INDIANAPOLIS — Kat O’Brien remembers sitting in her car shaking after the rape, looking down at her blue-and-white skirt. Why did she wear a skirt for the interview? Never mind it was blazing hot in Texas.
She blamed herself for agreeing to meet in his hotel room. She blamed herself every way she could.
Did she not say no forcefully enough? Did she give off some vibe she had no idea she’d given off? Her mind went to so many things maybe she didn’t do right, so many things maybe she did do wrong.
If only she had done something differently. Maybe she wouldn’t be sitting in her car shaking. Maybe she wouldn’t be home later that night in 2002 inside her apartment drinking a bottle of red wine, trying to wash away the horror.
The horror of being raped by a Major League Baseball player.
O’Brien knows now at 41, nearly two decades later, older and wiser — and having finally spoken out about what happened — that none of it was her fault.
But then, the overwhelming devastation left her questioning everything.
‘It was traumatic and scary’
O’Brien was a 22-year-old sports reporter in 2002, a recent Notre Dame graduate who had been a sports writer for the university’s newspaper. She was good at her job, really good.
She landed a position with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas. Besides covering high school sports, she took on other assignments, the kind a young reporter takes on to launch a career.
A story on Major League Baseball came her way, a big story. The Rangers were the team in the Star-Telegram’s coverage area. But for this story, O’Brien was interviewing players from any team she could reach to do a piece on foreign-born players navigating life in the United States.
One player suggested meeting away from the ballpark. He didn’t want people to see him talking to her. In journalism that can happen. A subject wanting to talk off the record or in a different location.
O’Brien said she thought maybe they would meet at a bar or restaurant or coffee shop.
“He suggested his hotel room,” O’Brien said. “So I went to his hotel room.”
She had no idea what he had in mind.
O’Brien walked into his room for the interview. She started asking questions for the story. He came in for a kiss. She said no. The skirt she had worn, he pulled up. She said no. He raped her. She said no over and over and over again.
“It was scary. It was traumatic and scary,” O’Brien told IndyStar last week. “You don’t really know what is happening. I was just very shaken up.”
Shaken up and terrified to speak out.
So she kept silent — for 18 years.
‘It felt like nothing had gotten better’
Far from the world of sports journalism, now working for Mastercard, O’Brien opened up in a New York Times piece in June. No fear of being marked, losing her job or not being hired in sports because she is “that woman,” she decided to tell her story.
O’Brien is not naming the player she said raped her.
“I choose not to name him because it would only open me up to the possibility of having dirt thrown on my reputation; even all these years later and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, a former professional athlete wields considerable power,” she wrote in the Times piece. “I hope I can help bring about systemic change rather than seek unlikely-to-come justice for one horrible act.”
Her journey to speak out started in January when then-New York Mets general manager Jared Porter admitted to sending unsolicited text messages and explicit images to a female reporter when he worked for the Chicago Cubs as director of professional scouting.
Other women started talking, too. “I was reading different accounts of women working in sports,” O’Brien said. “It just felt like nothing had gotten better.”
Soon, she read sports reporter Brittany Ghiroli’s piece in the Athletic, alleging that a then-Orioles player lured her to his hotel room in 2012 and made unwanted physical advances.
“When I read her story, it was a wake me up,” O’Brien said. “Oh, I’m not the only person that would fall for… would think to do an interview in the room. It just kind of made me realize.”
That’s when O’Brien decided to tell a few people close to her what had happened in 2002. Then she decided she wanted to write something.
“I felt because I’m not currently working in sports journalism, I had a unique ability to speak up without worrying about my job being impacted or my career being impacted,” she said. “I’m not dependent on people in sports hiring me or talking to me for a story. I could speak out.”
And she didn’t just talk about her experience. She wrote about the culture for women in sports.
“What I wrote about was not just one bad thing or one bad person,” she said, “but the entire atmosphere of sexism and sexual harassment.”
