Culture of violence

NFL headquarters
NFL headquarters

Two years before Ray Rice pushed the league’s “domestic violence problem” into the headlines, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell testified to a Congressional committee: “We are changing the culture of our game for the better.” He wasn’t talking about the culture in which officials brushed off “hundreds and hundreds” of reports of domestic violence assaults by its players—that would come later. Back then, the league was under fire after decades of dismissing the evidence that one in three players suffer long-term cognitive impairment caused by on-the-job brain injuries.

The NFL’s tolerance for its players’ brutality off the field goes hand in hand with indifference to the damage they suffer from violence on the field. Both have been blamed on football’s “culture of violence.”  But ultimately these are business decisions, driven by capitalism more than culture. The spectacle of hyper-masculinity is just another product, manufactured and marketed at enormous profit.

For many players, their assaults against women were covered up by high school and college teams on the route to being excused by the NFL. From Washington to Florida State, university officials are just as invested as NFL executives in protecting their players from accountability, and for the same reason: so as not to hamper the economic engine driving universities, towns, and a professional sports industry.

What is the cost to athletes themselves of being the fuel in that engine? Attention to the few superstars who land multi-million dollar contracts overshadows the far more common story: disproportionately Black and Brown young men, who never see any share of the profit that is extracted from their talent and their bodies. Any serious reform effort has to pay attention to the exploitation of those young men by the same system that colludes with their violence.

Domonique Foxworth, a former cornerback who fought for more safety protections as head of the NFL players’ union, reflects on the physical and economic price college athletes pay to play, the trap of being celebrated for embodying a certain masculine ideal loaded with racist baggage, and how the stage is set for relationships with women infused with resentment and contempt.

Whether motivated by brand rehabilitation or sudden moral clarity, the NFL has hired a team of consultants to advise them on cleaning up their atrocious response to domestic violence. We have yet to see whether advocates can leverage the moment into an opportunity for change deep enough to matter.

I’m in

My Super Bowl streak is broken. Up ‘til now I spent every February perfectly oblivious to which teams were playing, or even what day the game was played. With my entire city swept up in Seahawks fever, this year was different. Love it or love to hate it (and I have a foot in each camp), unaware was not an option.

photo by Trevor Dykstra
photo by Trevor Dykstra

Over the last few weeks, Seattle turned into one big pep rally. The collective enthusiasm was contagious. Smiling at strangers increased by 400%. The city was united in encouragement and hope. We were all in, and it was a beautiful feeling. For most sports fans I know, this is the best part. The athletics are okay too, but it’s the team spirit that keeps us coming back.

A staple of the Seahawks media coverage has been long suffering Seattle, deprived of a professional sports championship for 35 years. Sorrowful fans lamenting that the city has had nothing “NOTHING” to unite us since the Sonics 1979 NBA title.

Sunday night, Seattle Storm fans jumped in to correct the record.

(What’s that? The Storm brought home not one but two national titles since 1979? No, silly, we meant sports, not women’s sports.)

The omission makes a point. Women’s sports  don’t have the power to unite an entire region that men’s teams command. We cheer them on, but—with exceptions for a few high school and college teams— men don’t identify with women’s teams. The men’s team is the Team. It’s universal. The women’s team is the women’s team.

That difference is the sexist iceberg below the surface. The massive, invisible assumption that men are people and women are women. The halftime shows that objectify women’s bodies and all the sexist commercials are just the shiny frozen tip.

Now picture this. What would it be like if the whole city lit up because a group of women achieved something together? If 100 million people simultaneously paid attention to a woman doing something excellently? Can we imagine staking our collective pride and identity on women’s victory? What if we did?

Faith in humanity: restored

I don’t know about you, but the past couple of weeks have put me through the wringer. Bad news and disappointments just keep coming. ENOUGH, I say. I saw this set of pictures posted on a friend’s Facebook wall, and though it’s not the kind of thing I often click on, I did. And it did indeed, even if only momentarily, “restore my faith in humanity.” However silly it may seem, I needed that random collection of photos to remind me that there is still a lot of good in the world and there are good people out there working to make things better.

team-kateCase in point: last weekend WSCADV hosted our second annual Refuse To Abuse® 5K at Safeco Field. It’s always a good time. Now, I know fun is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when people gather together for a cause as, well, depressing, as domestic violence. (Hey, I’m just saying what everyone else is thinking). However, FUN is exactly what we were having. The baseball fans who just wanted to experience running through Safeco Field, but maybe learned a little about healthy relationships along the way, had fun. The teams who turned out because they survived a personal tragedy involving domestic violence had smiles on their faces and brought joy to the event. More than a thousand people came together that summer evening to share time, space, stories, and hope. My coworker’s partner came begrudgingly , but left with a completely new perspective. He said that he thought he understood everything he needed to know about domestic violence, but seeing the huge crowd and so many everyday people who have been personally impacted by domestic violence was a light bulb moment for him.

You know what I saw in the faces of runners, spectators, and volunteers? Hope. I saw the incredible potential we have when we come together to create peaceful, loving communities. We’ve still got plenty of work to do, (which is painfully apparent as I write this at my desk). But it’s events like these that refuel us.

