November 4, 2016: “Harvard Men’s Soccer Team is Sidelined for Vulgar ‘Scouting Report’” (The New York Times)
November 14, 2016: “Columbia Suspends Wrestling Season Over Lewd and Racist Text Messages” (The New York Times)
December 13, 2016: “’We are the Sport of Jackie Robinson, and We Need to Lead by Example” (The New York Times)
December 16, 2016: “Princeton Suspends Men’s Swim Team Over ‘Misogynistic and Racist’ Email” (The Chronicle of Higher Education); (The New York Times piece on this [Dec. 15, 2016])
It’s the proverbial ninth inning, fourth quarter, heavyweight match, or 400-yard freestyle relay. That is to say, it’s pretty darned late in the game to take a stand—finally—on racist and sexist behaviors among our men’s sports teams. But games are won and lost in final innings and quarters and such, and taking a stand, late or not, makes a difference. To see administrators from Harvard, then Columbia and then Princeton, say “enough is enough” to their successful male athletes, no matter the negative press and potential alumni blowback, is rather heartening at this moment in higher education history, not to mention at this moment of dangerously runaway twitter accounts of presidents-elect.
The first reports out of Harvard about the men’s soccer team’s “scouting report” of the women’s soccer team included many of the sexist details of their “report.” It might be interesting to note, at least in terms of journalism ethics, that there were no specifics provided about the sexist and racist content of the Columbia wrestling team’s text messages or of the Princeton men’s swim team’s e-mails. I don’t think any of us is so naïve that we can’t guess at or even write mock text for the information not shared because we have heard it well beyond the so-called “locker room talk” that extends to our streets, campuses, parties, workplaces, and traditional and social media outlets.
The article about Major League Baseball’s decision to crack down on hazing rituals that require rookies to dress like women (cheerleaders, Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Gale, cast members from “A League of Their Own”) reveals the extent to which some players feel real affection or affinity for these rituals and others are quite ready to discard them. The fact that MLB has an “ambassador for inclusion” (Billy Bean) tells us something about this sport that, as The New York Times article title drives home, struggled to figure out how to welcome black players, tried to launch a women’s league, and has been graced by the incredible skills of many Latino, Latin American, and Caribbean players for many years.
Let’s break it down. Fraternal-style institutions, such as fraternities themselves, sports teams, and the military, have long-standing traditions that exploit the very bedrocks of what we in the gender biz call hegemonic masculinity—brotherhood, manhood, bonding, group affiliation, dominance, power, victory. (In the MLB article, for example, Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson frowns upon these rituals, which he has observed both in baseball and in the Marines.) This means that you have to submit to belong, and then you have to force others to submit in order to continue the traditions. The belonging is based on being a man, which means very definitely not a woman. In some cases, it means asserting and reinforcing the power of white men, which means very definitely not of black or Latino men. “Being a man” really starts to feel like not being so many other things, which is never a healthy source for identity construction.
Colleges and universities, and the MLB, are full of young people who might still be immature and have some lessons to learn. These places, and these times in young people’s lives, are the right location for education and change. We haven’t heard yet about women’s sports teams who have been shut down for racist or sexist behaviors. This makes me think that our education efforts and expectations can rightly focus more on the men’s teams (and fraternities and armies, etc.).
These sports realms are often steeped in hypocrisy and contradiction. For example, the NCAA does remarkable, sometimes groundbreaking, work in the areas of diversity and inclusion. Nevertheless, its member institutions still struggle with the culture of “boys will be boys” and girls will be mere objects. Television contracts influence college sports in all the ways in which media influence us. We see mostly male teams competing against male teams on television. These male teams have teams of mostly-female cheerleaders, who follow almost laughably old-fashioned gender norms in dress and behavior (although I want to add that they also work many hours to increase strength and agility). Frequent commercial breaks advertise to what the ad agencies must believe is an overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual audience as they show white guys all of the objects they can consume. These objects include razors and shaving cream, beer, and women. If you are not white, male, or heterosexual, or if you are those things but don’t appreciate this barrage of images, then it can actually be quite hard to watch sports that you otherwise used to enjoy playing and/or watching.
This constant appeal to heterosexual men through the objectification of women is a daily, pounding lesson for us all, one that is hard to undo but that we must teach ourselves to question more frequently and more astutely. Again, our presidential politics will require even more awareness and education, as the president-elect’s Secretary of Labor pick, Andy Pudzer, says of the ads for his fast-food restaurants: “I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American” (quoted in this salon.com article from December 8, 2016). “Very American”—for whom, Mr. Pudzer? For which Americans?
I believe these hazing-style behaviors and media messages to be stepping stones towards more virulent and violent sexism and racism, and so we need to nip them in the bud.
Therefore, while it is heartening to see university administrations and Major League Baseball say that enough is enough, we need to educate more broadly and to younger groups, to continue to call out these damaging behaviors, and to ensure that there are real consequences for offenders. These small actions on behalf of some very visible institutions look like positive steps toward real change.