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.