Cosby, Pitino and Wonder Woman; They’re Linked

June 26th, 2017 | by Karen Gross
Cosby, Pitino and Wonder Woman; They’re Linked


Sometimes, de-linked events just happen to occur around the same point in time. Because they are housed in different arenas (in this case, vastly different spheres), they remain unconnected, and we don’t see important links and even more importantly, the messages these events present — often without intention — if we connect them.

That is why is it so critical to link the mistrial in the Bill Cosby case with the lenient punishment of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino with the newly released and well-reviewed movie based on a comic book, Wonder Woman.

Yes, we can debate the mistrial in the Cosby rape case. We can debate how despite complaints against Cosby of rape, unwanted sexual contact and drug induced conditions involving over 50 women, our legal system (and our jury of peers) could not reach a unanimous conviction in this one case. (Note that the victim here was a former basketball coach — ironic in the context of Rick Pitino description below.) We can blame the absence of a conviction on the high standard of proof perhaps — belief beyond a reasonable doubt. It is a way higher standard — understandably — than in a civil action where the standard is preponderance of the evidence. We can debate why jurors may be more lenient on male defendants than female defendants. Jeannie Suk Gerson makes these points eloquently in her recent piece in The New Yorker.

But, in the case of Cosby and this is what matters for this essay, I think we conflate Cosby (the man) with Cosby (the actor) who played the appealing, upstanding, funny and wise physician in a television show. He defied racial stereotypes in that era too. I wonder if, deep in our psyche, we do not want to convict Cosby the man because we don’t see him as separate from his fictional character.

And, even if we know there is a distinction between the man and the actor, we somehow ascribe the actor’s personality to the real person. That is, after all, how actors get type-cast and why certain actors can never play romantic characters because the image we have of them is locked in from a previous set of television shows or movies. Does anyone see Dennis Hopper (forgetting his age for a moment) as the next romantic hero in a movie? How about Willem DaFoe? Just sayin’.

And ask, not as an aside, do we have stereotypes of women basketball coaches? Might those affect how we view whether a coach had “sex appeal” to a man of Cosby’s stature?

Now turn to the five game suspension of Louisville basketball coach, Rick Pitino (and he and his university are rigorously objecting to the NCAA sanctions). And the reason for his punishment (it hardly qualifies as being punished): he failed to see and stop a practice of supplying recruits and existing players with both female strippers and “hookers.” Indeed, I have read the book written by the lead woman involved in the scandal titled: Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen,, and even if a third of it is turn, it is enough to turn your stomach. And, to this day, Pitino professes ignorance of these events, which for me means one of two things is true: (1) he is lying; or (2) he had no control over or awareness of the activities of his employees and his players for extended periods of time at a time when he was in charge of all basketball operations. Please.

For me, the NCAA punishment against the coach most assuredly does not match the situation and is ridiculously light. What about a one year suspension of the coach? To me, it is like a mistrial. Apparently, the NCAA goes light on famous coaches; perhaps like in the Cosby situation, they are enamored of the hype or the image or the legacy of Pitino. Fiction (the fictional father figure coach protecting his players and bringing out the best in each and every one of them) trumps (so to speak) reality.

Now, we turn to Wonder Woman — a comic super heroine. The Wonder Woman movie, released at the start of this summer coincident with the mistrial and Pitino punishment, depicts a fictional heroine who is willing to take risks to improve the state of the world and to root out evil even if it puts her at risk. This female superhero, is both beautiful and bold. She is both strong and sensual. She comes out of the comic books as a character that can empower girls and women effectively in today’s world. The movie had a record breaking opening but there was controversy because of some pre-release all female showings; men thought this discriminated against them.

The ‘Women-Only’ Screenings of ‘Wonder Woman’ Were Empowering (And Inclusive)

So, let’s be clear: real women in the case of Cosby and Pitino get the short end of the proverbial stick. And a fictional woman character garners power (in part because she is fictional I suppose) but there are real protests and a lawsuit even because the movie was shown (no doubt to encourage empowerment) to a female audience. Is the irony clear yet? We can debase real women and laud a fictional woman (half goddess according to the story and not born in the usual manner of a male and female union). At the same time, men are threatened by real women watching the fictional woman on screen — as if somehow, at some deep psychic level, the possibility of fiction becoming reality is scary.

In sum, real strong women — one’s who speak out about abuse — find it hard to get real justice. Their stories either are not believed or if believed are not taken seriously enough to warrant punishment. Instead, we rely on a fictional woman to symbolize strength and even then, object to real women viewing this fictional woman alone in a theater.

I like to think that we have made remarkable progress in my era — the era in which the US Women’s movement truly dawned for many now living with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Yes, we have experienced changes that are positive and noteworthy and important. That’s undeniable and positive. Yes, there are men (and women) who truly believe in and are willing to act on efforts to create equality among the sexes.

But, unfortunately, the progression to equality and respect is not linear. And, backsliding is not uncommon. And, prejudice and deep psychological reactions are hard to eradicate or even diminish. That’s why we need to fight hard still for women and their rights across the US and the across the globe. And women still need to be helped to believe in themselves. Isn’t that, at least in part, what the post-Inaugural, post Billy Bush, Marches were all about; just look at the signage (See compilation of these signs in the book: Teach Our Children Well.) Women matter. Real women. And, both girls and boys and need to see that as part of their future.

And if you need a reminder that equality and parity are still in the distance, think Cosby, Pitino and Wonder Woman. That contemporary and coincidental trilogy says it all — sadly.

Note: This piece was inspired by my conversation with RC; all of our conversations are illuminating and enhance my understanding of the world. It was originally published here.

About Karen Gross
Karen Gross is the former President of Southern Vermont College, an NCAA DIII institution fielding 13 teams. She was the president of the college's Athletic Conference, the NECC. She also served on the NCAA DIII Presidents' Advisory Council. A lawyer by training, she represented an NFL quarterback (decades ago) and is a serious professional and college sports fan. She currently is senior counsel to a crisis management firm in DC where she specializes in education. A Red Sox fan, she knows a lot about losing and winning. Her son, now a professor, is a former NCAA Division I athlete.

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