Mindless Misogyny in Men’s Sports
By NAVID FARNIA
This April, a video surfaced showing Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice physically and verbally abusing players during practice. In the video, Rice threw basketballs at players when they made mistakes, and he repeatedly pushed them around. He also routinely used sexist and homophobic slurs to insult players. A media firestorm subsequently ensued after fans heard about his actions and saw the video. Shortly thereafter and due to outside pressure, Rutgers fired Rice.
The public outcry against Rice was certainly warranted. By creating an atmosphere where abuse was normalized, Rice commonly used degradation as a motivational ploy. Media outlets swiftly condemned Rice’s homophobia – and rightfully so. But nary a word was spoken about Rice’s sexist insults. The media framed Rice’s homophobia and physical abuse as the most inappropriate actions, but his sexism received little attention.
A separate incident in April involved Chicago NHL player Duncan Keith. In an exchange with a reporter during a post-game interview, Keith mocked the reporter’s hockey knowledge simply on the basis of her gender. Keith later said his words were not meant to disrespect women; rather, he was “fired up” after a loss.
Fast-forwarding to September, in the lead up to the much-anticipated Week 2 NFL match-up between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks, 49ers player Anthony Dixon called Seattle the “She-hawks” on Twitter. Intended as an obvious insult, Dixon’s remark was similar to Shaquille O’Neal’s infamous comment in 2002, when he called the Sacramento Kings the “Queens.” “Write it down. Take a picture. Send it to them,” O’Neal uttered following his insult. Ironically, O’Neal bought a stake in Sacramento’s franchise last week, and in his first press conference as part owner, he apologized for his comments from years ago.
Interestingly, O’Neal apologized to Kings fans, but the reality that his comment was inherently sexist did not warrant an apology. Dixon also did not apologize for his Twitter remark.
These episodes are but a few examples of sexism’s prevalence in men’s sports. Sexism is so common in everyday sports language and practice, that it becomes entrenched as institutional misogyny. Misogyny, which is the hatred of women, may seem like a strong term, but it adequately signifies sexism’s power and resonance in American sports.
Are male athletes more sexist or misogynistic than the general population? Certainly, the athletes above show no respect for women in their respective cases. However, simply saying that they are disproportionately sexist essentially pathologizes male athletes as viciously hypermasculine, while it simultaneously downplays the omnipresence of structural male supremacy. We should therefore understand misogyny in men’s sports within the context of our patriarchal society.
Although misogyny is not particular to men’s sports, violence against women is accepted and normalized in the sports arena. There are three primary explanations for this phenomenon: women’s exclusion from sports; the perception that sports are the pinnacle of masculinity; and the reality that male athletes themselves are systematically victimized through verbal, and at times physical, abuse.
When it comes to men’s sports, women athletes are completely denied the opportunity to participate. Women are also excluded from coaching and management, and aside from token representation, are largely refused positions in officiating, commentary and sports journalism. Moreover, women who are able to carve out niches for themselves in men’s sports are constantly sexually objectified. As such, women’s voices go unheard; this reinforces sexism to the point where those who partake in sexist behavior are entirely unaware of their degrading conduct.
Men’s sport is also a haven for masculinity, which is exemplified by the above cases. Our society disturbingly associates toughness with manhood, and that notion is especially true in sports. Because the logic equates masculinity to toughness, the functional opposite is that weakness reflects femininity. Habitual sexist comments such as, “he throws like a girl” or “they acted like girls,” illustrate an ideology that propagates women as physically, mentally and emotionally inferior.
Thus, for men’s sports, masculinity is embraced to such an extent that athletes are conditioned to buy into the culture of degradation. Conversely, the perception that women are inferior results in sexism’s normalization, which further entrenches misogynistic verbal violence.
Finally, journalists, commentators and observers criminally refuse to admit that verbal insults on the practice field and on game day do tremendous psychological damage to young athletes. Mike Rice’s disgusting words and actions are a microcosm of the broader sports culture. This culture of degradation inevitably manifests elsewhere in athletes’ lives, as they reproduce the violence that is inflicted upon them.
Physically abusive coaches are finally being exposed and are garnering steadily increasing scrutiny, but systematic verbal violence remains unacknowledged and undocumented. Verbal abuse predictably escalates into physical violence, and victims of verbal violence often become physical aggressors. Although this violence originates in a culture where women are absent due to their exclusion, women ultimately become targets of reproduced violence when present. In this way, sexism in men’s sports creates and enables physical violence against women.
