Last week, the sports world focused on an incident involving Super Bowl Champion Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens. Rice was caught on tape dragging his unconscious fiancé (now wife) by her hair. Despite the uproar and outrage about the obvious physical abuse that took place, Rice received a paltry two-game suspension from the NFL. Many commentators noted that the suspension was 2 games less than what the commissioner typically gives for other incidents and far less than the 1-year ban that Josh Gordon received for having a “teeny tiny” bit of THC in his urine sample.
The paltry Rice suspension comes on the heels of the UCSB shooting and the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court debacle. All of these incidents suggest that it’s ok to hit women, kill women, and revoke the rights of women. As a former athlete, mother’s son, sister’s brother, wife’s husband, and father of boys growing up in this world, I can’t help but wonder, what role does American sports culture play in producing misogynistic men and in perpetrating rape culture?
First, I question college sports. I played college football and know first hand that it’s largely a culture of stressed out men – players and coaches alike. But for players especially, their entire sense of self-worth is inextricably tied to their performance on the field. Many athletes turn to drugs, alcohol, and other risky behaviors to deal with the pressure. Younger, impressionable athletes learn from the older, “experienced” players. Much of this learning takes place in the locker room. I remember telling my teammates as a freshman how I was a virgin. I remember being chastised. I remember older athletes boasting about their sexual conquests. I remember later learning from female friends that not all of these moments were consensual.
On the field, coaches set the tone. They decided which personality traits are rewarded and which are penalized. They also determine how much of an academic focus is tolerable. In my experience, the independent thinker who raised conversations about culture or politics had a rough time. In my experience, the athlete who honored academics equally was less inclined to start. I found it extremely concerning that the athletes who turned to academics (as opposed to risky behaviors) to deal with the stresses of the game, were often treated as outcasts.
Let’s not forget the role of the institution. The NCAA has been widely criticized in recent months for its treatment of college athletes. Some students are trying to unionize and raise awareness about the lack of support – financial and otherwise – of college athletes. I wonder, is the burden of athletic responsibilities putting these already stressed out young men at greater risk for risky behavior including violence against women? If these young men did not have to worry about food and health care, might they be less inclined to resort to alcohol and drugs – both major causes of violence against women? Is the NCAA systematically perpetuating rape culture by creating unsupportive environments for male athletes?
Second, I question high school sports, but more specifically, the portrayal of high school sports. Parents and educators often see sports as a way to keep young people engaged, busy, and off the streets. But in pop culture and mainstream media, high school athletes are shown to be jocks, womanizers, partiers, and of the “in-crowd.” As early as 15 years old, young men that play sports are receiving mass media messages of misogyny. The pressures of conforming to these images are real for the high school student. Where I went to high school, my teammates who came from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds turned to drugs and violence to deal with the pressures of conforming. Those from more affluent backgrounds often had support networks and more stable households and families to prevent risky behavior, but that didn’t mean they were unequivocally safe from participating in unsafe behaviors. I do think pop culture’s portrayal of high school athletes raises questions of image, expectations, and economics.
There are a few examples where sports culture goes against its norms and fosters an environment of openness, honesty, and support for athletes. One such example is Michael Sam. An NCAA star drafted by the St. Louis Rams, Sam is the first openly gay player to enter the NFL. Sam was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY awards. In his moving acceptance speech, Sam thanked his coach, Gary Pinkel, who built a culture that allowed Sam to come out to his team. Sam’s honesty was celebrated and supported and Sam had the best season of his life that year. His “brothers” kept his announcement inside the locker room and Sam owned and controlled his own story. This is an example of affirming locker room culture that should be emulated in all athletic programs at all levels across the nation.
Another example of positive sports culture is presented in the movie, “When the Game Stands Tall.” It depicts the season of the De La Salle high school football team when their decade long winning streak ends. Instead of succumbing, players and coaches decide to openly address athlete concerns, insecurities, and personal problems head on, as a team. The film reminded me of my own coach, Jack Burger, who constantly put losses into perspective. Coach Burger, like Coach Ladoceour reminded us that we would face real challenges with family and career and that the game was preparation for real life – the game itself was not real life. Coaches like Burger and Ladoceour see their responsibility as greater than developing athletes, but as developing responsible young men who can contribute to society after life off the field.
So I think the answer to my question, “what role does American sports culture play in producing misogynistic men and in perpetrating rape culture?” is three fold. One, locker room culture is toxic, but in the example of Michael Sam, it doesn’t have to be. Two, institutions are unsupportive. The NCAA can change their policies to provide players with the financial, emotional, and physical support they need to stay away from risky behaviors and to stay focused on and off the field. Three, the adults in the lives of young athletes need to step up and ensure that messages about athletes are filtered out (or better yet, stopped) and that athletics are seen as part of life, not all of it. These would be solid steps towards creating a culture that builds men who values women and an environment that I would be happy to send my sons into.