This month, within two weeks of each other, both Sports Illustrated and The New York Times ran long pieces about Oregon State pitcher Luke Heimlich. Sports Illustrated even went so far as to feature Heimlich, an athlete most people have probably never heard of, on its cover.
The reason these outlets are interested in him is that as a teenager, Heimlich pleaded guilty to a felony charge, admitting to sexually molesting his then-6-year-old niece. He did everything the plea required, including probation, taking classes, writing an apology letter to his niece and registering as a sex offender. After The Oregonian broke the news in 2017 about his past, Heimlich, a star at OSU, voluntarily left the team. But he returned this season, and now he and his family are talking to the press as he prepares to go pro.
The New York Times and Sports Illustrated pieces are similar, though the latter is much longer. This is a complicated case, they both say. Each piece tells us that this case offers more questions than answers. Yes, he pleaded guilty as a minor, but outside of that admission, he has maintained his innocence and fulfilled all his legal obligations. And he continues to pitch and pitch very well.
I write often about the intersection of gendered violence and sports, and I read both these pieces because you could say it’s part of my beat. I printed them out, highlighted them, took notes. I needed to figure out why these very well-written pieces created an itchy discomfort under my skin.
I have spent a lot of time over the last five years or so thinking often and deeply about how to write these stories about athletes who commit crimes. And I came to the conclusion that perhaps sportswriters should stop writing these stories altogether. Or at the very least, we need to rethink the narrative tropes on which we rely so heavily.
“If we are going to highlight a single athlete, especially one who has done harm, we have a responsibility to provide context beyond his talents.”
Both these Heimlich pieces start the same way. Before getting to the complicated messiness of this case, we are first offered a scene of Heimlich on the mound, pitching against a rival team. The articles tell you the crowd size, quote their chants, and Sports Illustrated gives us the detail that “his fastball was now touching 96 mph.”
Throughout the pieces, we get stats that show how good Heimlich is or descriptions of his talent. We are told that he will most likely be drafted highly when that time comes. And both use the same word to describe how it feels at that stadium while he pitches: “normal,” as if it would feel any other way.
On the basis of these profiles, Heimlich is very good at what he does, and his talent means we can’t simply cast him aside. At best, then, these scenes and stats are all constant reminders of what will be lost if he no longer plays. We might need him, they tell us. We might, in fact, want him.
In a broader context, this is a regular part of our cultural conversation when it comes to reports of gendered harassment or violence: our fear about the potential ruination of the jobs or lives of men who harm. We tend to ask “What will happen to his career?” before we take stock of the people and victims in his wake.
At worst, these stories serve to minimize the severity of what these athletes who commit this kind of violence did. In her victim impact statement, the rape victim in the Brock Turner (aka “Stanford Swimmer”) case, says she learned the details about his assaulting her by reading about it in a newspaper:
“And then, at the bottom of the article, after I learned about the graphic details of my own sexual assault, the article listed his swimming times. She was found breathing, unresponsive with her underwear six inches away from her bare stomach curled in fetal position. By the way, he’s really good at swimming. Throw in my mile time if that’s what we’re doing. I’m good at cooking, put that in there, I think the end is where you list your extracurriculars to cancel out all the sickening things that’ve happened.”
We create certain spaces in media for certain people’s stories but not for others, and we must take stock of that. It would be nearly impossible to count up the number of very good, highly drafted college pitchers who never get this kind of in-depth coverage. Women in general rarely make the Sports Illustrated cover, especially alone. She basically has to be in a bikini for that to happen. There has been no Michigan State or USA Gymnastics cover despite that ongoing yearslong story that has included multiple Olympians and a major athletic department and has led to congressional hearings.
When it comes to justice and second chances more generally, Howard Bryant pointed out on Twitter that “there was no long-form lens for Kaepernick about right and wrong, justice.” Instead, Bryant wrote, “these difficult concepts of fairness and redemption are reserved for a person who raped a child, a family member, for years, who is given the floor ... to rehabilitate himself.”
It’s not that the impetus behind these pieces was wrong. We should be asking these questions, inside the sports world and out. We can’t shoot all abusers or harassers or perpetrators (accused or convicted) into the sun; we must make sense of them in our communities, on the teams we cheer for, sometimes in our own families.
That itch under my skin, though, tells me we need to tell these stories differently. Maybe it is impossible for sportswriters to tell do this without listing swimming times or ERA stats or the size of the audience cheering these guys on. But if this is the only way to make a sports fan invested in your story, then perhaps sportswriters shouldn’t be the ones to do this work. Maybe we should leave it to the reporters whose beat is crime or culture or any other lens that doesn’t start from a scene inside the stadium.
The truth, though, is that we can’t ask sports journalists to simply ignore a player’s problematic background and just stick to the stats. That would be both impossible and irresponsible. But if we who write about sports are going to highlight a single athlete, especially one who has done harm to another person, we have a responsibility to provide context beyond his talents, one that looks at his actions, at the institutions that coddle him or, more generally, at a society that loves to both forgive and forget, especially if your fastball is good enough.
Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist, an author and a co-host of the feminist sports podcast “Burn It All Down.”