Students at Tulane march against rape, sexual assault and gender violence, April 26, 2012. (Flickr/Tulane Public Relations)
Let’s start with a goal: professional sports leagues should devote major financial resources toward educating young men about the need to stand up to rape and all manifestations of violence against women. The NFL, NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball—for starters—should see part of their mission as using the influence and power of sports to reshape a jock culture that treats women like they are the spoils of athletic supremacy. They should be appalled by the glaring connective tissue between sports and rape culture in Steubenville, Ohio, South Bend, Indiana, and now Torrington, Connecticut. They should be especially devastated that the hero worship of athletes meant that the alleged and convicted perpetrators of sexual violence are defended by many of their coaches and peers. They should recoil that survivors who accuse athletes of sexual violence are blamed and then become threatened with more violence for daring to step forward.
They should do it because for years, sports leagues haven’t addressed violence against women among their own players. They should do it for Kasandra Perkins, gunned down by Kansas City Chiefs Jovan Belcher, the father of her newborn child. They should do it for Lizzy Seeberg, the St. Mary’s student who took her own life after being threatened by members of the Notre Dame football team because she reported a sexual assault. They should do it for the young women assaulted by the Boston University hockey team. They should do it because it’s the right thing to do.
Yes, rape culture and violence against women exists in every cultural sphere: the armed forces, music, advertising and a political world where people actually debate the differences between “rape” and “legitimate rape,” But sports bears a very specific responsibility to take this struggle on. No other institution reaches more men and no other institution plays a greater role in teaching boys how to define their own manhood and masculinity. Often this definition involves equating weakness with femininity, femininity with softness and softness with not being a “real man.” There’s no crying in baseball. Instead, there’s stress, ulcers, divorce, heart disease and death. (Homophobia is inextricably tied to this as well, which makes the growing movement of athletes for LGBT marriage equality so welcome.) I have been to rookie seminars where young pro athletes—I won’t name the league to respect the confidentiality agreement I signed—are told to view women (called “road beef”) as potential predators and threats. The embedded fear that women exist only to use, trap and destroy the young athlete becomes a corollary to alienation from their partners—divorce rates among athletes are massive—and at its most extreme, violence.
This week I had the privilege to speak on a panel organized by Eve Ensler called “Breaking the Male Code: After Steubenville, a Call to Action.” I left this meeting convinced that this is a fight we can win but not unless men themselves stand up and say “no more.” No more to the degradation of women, no more to the normalizing of violence against women and no more being a bystander when potential rape situations unfold in our presence. This doesn’t happen by accident. It takes funding curriculum, hiring more teachers and training more coaches. In other words, it takes the devotion of resources. I also left convinced that there is no neutrality in this fight. To do nothing and just say, “Well, I don’t rape. I’m not violent. Therefore I don’t have to do anything,” is to live with your head in the sand. Men have to be heard and our institutions of socialization have to be heard as well. As Scott Fujita of the Kansas City Chiefs said to me, “There are a lot of impressionable eyes on professional athletes and their respective leagues. With that comes some responsibility, as far as I’m concerned, to show what’s acceptable and what isn’t. So if there’s anything we can do to help address a sort of ‘unspoken’ sports culture that has in some respects not taken the violence against and denigration of women seriously enough, that should be explored.”
Every year, the NFL trusses up players in pink for a month to showcase their commitment to combat breast cancer. It’s a ham-handed marketing ploy that allows them to sell pink merchandise online, appeal to female fans and support a worthy cause. They erred terribly in not doing more after Kasandra Perkins was murdered. It’s time for them to do right—confronting openly that there is a problem in this country, and enlisting themselves in the struggle to change how men view women. Violence against women is endemic in our society. What’s not endemic is people looking the other way when this violence occurs around us. It’s time for sports to pick a side and take their share of accountability for the toxicity in our culture that normalizes rape.
This week, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments against the homophobia built into the country’s legal system. Read Nan Hunter’s update.