What she wrote struck a nerve. One tweet O’Brien sent linking to her Times piece was shared by so many others, actresses, housewives, sports journalists, celebrities. That tweet got 4 million impressions.
Something, O’Brien thought, has to change.
‘I felt humiliated and ashamed’
O’Brien grew up in Davenport, Iowa, in a Catholic family and went to Catholic grade school. She was a star student all through high school. With her scores on the SAT and ACT, O’Brien had a ticket to the nation’s top schools.
She chose Notre Dame. She had played sports growing up. But at Notre Dame she focused on academics, going to the gym, running, playing some dorm sports when she had time.
She had always loved to write. O’Brien started covering sports for The Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper. At first, her assignments were flag football and intramural sports but soon she was covering cross country and track. Then men’s basketball, football and working as associate sports editor.
After an internship at the Star-Telegram, she landed a full-time job with the paper. And she landed that story in 2002.
“I remember how much work went into it, the prominent play it received and how proud of it I was,” O’Brien wrote in her Times piece. “Looking back, I now wonder how I managed to finish it.”
Soon after the assault, O’Brien was in the visiting team’s clubhouse back at the ballpark in Arlington.
“An All-Star player stared at me, saying my name and the name of his teammate, the man who had raped me,” she wrote in her Times piece. “Suddenly I realized he must have told people, making himself out to be a stud and me some girl who was there to pick up ballplayers instead of do my job. I felt humiliated and ashamed.”
The player who had raped O’Brien never said another word to her.
And O’Brien never said a word about what he had done to her.
“I knew that if I told anyone what happened that it would ruin my career. I was 22 with no track record, and at that time…most people in baseball would have rallied to protect the athlete,” she wrote. “So I blamed myself. I must have been too nice, too trusting, too friendly and open. Even though I said no, it must have been a misunderstanding. I lived in fear the story would get out.
She could never have imagined 18 years later, she would be the one to tell that story.
After leaving the Star-Telegram in 2007, O’Brien moved to New York and covered the Yankees for Newsday. In 2009, she earned her MBA.
She stayed in sports for a couple of years, working for ESPN on the business side of things. Then she got a job with Samsung, then Mastercard.
Having her story published in the Times, doing follow-up interviews, telling it over and over has been emotionally exhausting, she said. But it has also been rewarding.
O’Brien said she has heard from hundreds of people supporting her. She’s heard from hundreds of people reaching out to tell their own stories of sexual assault.
And she has heard from the naysayers.
“I must be lying. I want money,” O’Brien said they told her. “Women shouldn’t work in a predominantly male environment.”
And there were those who asked: Why didn’t she just go to the police?
“People don’t realize how rarely does that often end in any consequence,” she said. “What it ends with is the person who accuses having to spend months or years in courts dealing with people doubting. If I had, I definitely would not have had a job in sports.”
It’s not their fault
O’Brien knows she can’t prevent individual acts of violence. If someone wants to rape another person, her story isn’t going to stop that, she said.
“What I hope I could have an impact on is changing the overall environment, the way people act,” she said.
The sexual assault on O’Brien in a hotel room, while the worst she faced, wasn’t the only sexism she faced.
Through her career, she had a fellow reporter start a rumor she had slept with a team executive. Male reporters joked that she must be sleeping with so and so because they saw her at a bar at the same time the player was there.
In telling her story, O’Brien said, she wants to give hope and create change.
People who have been through something similar to her, she wants to encourage them to tell someone personally or professionally so they feel less alone.
She wants to raise awareness among pro sports leagues, teams, media organizations and universities about how people are talking and treating others.
And she wants to reach individuals. Maybe it’s not a person who would assault someone else or even make a sexist joke. But a person who would usually laugh or just stay quiet if they heard one.
“Maybe instead they will say something,” she said. “Maybe they will say, ‘actually that’s not so funny.'”
Most of all, O’Brien hopes she can be the woman other victims of sexual assault see and realize they are not to blame.
Nothing they wore or where they met someone or how forcefully they said no could have changed what happened to them. It’s not their fault.
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: email@example.com.