Content warning: discussions of sexual violence
Like many of my female counterparts, I am a fan of professional sports; I have been involved in one for some time now. The MLB was my first love, but now the NHL has taken the top of the podium. While watching my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs earlier in the season, I was struck by the question of whether supporting professional sports was unfeminist. I began to consider professional sports as a whole, examining the culture they breed, the repercussions of that culture on women, and what that means for me, a proud feminist.
Professional sports are incredibly lucrative industries. If you’re an athletically-talented young man who makes it into professional sports, you could easily cash yourself a cheque for millions of dollars and live a lavish lifestyle of luxury. But, because of this, we need to consider professional sports as an industrial complex that reinforces the heteropatriarchy and creates a whole lot of problems for women.
When it comes to sports, we tend not to question the ramifications or larger systems at play because, as a society, we have bought into the great myth that sports are inherently pure and good, and that they inevitably lead to positive growth, both personally and communally. Individuals who pursue sports must then transmit these inherent virtues of purity and goodness.
Before I go on, I want to preface this by saying that by no means do all professional athletes succumb to this myth. It is of concern and worthy of our attention, however, that many athletes and their behaviour fit this bill to some degree.
We see this as professional male athletes continue to rise to the moral level of superhero — the athlete as hero embodies attributes of the myth and affirms the myth. He surpasses mere admiration to achieve the mantle of idealization.
Talk of our heroes is talk of ourselves because we aspire to be like them; they show society its highest potential. For another comparison, high-profile athletes with multi-million dollar contracts are arguably the rock stars of our generation; they live fast, party hard, and can do close to nothing wrong. Athletes embody this persona and become invincible, brimming with hubris.
But the pedestal that professional athletes are put on isn’t just fun and drinking games; it has real and very dangerous consequences for women, athletes or not. Perhaps the most salient examples are the repeated instances of sexual misconduct and domestic violence that continue to occur at the hands of current and upcoming professional athletes.
Oftentimes, athletes are not held accountable for their actions, They receive minimal penalties, if they receive any at all, and they are able to return to their respective sports leagues with little attention paid to their personal conduct.
Occasional referrals to their ‘off-the-field behaviour’ are made only to reinforce narratives of overcoming the troubles they’ve faced. By doing this, the sports industrial complex systemically reinforces the behaviour, and the cycle continues.
A high-profile example is that of NFL player Ray Rice, who was caught on video brutally beating his then-fiancée in 2014. He was served with a pathetic two-game suspension that was only extended after public outcry. While he was suspended indefinitely and never rejoined the league, Rice was arguably at the end of his career at the time of the incident.
This past November, NFL player Kareem Hunt, who played for the Kansas City Chiefs, was released from the team when a similar video of him repeatedly kicking a woman surfaced. Despite the incriminating evidence, his field talent quickly garnered the interest of a handful of teams; he was signed by the Cleveland Browns just last week and will almost certainly be playing for them next season.
This doesn’t just happen in the NFL either. Signalling the start of his redemptive narrative, Derrick Rose was lauded by broadcasters, fans, and fellow NBA superstars for his 50-point game last October. At the same time, his ex-girlfriend was appealing a 2016 civil court decision that had acquitted Rose and his friends of gang raping her while she was unconscious.
The court ultimately upheld the ruling, though the judges of both trials noted that the accusations were likely true — there was just no physical evidence to corroborate her story and prove Rose guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Rose himself admitted during the fallout that he didn’t know what consent was, falling back on the archaic ‘boys will be boys’ defence instead.
Perhaps the most fruitful example of this narrative, however, is Kobe Bryant. The public sphere was so eager to redeem his mythic hero status that he has been completely disassociated from his 2003 rape allegation and trial. I didn’t even know about it until I began research for this article!
Only after his attorneys shamed his accuser did Bryant admit that he had assumed consent, and that he understood how the victim may not have consented. Regardless, Bryant embraced his newfound redemption narrative and went on to defy the odds, having a storied career and highly publicized retirement. He even made a movie bolstering his mythic persona that went on to win an Academy Award.
In the world of professional sports, what spaces do women occupy? We are relegated to the sidelines and the stands; we are wives, girlfriends, and cheerleaders.
There is the odd female reporter, who still has far to go in terms of being accepted and treated equally; and now, ground is finally being broken by female coaches and officials in some leagues. But the professional athlete’s female partner continues to be a pop culture persona in and of herself. The WAG, representing all Wives and Girlfriends of professional athletes, is essentially a trophy wife — expected to be exceptionally gorgeous and fertile, she also carries the negative connotations of being vain and high maintenance, unintelligent, and of little substance overall.
Their glamorous lifestyles have even earned them countless reality TV series, including WAGs Atlanta, WAGs Miami, The Secret Lives of Hockey Wives, and VH1’s Basketball Wives. Even though I do not agree with these women’s decisions, nor would I make them for myself, true feminism would posit that we don’t judge other women for the decisions they choose to make. We must strive to empower and lift each other up always.
The freedoms that our foremothers fought for included the freedom for these women to make this choice, as much as my freedom to make mine. However, one doesn’t have to dig much deeper to encounter the unequivocal, patriarchal dynamics that are reinforced in these relationships. And this is problematic.
Sports don’t need to be analyzed critically because we know that they are inherently good. But we cannot ignore that the underwhelming responses to the abuse and oppression of women by those in professional sports industries contributes to the deeply rooted issues of heteropatriarchy and toxic masculinity that underwrite systems of oppression.
So this International Women’s Day, I challenge you to embrace sports — but reject the myth of the sporting superhero, interrogate the industrial sports complex, and realize the damaging consequences for women.