Joan Smith: To clear your name, it helps to speak up

Why sexual assault is not a form of entertainment
Click to follow

When the England rugby team faced the All Blacks in Christchurch yesterday, it was not an ordinary sporting occasion. Members of the team had just heard that they would be allowed to return to the UK despite an allegation that a teenager was raped at their hotel after last weekend's international in Auckland.

The victim has not made a formal complaint, but Auckland City police's adult sexual assault team flew to Christchurch and met the players' legal representatives on Thursday. Detectives confirmed that they were investigating an allegation that "a woman was raped or sexually assaulted by four players". They also made it clear that her claim was "sufficiently credible" to justify a full investigation.

When the news broke, it caused outrage. The players were said to have denied any wrongdoing "in the strongest possible terms". Their bosses backed them, saying not just that they were innocent until proved guilty - fair enough - but describing them as "upset and very frustrated". "We have to give the young lads every chance to clear their name, which is what we want to do," said Francis Baron, chief executive of the Rugby Football Union. "It is in everybody's interests to achieve that as quickly as possible." This astonishing statement passed almost without comment from journalists, many of whom seem to have forgotten the 18-year-old girl who claims to have been the victim of a serious assault. And if the four players were "desperate" to clear their names, why did they refuse to be interviewed by the police?

Back home in England, The Sun treated the story with characteristic gravity, interviewing a "model" who claimed to have enjoyed "wild sex" on the same night with an England player who "went like a Duracell bunny". The same man, according to the paper, rested from his exertions long enough to watch two team-mates having sex with the "busty brunette" who later made the rape allegation. The paper was hungry for more details: "Were you at the hotel with the rugby players that night?" it asked, urging revellers – and potential witnesses, if charges were to be brought – to ring the newsdesk.

This is scandalous. With the support of the RFU, four athletes who represent their country have refused to assist a foreign police force with a serious criminal investigation. The RFU seems to believe it's a matter that can be dealt with in-house, announcing that players will be required to observe a ban on taking women into their hotel rooms from the beginning of next month. The only thing Baron got right last week was his complaint about "lurid allegations" in the press; it has become commonplace for stories about alleged sexual assaults to be presented as a species of entertainment.

But the bigger worry is the impact on rape investigations in general when both sporting authorities and the media appear to assume that most allegations of sexual assault have been made up. The conviction rate in this country is abnormally low, so that 19 out of 20 men reported to police for rape get off. That might change if rape allegations stopped being treated as a joke, or some sort of conspiracy against men.