it? I don’t know.

Rooting for people because they wear a shirt with the name of your city across the chest is a strange thing. If you’re a fan of something, at some point or another, you’ve likely been a hypocrite. I’ve cheered for athletes who have been accused of doing awful things, enjoyed music and films created by those who have acted monstrously. The simplest explanation for this: It was easy and expedient. It cost me nothing. Wrestling with that is a shitty feeling. A worse feeling is knowing that if Rose were still a superstar, and if the Knicks were a better team, it would be even easier to sit back and let the rituals go on as before. To separate the player’s on-court exploits from the person. It’s just what many of us have been doing all along.

I’ve been trying to imagine how I’ll feel watching Rose lead the Knicks on a fast break. Or hitting a game winner. How do I root for a person when, in the context of the real world, I believe that person acted abominably? Maybe just asking the question is enough. It doesn’t feel like it, though.