Content warning: This story references sexual assault and sexual violence. If you or someone you love has experienced sexual assault, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-6560-4673 for help, support, and resources.
I went in on Tuesday to get my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. All in all, an exceptionally easy process, one that comes as a hard relief after a year lost, a rough slough where all but labor took a backseat in the name of safety and survival. I didn’t feel the shot, but I felt something else; something wretched all the while. When I walked in, the woman administering the shot asked if there was anything she needed to be aware of.
I informed her I had an allergy to amoxicillin and penicillin, and then I reflexively apologized as I mentioned the second note: I have a very hard time with people touching me, and I have had that revulsion and reflex for a very long time.
This, more than many other things in my life, brings me an intolerable amount of shame. I apologized immediately again, and a few more times.
When we talk about Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, we speak in euphemisms. I do mean that word, because these all carry personal, soft touches to the matter at hand. The term “character issues” has flattened the matter of course; putting what he is accused of at the same level as a 21-year-old being late for film study a couple of times and maybe not putting in every expected hour in the weight room. When we talk about Micah Parsons, what he did is lumped alongside lesser issues; the situation is described as “complicated,” “murky,” “controversial.”
These are words that are meant to soften the blow. As Americans, we speak about how we love honesty, but we are wretched creatures who despise the raw emotional impact of the truth unvarnished; polite society still reigns. We disguise our fear of pain and anguish with screeds about logic, pragmatism. “Be realistic” is the battle cry against taking a firm, unwavering moral stance that might cost you.
Parsons himself has taken use of such confusion. When asked about past allegations of violent and abusive behavior, he never admitted contrition, shame, or remorse. “I believed that I was a kid,” he said at Penn State’s pro day, “I was 17, 18, we all made mistakes...I’m not going to let it control, dictate the person that I am now.”
I won’t discuss anything about Parsons and who he is on the field. I won’t discuss how he plays football. What he does in football is irrelevant to my concern, my fear, my hope.
When I was much younger than I am now, I was sexually assaulted.
The details of this incident are not something I will discuss in graphic terms, for my own sake more than anything; I also don’t think it’s relevant to the conversation. I don’t ascribe meaning to it. I don’t ascribe some sort of divine plan or whatever. I don’t know why it was done. All I knew it as was a burst of aggression, will to power in service of something evil. As a Catholic, I do believe in evil. It originates from ourselves, human beings, not some devil below. We create our own sinning world from the actions of soured hearts.
But the one thing it wasn’t was a mistake.
This is not something I come to terms with easily, or even today. For the ill in my life, it has affected me adversely. I suffer acute anxiety. My mood swings radically at the best of times. I’ll experience bouts of joy for my days only to be crushed a few minutes later with inexplicable sorrow. I love the company of others, but I cannot help but tense, so severely tense, when someone touches me; I cannot tell when that mood swing will make me sour on a conversation, or when I might lose my temper at nothing whatsoever. Concentration is difficult, my mind wanders. I don’t know how much of all this was caused by trauma, but I cannot believe for a moment that it has not contributed in an adverse way.
The one who did this to me will never face the consequences for his action in this life. The power that enabled him to be able to commit such an act will never be held to task, at least for my own pain. Those who have not suffered such things like to believe justice can be meted out and such justice is enough to heal wounds.
I can assure you, neither will be possible for me.
The complaint is laid out against Parsons and other members of Penn State’s football team by former teammate Isaiah Humphries, who transferred to Cal in 2018. The complaint became part of the media’s collective awareness in 2020, adding to a profile of Parsons that looks questionable in more than just this incident. It just so happens to be the most egregious accusation, and the one that causes me the most distress.
Jeremy wrote about these allegations in his draft profile on Parsons, citing from a report from ESPN:
Humphries told school investigators that Barber and Parsons threatened him, telling him they were “making me a b---- because this is prison” and that Barber said, “I’m gonna Sandusky you,” referring to former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky. He also said they would try to place genitalia close to players’ faces and simulate sex acts and attempt to touch him in the shower, according to the report. He said the three players would wrestle him to the ground while clad only in their towels.
I need to make things clear as I discuss this matter of what, exactly, Parsons considers behavior that constitutes “being a kid.”
These are not hidden accusations, nor are they murky “character issues” from anonymous scouts and agents. This complaint features accusations that are discoverable, and will be contested and debated in a court of law if the case moves forward.