Bring your gay game

Jason Collins made history when he became the first male player of a U.S. major league team to come out as gay. Cue media blitz. Some reactions were, of course, angry and hateful. Some said, what’s the big deal? Women Jason_Collins_2012_3athletes have been coming out for years. And a great many others, including a lot of straight men, showed lots of love and support for Jason.

And THAT, my friends, is why this is such a big deal.

Yes, it’s true that women athletes have been coming out for years. Martina Navratilova came out in the middle of her career in 1981(!). This year’s top WNBA draft pick, Brittney Griner, came out with barely a media mention (which is enough for a whole other post on sexism). The Atlantic writer Garance Franke-Ruta nailed it when she said “Female professional athletes are already gender non-conforming. Male ones are still worshiped as exemplars of traditional masculinity.” Ah, yes. That ‘traditional masculinity’ which dictates that men are tough, rugged, strong, (which of course implies that women are not) and like their intimate relationships to be with women. I think much of how we’ve defined traditional masculinity is harmful to our relationships, gay or straight.

There have been remarks about how inspirational Jason Collins must be to kids out there struggling with their own sexual orientation, but I think his action does so much more. He has given us the opportunity to shift our perceptions of what it means to be manly. Posts like 17 Moments When Jason Collins was Super Gay do just that. He has helped us acknowledge that we can love who we want to love and be who we want to be without the pressure to fit into a box that is not at all the right shape. And when our communities support us to be comfortable in our own skins, we are better equipped to forge happy, healthy relationships.

You’re not alone, Mike

When the video was released of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice hurling vile epithets at his players and roughing them up during practice, the public outrage was swift and nearly unanimous.  Sports reporters, athletes, public officials piled on: “frightening,” “medieval”, “unacceptable.

This should all be reassuring—evidence of our collective intolerance for bullying. But instead, the condemnation left me disoriented. I turned on the news one morning to find out misogyny and homophobia are off-limits in sports culture. What planet am I on?

Mike-RiceThe fact is we live in two parallel universes. In one, the kind of abuse that Rice dished out is run of the mill. Common, if not condoned. It has its defenders: those who insist that boys need toughening up, and only naive liberals are shocked by coaches using slurs like “c*nts” and “f***ing f*ggots” to motivate their players.

In the other universe, coaches are expected to be upstanding role models, community leaders, molders of virtuous young men. In this world, we are shocked and horrified that such a person would abuse his authority. It is hard to understand why the players didn’t speak up or fight back. We hear a question familiar to any domestic violence survivor: why didn’t they just leave?

Rice’s coaching techniques weren’t exactly a secret before the infamous “highlight reel” of abuse became public. Lots of people attended practices where he belittled his players. University officials had already seen the video that was later leaked. Rice’s sideline rants during games were nationally televised. I have a hard time believing anyone familiar with competitive sports was truly shocked.

Maybe what’s going on here is that we have had a culture shift, but that shift has not yet taken root in the locker room. Maybe most people these days really believe that using humiliation and homophobia to attack players is unacceptable and damaging. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before Rice’s style of “coaching” is truly rare, not just rarely captured on tape.

Or maybe we just want it both ways. Winners at any cost, as long as the cost stays hidden.

Space babies

I ♥ football. Although I was really grouchy about this year’s Super Bowl because I was still bitter about my Falcon’s loss in the playoffs, I still watched the game. And the commercials. And I know there is A LOT I could say about how women are portrayed in these ads, but I’ll let you peruse the game day dialogue at #notbuyingit for your fill of that.

One (ridiculously adorable) commercial got me thinking about something else. First, if you haven’t seen it, watch this car commercial with cute human and animal babies.

Adorable, right? (In case you didn’t watch it, a little boy asks his dad where babies come from and dad tells a fantastical story about a planet full of babies that each day get rocketed to earth to find their parents.) All of us parents have had that moment of panic when faced with a tough question from our child. Your tongue caught somewhere between figuring out an age appropriate response and your own discomfort.

Uh…uuuhh…

So I’ve got a solution for you! It’s a win-win. It buys you time, prevents you from having to make up space babies, AND it’s a chance to start a great conversation with your kids about healthy relationships. Try this: “That’s a good question, little Tommy. (sweaty palms on the steering wheel, deep breath) And it’s a little complicated to answer, but I know that often babies come from two grown-ups who love each other very much and want to start a family. What do you think it means when two people love each other?” Answers will certainly vary and could be quite comical. But it will open the door to a conversation about what healthy relationships look like, and get you out of stumbling over body parts and mechanics. For the time being. You’re welcome.

High school football highlight

Did you happen to see that Ike Ditzenberger was hospitalized with severe pneumonia? For those of you who don’t know Ike, he is a local teenager here in Washington State who attends high school in Snohomish. The video of his touchdown during a high school football game a couple of years ago went viral, and he won the Seattle Children’s Inspirational Youth Award. Check out his acceptance speech—it’s well worth the 5 minutes of your time.