Domestic disputes involving athletes largely stem from an ideology of male superiority. Verbal violence propagates this ideology. Therefore, eliminating misogynistic language in sports circles is an important step toward addressing violence against women.
The Pitfalls of Pathologizing Violence
In reality, the damages of misogyny are not exclusive to women. Because misogyny is ingrained in the athletic psyche, it also afflicts athletes. Coaches and fans constantly abuse players. Hypermasculine misogynistic behavior toward players is reinforced as a means to their competitive success. In other words, such behavior is excused because athletes are “tough” and should be capable of handling “criticism” in order to be successful. This is where masculinity’s association with toughness (and femininity’s with weakness) is most harmful to athletes. Moreover, athletes who speak out against the abuse perpetrated by coaches and fans are often publicly shamed and humiliated. These athletes are said to lack toughness and subsequently become targets of sexist and homophobic insults.
This abusive value system simultaneously reinforces misogyny and glorifies hypermasculinity. In this sense, misogyny in sports not only reifies patriarchy, but it also makes violence against athletes acceptable. We cannot fully understand the culture of sexism without first critically examining the widespread degradation of athletes.
While athletes like Duncan Keith, Anthony Dixon and Shaquille O’Neal should be condemned for their sexist remarks, it is extremely naïve to lay all the blame for the culture of misogyny on players. Such a dangerous notion wrongly pathologizes athletes as inherently and disproportionately sexist and violent against women. However, the real issue is that society tolerates and even embraces misogyny in mainstream men’s sports despite opposing it in other institutions. Pathologizing athletes therefore, only worsens the problem.
Our conception of violence against women should be generalized to society, rather than particularized to institutions such as sports. Although misogyny is normalized in men’s sports, this happens because broader structural male supremacy enables it.
Furthermore, because men of color largely dominate mainstream sports, the argument that misogyny in sports is a pathological problem supports racist stereotypes of Black and Latino hypermasculinity. False and cynical notions that Black and Brown men are inherently and/or culturally predisposed to criminal behavior and violence – particularly against women of color – are often used to explain domestic disputes involving male athletes of color.
By particularizing misogyny as being more prevalent in certain institutions and cultures (like sports and hip hop culture), we racialize violence and further criminalize people of color. We also abandon the issue’s root cause, the structural ideology of male supremacy. This ideology creates the power dynamics that normalize verbal and physical abuse in sports and allow for their replication elsewhere.
The pathology of sexism argument also creates a false bifurcation between the transcendent “good” athlete – the “model citizen” who has no run-ins with the law – and the common malcontent “bad” athlete. Sports pundits and fans often use racially loaded terms like “thug” and “punk” to describe “bad” athletes. This racial bifurcation stems from broader invidious social stereotypes, where “bad” Black and Latino people are so-called criminals, gangsters and thugs, or “bad” Muslims are so-called terrorists.
The false construction of “good” and “bad” athletes reifies misogyny. It gives a reprieve to the abusive conditions in which misogyny is entrenched and instead, focuses our attention on the actions of individual athletes. It ignores the reality that misogyny is a systemic problem, which goes beyond individual behavior. As such, we fail to recognize how sexism is ingrained in the masculinist psychology of sports. And ultimately, we scapegoat athletes and their respective cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds rather than the structures that produce and reproduce the patriarchal sports culture.
Condemning Abuse and Misogyny
There are multiple elements and features of men’s sports that contribute to violence against women and violence in general. Often, men’s sports promote violence on the playing field. This is especially true in American football, where grown men in pads run straight into each other at high speeds. Because it is encouraged on the field, it can at times be replicated off the field.
Nevertheless, the absence of women’s voices, the corresponding perception that women are inferior and the systematic abuse of male athletes by coaches, management, media and fans are the main enablers of widespread misogyny.
While some recognize misogyny as an enormous problem in men’s sports, others in sports circles refuse to acknowledge its existence. Indeed, this is a privilege of male supremacy. But for those who do recognize its prevalence, the expectation that widespread consciousness will bring about the dismantlement of misogyny is unrealistic.
Consciousness is a start, but we should first examine the connection between misogyny and normalized abuse against athletes. The debilitating side effects of abuse are rooted in this codependent relationship. Misogyny in men’s sports encourages violence against women, but it also reinforces verbal and physical abuse against athletes. Thus, particularizing sexism to sports, and specifically to athletes, without considering how it reflects structural patriarchy will only do further harm. Refusal to address the abusive conditions in men’s sports condones athletes’ victimization and furthers the ideology of hatred against women.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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