I am not projecting guilt upon Parsons. The matter of guilt, under our legal system, is out of my hands. I am not able to adjudicate such matters; but we should also be aware of how this system’s own design, along with an abundance of power, make it difficult to ascertain the truth in situations like this.
I am not even condemning Parsons without all the facts before me, nor am I urging others to take the same opinion as myself. I am not urging the Lions under duress to take an action on their part, nor would I have the power to do so anyway (I’m no fool; I know I’m just a blogger and a podcaster with a small corner in which I tuck my rat tail, vicious at the world).
I am simply commenting on a matter of public conversation. That is all. I am making my own feelings, my own emotions and my own concerns known. Anything more is not to be assumed. All of this writing is my own opinion and nothing more.
In that light, I have to witness what power is arranged in the defense of Parsons from these accusations. Yes, these allegations should be vetted, truth should be found—but how much truth will arise? In these matters, power is arraigned against the powerless far too often. The force of James Franklin, Penn State, all that money and wealth and pure raw institutional power will be squarely in the firm interest to prove Parsons and other members of the Penn State football team clean from any such complaint.
The same can be said of any NFL team who wants to justify taking Parsons in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft. How much truth can they honestly vet? If they find the truth, what guarantee do you have that they will take appropriate action? Have they even tried, or are they just saying they’re looking to assuage fears?
I’ve met James Franklin, in person. I sat at his table during press availability at Big Ten Football Media Days, in Chicago, just weeks before I joined the staff at Pride Of Detroit. He talked for almost an hour with over a dozen reporters and writers around his table. He was boisterous, eager to talk, eager to crack stories.
In the complaint filed by Humphries, it is alleged Franklin was more upset that Humphries pulled a knife to defend himself than he was about any harm Parsons and other players intended to do to him. The complaint alleges that Franklin said, “You should have just gotten your ass beat and not pulled a knife.”
In 2017, as I was completing my graduate studies at the University of Southern California, my trauma became worse. The stress I was under to complete my capstone was creating a far more acute effect on my mood, creating episodes. I was lashing out at random, I was suffering flashbacks, I was finding myself losing minutes, sometimes hours in dissociation of my surroundings. One professor noticed. It was only that catch that forced me to try to straighten things up again.
Therapy was difficult. I had poor experiences in the past with counselors; one such female counselor during my undergrad had loudly threatened to have me sent to a psych ward because my trauma manifested in just bursts of vocal hatred and little else. Another counselor I had met in my life simply didn’t believe men could be assaulted in such a fashion.
Some time later, the news broke that newly minted Lions head coach Matt Patricia had once been indicted by a grand jury in Texas for sexual assault. The report was published in the Detroit News; it represented a massive failure on the part of the Lions organization to investigate such a matter.
Somehow, the turmoil was able to recede just a while. I did the only thing I knew how to do properly, which was to record a podcast.
Shortly after we finished, the idea of trying to come forward started to cross my mind. But each time I did, I froze, I found myself locked in an inability to speak just exactly was festering in my mind. My writing was burning out; confidence in my own words faltered. At the same time, I received backlash for speaking about the allegations against Patricia in the form of three separate death threats from Lions fans.
The road I took was one that I needed to in order to protect myself. I didn’t write about it. I didn’t come out about it.
But the pain was marked already. Each time I looked at the Lions, I was reminded of the past indictment of Patricia—a case buried and lost when the alleged victim didn’t move forward into a full trial—and was reminded of my own pain. Watching Lions football took a sour note; what was once a case of joy and irony and dumb humor about a bad football team was marred by a shadow I couldn’t explain. Whatever success the team could have, I couldn’t fully commit my energy towards.
And then the days went on. The story was lost, very quickly, as many topics of sexual violence are lost upon the NFL. The league investigated whatever it investigated, it shrugged and it moved on. Patricia stopped being “a story.” It wasn’t relevant to bring up again.
What was a reminder of pain became a measure of bitterness. The story played out. Reporters did follow-ups, asked Patricia himself, and he obviously denied all of it and vowed to defend himself and then that’s that; there’s training camp and roster cuts to talk about, nobody has time anymore. Our own method of reporting on sports helps to minimize such a story’s necessary questions and turns. The pain of the few crushed by the desires of the many to just talk about football. It was gone before the first week of the season.