What caught my attention with his recent near-fatal health scare, was how his teammates have been with him every step of the way. Ike experiences the beloved community—with his team and their opponents, in his school, and with family and neighbors. Imagine if every teenager had this. Imagine.

The great sports bro debate of 2012

Like many kids, my son likes to dress up. He has a special fondness for very tight-fitting clothes. For example, he yearns for a wrestling singlet. I think his fashion sense is quirky, imaginative, and overflowing with childish joy—as it should be.

So I was not the least bit worried when my son developed a fascination with my sports bra and decided to fashion one for himself out of a cut up pair of boxer briefs. In fact, I was quite in awe of his intuitive skill at working the fabric.

He was so darn happy about his new “sports bro,” that I didn’t even bat an eye the next morning when he chose to wear it under his t-shirt. We did have a short chat on the way to school about the fact that some of the kids might find it unusual, and did he have a plan for what he would say if anyone asked him about it? He confidently and enthusiastically replied, “I’ll just tell ‘em it’s my awesome sports bro!”

Forward to that night, when I found out my husband was very worried and strongly believed that our son should not wear it to school. He wasn’t constitutionally opposed to boys wearing anything that resembled “girl” clothing. He wasn’t second-guessing what this meant for our son’s gender identity or sexual orientation. But he was terrified that other kids—and especially their parents—would make those assumptions about our son, and that our son would face terrible teasing and bullying.

I was not bullied as a kid. I definitely wasn’t part of the popular crowd—anyone who knows me now will not be surprised to learn that I was a solid member of the dork crew—but I wasn’t teased or bullied. My son has such a solid self-assurance that I am usually more worried about making sure he is paying attention to other people’s feelings. So it never occurred to me to fear for him and the sports bro.

But my husband WAS bullied and teased growing up—terribly so—and those memories have stayed with him. He knows intimately how life-altering it can be to get teased for how you look or dress.

We did not arrive at agreement about how to handle this. I felt very strongly that we need to live in a world where our son can wear a sports bro and not have it be a big deal. My husband felt just as strongly that we do not yet live in that kind of world, and he was very unwilling to put our young son forward as the trailblazer. We are both coming at it from a place of love. And I think we’re both right.

At the end of the day, the only thing I could really think was, “Sexism and homophobia ruins everything!!”

And that is also true. Sexism and homophobia ruins everything.

Olympic fever

Wilma Rudolph, OlympianI stayed up way too late last night. I love the Olympics and cannot break away once I start watching. I’m so proud of the women from all over the world who compete—women on every team this year for the first time in Olympic history.

There is so much to say. I could write about Title IX, and the opportunities it created for women athletes. Or about the research that shows that girls who engage in sports are more bomb-proof when it comes to abuse—with a stronger sense of self and their own personal power. Or about the great ways that men are engaging in violence prevention campaigns through sports.

Nah. I’m going to write about fashion.

Don’t you think Misty and Kerri were looking a tad overclad as they took to the sand for their volleyball match? I wondered if it was just too chilly for their regular “uniforms”—as the pair calls their bikinis—or if jolly olde England is imposing a dress code.

Watching the pair muscle through their matches reminded me of a recent conversation with my brother-in-law. He’d just finished up work on a dissertation committee for a woman researcher seeking her degree in fashion design (who knew?). Turns out activists come in all professions.  God knows we need someone shaking up women’s clothing.

She studied active adult women and their experiences shopping for athletic wear—clothing for running, walking, cycling, etc. Can you imagine? She found a lot of dissatisfied women. And a gigantic untapped market of those of us who will never fit into a size 0, or 00. Women who strive to stay active—even as companies don’t even try to make clothes that fit our bodies and that we look good in.

This particular researcher took a teaching job in West Virginia—with the stipulation that the school purchase plus size manikins for her students to use when designing.

How about it Nike, Columbia, Adidas? If you make it, we’ll leap tall buildings in a single bound to buy it. And maybe we’ll smash some sexism along the way.

Girls in sports

I was planning on writing this blog post about the Lingerie Football League and its recent announcement of plans to start a youth league. (In case you haven’t heard of the LFL, yes, it’s just what it sounds like.) I was going to rant a little bit about the mind-bending absurdity of claiming to strike a blow for girls’ empowerment by grooming them to play football in their underwear just as soon as it’s legal. Or how despicable it is that this “league” claims to break barriers for women while dismissing its players’ requests for basic safety equipment.

But then I realized I was falling for the oldest trick in the book. Curtis Cartier at the Seattle Weekly blog got it just right. This youth lingerie thing is a red herring calculated to stir up controversy―a.k.a. publicity―for an organization that really deserves less attention, not more. So, I’m not going to talk about that after all.

Instead, I’ll just say this. Giving girls real, meaningful opportunities in sports is important. Most girls still aren’t taught to develop their physical strength and skill as fully as most boys are. (In fact, research shows girls are actually trained to make themselves weaker.)  As of this morning, the top Google results for “girls in sports” include “hot girls in sports,” “hot Olympic girls,” and plenty of pictures of naked women. In order to change that we need to teach girls to value their bodies’ strength and agility for their own achievement, their own freedom, their own joy―not men’s entertainment or profit.