After a Rolling Stone interview with Serena Williams surfaced yesterday in which the tennis star said that the Steubenville rape case's 16-year-old victim "shouldn't have put herself in that position," Williams is undergoing heavy damage control, and her apology curiously involves her calling the case that stormed the American conscience "a horrible tragedy" for the families "of the rape victim and of the accused" — as in the convicted rapists. It seems like Williams, who was curiously inserting herself back in the national dialogue already, hasn't learned her own lesson — or the lesson of the backlash to the verdict: that nobody likes people who say rapists' lives were ruined by raping someone. Indeed, CNN's Poppy Harlow, it seems, has been outdone.
Williams's full statement appeared on her website Wednesday morning, following the reaction to her controversial comments in the Rolling Stone story that went live on Tuesday night. And her response is all sorts of bizarre — Williams insinuates that she "supposedly" made comments that apparently the magazine's notoriously good fact-checkers messed up, and in talking about "both families" she seems to have missed that there are two rapists and one victim. But most curious of all is that she calls Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond (or maybe just one of them) "the accused"... even though the two high-school football players were both very publicly convicted of juvenile rape. The statement reads, in part:
What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved – that of the rape victim and of the accused. I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame...
Williams goes on to say that her "prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent sixteen year old child." So there's still support for "the accused" there, and not exactly a full apology. That goes hand-in-hand with her questioning of Stephen Rodrick's reporting. (Even though the quotes are on tape.) A news story about the Steubenville case popped up on TV during their interview, which led to the following lengthy reaction from one of the world's most famous athletes — in which she more or less says the victim should have known better (emphasis below is ours), and that the threshold for rape is slipping someone a roofie and then taking advantage of them:
Do you think it was fair, what they [the rapists] got? They did something stupid, but I don't know. I'm not blaming the girl, but if you're a 16-year-old and you're drunk like that, your parents should teach you: don't take drinks from other people. She's 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember? It could have been much worse. She's lucky. Obviously I don't know, maybe she wasn't a virgin, but she shouldn't have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that's different.
That quote seems to indicate that Williams also has no real regard for the concept of date rape, or the idea that there is a point of being intoxicated where someone can't consent. Which is what the rape trial in Steubenville centered on. Before, of course, it started centering on CNN's post-verdict roundtable with Harlow, a correspondent who had covered the case in detail, say it was "incredibly difficult... to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures... as they believed their lives fell apart." That led to a massive outcry that little had been accomplished in a small football town's case that had become such a public spectacle. And what Williams "supposedly said" didn't go over well either. The Melissa Harris Perry Show's Jamil Smith weighed in with a tip for Williams and anyone who wants to talk about rape:
Pro tip for @serenawilliams or others discussing rape: if "I'm not blaming the girl, but…" exits your mouth, stop there. There is no "but."— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) June 18, 2013
Writer Shelby Knox was also quick to point out the errors in Williams's comments and perhaps the dissonance we have when someone who's pretty well respected says something stupid:
Just, before the stupid starts, Serena Williams can be a strong Black woman & an athletic pioneer AND wrong on #Steubenville comments.— ShelbyKnox (@ShelbyKnox) June 19, 2013
ESPN's Jemele Hill also voiced her disappointment:
For the first time ever, I'm really disappointed in Serena Williams http://t.co/P4xWM0QyPe— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) June 18, 2013
Now, after that flurry of criticism, Wiliams's strange half-apology has made this ugly interview stranger still, to say nothing of the aftermath of the case, for which a grand jury has yet to present further findings.
We've contacted Rolling Stone for comment.
Update 12:01 p.m.: Stephen Rodrick, who wrote the Rolling Stone profile of Williams says he has Williams saying her Steubenville comments on tape. "The interview is on tape. Other than that, I’ll let the story speak for itself," he told Poynter.
Here is Williams's statement in full:
“What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved – that of the rape victim and of the accused. I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.
I have fought all of my career for women’s equality, women’s equal rights, respect in their fields – anything I could do to support women I have done. My prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent sixteen year old child.”