by Kristine Erickson
The media claim to be reporting the Luke Heimlich story “in the interests of public safety” and to keep victims of sexual abuse from being traumatized by seeing him pitch. Meanwhile, it’s their own incessant repetition of the molested child story that’s doing the real damage. We are now entering the second year of a media obsession that has done incalculable harm to Luke’s family—especially his niece—to his friends, to his teammates, to his university, to thousands of Oregon State Beavers fans, and to countless people like me who were sexually molested in childhood.
Mercifully, most of the Beavers’ regular season games were either live streamed online by Oregon State University or broadcast on the Pac-12 Network. Unfortunately, we were stuck with ESPN for all the post-season games. Week after week, the ESPN crew recited Luke’s case history every time he started to pitch. Turning off the sound wasn’t adequate protection, because they simultaneously displayed a timeline graphic on the screen. Imagine all the Beavers fans trying to watch the games with their children, not to mention the families associated with the other team in each case. Walt Disney would roll over in his grave if he knew the company he founded now owns a TV network that engages in such behavior.
Statistics indicate there were hundreds of thousands of victims of childhood sexual abuse watching ESPN broadcasts of the post-season games. Viewership reportedly averaged 450,000 for the super regionals and over a million for the College World Series (CWS), then 1.8 million for the first game of the finals, which was the last game Luke pitched. It is estimated that at least 20% of females and 5-10% of males were sexually abused in childhood. ESPN’s compulsion to condemn one young man drove them to keep regurgitating a molested child story in the faces of at least 300,000 people for whom that dredges up terrible memories.
I won’t burden you with knowledge of the things two teenage boys did to me when I was five, because you would never be able to get it out of your mind. Suffice to say it was far worse than anything Luke was accused of. I kept that secret and carried the scars in my soul for 35 years until a divine touch from God miraculously healed me 25 years ago. ESPN’s relentless repetition of the molested child story felt like a clawed hand trying to drag me back to a dark place I had escaped from.
After two games of this, I killed the sound and held my hand over my face when the inevitable molested child story came on the screen. I was feeling ragged around the edges, but I was hanging in there until I went to the ESPN website one night to check the scores from other post-season games. On the right side of the screen, I noticed a link to an article about a recent Beavers game. Stupidly, I clicked on it and started reading. I was unprepared for the sudden appearance of the molested child in the third paragraph. That straw finally broke the camel’s back, and I suffered an emotional breakdown.
During the remaining CWS games, I not only watched in silence, but I covered my face whenever the camera was turned on the ESPN announcers. Just the sight of them made me nauseous.
One thing that kept me going was the camaraderie of the 2500 people in a private Facebook group of Beavers fans. I wish I could stream all their ESPN-related comments into the next meeting of the network’s management. I’d like to think that would curl their hair, but probably it wouldn’t. I see no indication that ESPN cares what their viewers think.
I wanted to send an email to tell ESPN how their abuse has affected me, but when I Googled their ombudsman, I discovered they have decided they no longer need a person dedicated to receiving feedback. The last ESPN Public Editor issued a final column on March 23, 2018. Among his comments is this unsurprising statement: “The level of animus many have toward the network is something I’ve been surprised by during my tenure as public editor, and I can safely say the level of that anger seems to have increased during that time.”
Since ESPN is no longer listening, I can’t tell them that I would also like to nominate their network for teacher of the year. Throughout the month of June, they put on a master class in bullying.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains a website dedicated to training adults how to identify and stop bullying, and to teach their children to do the same. A review of the government’s training material provides a perfect outline of ESPN’s behavior toward Luke Heimlich.
Definition of bullying: Using a power advantage and engaging in repetitive behavior that inflicts harm or distress on a targeted youth.
Methods of bullying:
- Direct – harmful written or verbal communications
- Indirect – spreading negative information about the targeted youth and trying to get others to exclude him
Modes of bullying:
- Verbal – attacking the targeted youth with words
- Relational – trying to harm the reputation and relationships of the targeted youth and drive him into social isolation
I would be horrified and disgusted to see the boys who molested me turned into pariahs for life by a vengeful media. I used to wish I hadn’t kept my secret for so long, because I might have been healed years earlier if I had opened up about it. After seeing what has been done to Luke, I realize that speaking up could have triggered more damaging consequences.
As I was writing this page, I discovered the No Bully / Shred Hate program created by ESPN and supported by Major League Baseball: “The ultimate goal of Shred Hate is to cause a tangible reduction of bullying incidents in schools by igniting the compassion of youth.”
Words fail me.