Years passed, and I kept podcasting and writing about the Lions because I had no real other choice. I enjoy the act of work, and it remained my only outlet where I could cover sports; to give that up would have been to cause greater pain to myself. But damn if I didn’t want him gone. Damn if I didn’t want the reminder washed away, scrubbed, just so I didn’t have to justify this all to myself, every time I turned on the microphone, every time I tried to open a document in Word.
So why bring this up now, against Parsons?
If I must say, it is fear again. I’ve experienced far too much talk again of Parsons and too much discussion of “character issues.” I’ve heard too many who have brushed such things aside, loudly proclaiming how they just want to win—not just among Lions fans. Small things, incessant, repeated, chipping away at my own confidence and security.
Most of all, I just don’t want to deal with more years of that nagging, that incessant worry that I found with Patricia; to worry over what is said about Parsons possibly being true.
In a practical sense, I know the Lions have greater needs, and the draft seems to be sorting out that it seems unlikely they will take Parsons compared to other top talent. But the possibility remains, and it disturbs me all the same. It disturbs me that such allegations are allowed to simply swim around in the waters of professional football in the first place.
I’m no fool: I know what has always been in professional football. I know the kind of monsters and allegations that surround countless players. It would be easy to just say, “don’t cover football,” “don’t watch the Lions.” I’ve received that multiple times from people. It is a cowardly response, a dismissal of pain, a hardening of the heart.
My reasons for covering sports are my own; a morbid fascination with the same masculinity that caused my own original wounds, a longing for something I can no longer have. I withdrew when I was young. I stopped participating in the athletics and outdoors that I enjoyed. I was heckled for it, harassed constantly by classmates who couldn’t understand my mood swings. I withdrew from people for a long time. But in sports now, I find another community, and I find an intellectual interest. I shouldn’t have to run away from that.
But I should be able to ask that we become bigger. And that is where I place my argument.
I was listening to a legal podcast a few months prior, and one of the hosts discussed this anecdote regarding the lawyering days of Abraham Lincoln:
...and Lincoln was sitting at one end [of a table], and there’s a young man, well dressed, sitting next to him. And he’s hunched over, speaking in hushed tones, very forcefully, saying whatever he was saying to Lincoln.
And at length, Lincoln breaks in. “Yes, yes, yes. We can doubtless gain your case for you. I’m sure we can set an entire neighborhood at loggerheads and distress a young widowed mother and her six fatherless children, and thereby gain for you $600 to which you seem to have some claim. But which it seems to me belongs as much to the woman and her children as it does to you.”
And [Lincoln] says, “We’re not going to take your case. But I will give you a piece of advice and I won’t charge you for it[...]Why don’t you try making $600 some other way?”
This anecdote is presented to illustrate this point: Integrity must be safeguarded. You cannot seek material gain with no concern for the cost or method. To do otherwise will inevitably take its toll upon that integrity, and erode it.
The Lions, I hope, understand this. Head coach Dan Campbell and the team have preached on about high character. The team itself has dictated this for far longer than just this regime, and they have made some failings. But it remains a crucial pillar to the organization’s identity, its commitment, its mission. In so many media sessions and public events, the Lions speak of their own character, and the commitment to such. On the face, they know that the game of football is not where one sacrifices morality and integrity. But as I was always reminded by a Jesuit priest: “Deeds, not just words.” The action must match the declaration.
Loss hangs heavy on this franchise, and fans speak in tones that denote a kind of tortured existence in seeing this team lose every Sunday. But I must press, I must press and press and ask how much a win must cost in measures of integrity.
For that matter, how can you know that taking players with these interminable flaws, these checkered allegations, and believe that such a sacrifice will necessarily turn into wins? They might not, and then what do you have? Was it worth it? To destroy your reputation, perhaps mar an eternal soul for a few ballgames, when so many other players bear not these allegations, that they are just as eager and talented?
How is that realistic? How the fuck is that reasonable?
I have no power in this matter. I never have and I never will. But if I were in the place of the Lions organization on Thursday, I would not draft Micah Parsons.
Whatever he is accused of, whatever its veracity, I would wish to take no part in it. It’s simply business I would not want to be part of. I would hope to build a football team in some other way.