Does Sugar Ray Leonard's sex abuse story hold up?

The former champ reveals a haunting incident from his youth -- but some people in the media aren't buying it

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 13, 2011 10:01PM (EDT)

Sugar Ray Leonard
Sugar Ray Leonard

Sugar Ray Leonard is a boxing legend. Like many professional athletes, he has smoothly transitioned in his later years into a likable sports commentator, "Dancing With the Stars" contestant, and now, bombshell memoirist. Early on in his new book, the former champ, who has had to be public in the past about his failed first marriage, his incidents of hitting his wife, and his struggles with cocaine, reveals a secret he says he's kept for decades: sexual abuse at the hands of a "prominent Olympic boxing coach."

Leonard says that he first suspected something unusual about the much older coach when, during a boxing trip when he was 15, the man had Leonard and another boxer bathe together while he watched them from across the room. Years later, likely sometime in his late teens, Leonard says he sat in a car with the same coach discussing his prospects for the 1976 Olympics. Then, he says, "Before I knew it, he had unzipped my pants and put his hand, then mouth, on an area that has haunted me for life. I didn’t scream. I didn't look at him. I just opened the door and ran."

The revelation of sex abuse is by now a common theme in celebrity tell-alls. In just the past few months, Ashley Judd, Queen Latifah and Scott Brown have come forward with their own stories. And with any claim of sexual abuse, there's inevitably scrutiny and doubt. The New York Times reported last month that Leonard has admitted that when he first began collaborating on his memoir with co-writer Michael Arkus, he considered tweaking the events in the car so that the scene ended before there was physical contact. But he says, "I realized I would never be free unless I revealed the whole truth, no matter how much it hurt."

Though that admission suggests a hazy relationship with the notion of true nonfiction, Leonard's reticence is understandable. Once a man says something like that has happened to him, he opens himself up to the distinct possibility of other people saying, "No, it didn't."

Blogger Anthony McCarthy wrote this weekend that "I am having a very hard time believing it as reported," because, for starters, "Leonard has refused to name the man he is accusing, even though he says that the man is dead." More significantly, though, "I have a hard time imagining that a very middle aged gay man would have chosen Sugar Ray Leonard to make a sudden, un-negotiated, physical sexual assault against just as he was about to win a gold medal in BOXING. Boxing, repeatedly and skillfully and forcefully hitting an evenly matched opponent in the face and head in order to inflict damage up to and including knocking him unconscious."

Self-described "highly acclaimed author" Buzz Bissinger isn't buying it either. In a story for the Daily Beast last month after Leonard's story was previewed in the New York Times, he had trouble believing that the boxer he'd "spent hundreds of hours interviewing" in the past "never mentioned ... the sexual abuse." While acknowledging the horror of abuse, he writes, "it has become a virtual cliché, a marketing tool to sell something. Which only diminishes the impact on those who have actually suffered terribly at the hands of it ... Given all the fakes and frauds in published books, I am suspicious of 'holy crap!' revelations in which the only motivation, regardless of any attempt to put some socially redeeming Saran Wrap around them, is to sell books." The implication is clear: Leonard's tale is a "marketing tool," not something "actually suffered." And the Legends of Inside Sports blog has gone even harsher on Leonard, flatly calling his account "the big lie."

Why, if his story is true, would Leonard not reveal the identity of the predatory coach? There are any number of compelling reasons. Maybe Leonard is sensitive to the fact that if the man is dead, he can't defend himself. Maybe he just feels there's no point in tainting the reputation of someone who can no longer hurt him. Perhaps he even feels a lingering loyalty to the man.

What, then, about the theory that the coach wouldn't make such a blatant overture to someone who could potentially physically retaliate? How about because people do illogical things all the time? People, in fact, do horrible, career-threatening, criminally risky things in the name of their own pathologies every day. And sexual abusers don't just prey on their victims' bodies, they play with their trust. They know that if their victims speak out, they will be doubted. They'll be asked if they fought back, or fought hard enough. The onus of blame for what happened will be on them. Abusers count on silence and shame, knowing well how young people are raised to be polite and deferential to authority and not make a scene.

The only person who knows exactly what happened to Sugar Ray Leonard is Sugar Ray Leonard. As with any single-source story, especially one drawn on incidents that took place nearly 40 years ago, it's reasonable to question its accuracy. But as Lindsay Beyerstein exquisitely sums it up in a piece about Leonard for BigThink, "It's not that people don't lie about rape. Anything that can be claimed can be lied about. The problem is that simply making the claim automatically raises the specter that you're lying. 'Rape' and 'lie' are linked in people's minds in a way that doesn't apply for other claims, even other allegations of crimes."

So let's clear a few things up. Someone who is big and strong can be abused.  Someone who doesn't scream can be abused. Someone who doesn't talk about the abuse until years afterward can still have been abused. In fact, anyone who doesn't conform to any convenient notions of how a victim is supposed to look or behave can be abused. In an interview on CNN last week, Leonard said, "I had to get that out. Because it was killing me inside. I was dying inside. I told no one ... A guy don't talk about those things, especially me, as a fighter." 

It's entirely possible to be one of the greatest fighters in the world and still, just like any other victim in the world, in a moment of shock and shame and fear, not know how to fight someone you trusted not to hurt you.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Sexual Abuse Television