Sports Misogyny and the Court of Public Opinion

In mid July, a Harrah's hotel worker accused Pittsburgh Steelers star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of raping her, and her employer of covering it up. And then, as reliably as thunder follows lightning, the sports misogyny apologists boomed onto the scene.

You know the ones -- would-be or former jocks with Peter Pan disease, women desperate to be one of the guys, or who dream of being Gisele Bundchen to the next Tom Brady. They all cling to their game and their team above everything else, including evidence, compassion and logic. And whenever it's suggested that a sports practice or athlete harms women, they jump into action with whatever excuse is handy: It's all in good fun! It's just part of the game! It could have been worse! He would never do that! She liked it! She's just after his money! Can't anyone take a joke?

But the apologists are no laughing matter. They're an essential ingredient in the modern sports culture that protects and lionizes male athletes at all costs. And when we allow them to ramble on unchecked, when we laugh at them or roll our eyes or simply ignore them, we give them tacit permission to keep using women's bodies as payment.

It is, of course, really tempting to ignore them. They're everywhere -- how could we ever keep up? When Wimbledon officials recently confessed that "physical attractiveness is taken into consideration" when assigning higher- or lower-visibility courts to women players, ESPN commentator L.Z. Granderson piped up with this gem: "[L]ast I checked, gender equity in the workplace wasn't a beer on tap at the Kit Kat Club. Sometimes people like what they like, and accepting that also requires a certain degree of tolerance." It is the classic "you're being intolerant of my intolerance" deflection, now with a strip-club-reference twist!

And where to even start with the treatment of sports reporter Erin Andrews, whose victimization at the hands of a peeping-tom videographer (and the millions of people who sought out the video of her walking around naked in what she believed was the privacy of her hotel room) has been simultaneously blamed on her willingness to exploit her own sexuality to get ahead as a sportscaster, and her unwillingness to exploit it enough.

These are just this month's examples, and this was by no means an extraordinary month. When the Web site Jezebel ran a story this winter about domestic violence charges against the two biggest stars of Super Bowl XLIII, commenters -- some of them women -- leapt to the players' defense and complained that the article was "mar[ing] the Super Bowl." White Sox players trying to motivate themselves out of a slump with a display of blow-up dolls with bats shoved in their orifices? Manager Ozzie Gullen: "A lot of worse things happen in the clubhouse. I don't really know why people are making it a big deal." Female Jets fans routinely surrounded and pressured to flash their breasts to male fans at home games? "That's nothing. At halftime during an Islanders game, they gang-rape you," joked the commentariat at Gawker.

The apologists drink from a potent cocktail of hero-worship, almost military levels of team solidarity, and old-fashioned "boys will be boys" gender essentialism. And they would just be offensive if they weren't such an integral part of the larger culture of misogyny in sports -- a culture that makes it possible for there to be so many henious acts to defend, minimize and deny in the first place. As is, they're downright dangerous, writing a blank check for athletes' behavior that too many athletes are happy to cash.

Nowhere do we see this in action more than when athletes are accused of rape. They don't even have to be Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks -- when Katie Hnida, the first woman to score in a NCAA Division I-A football game, went public about her rape at the hands of a teammate at the University of Colorado, the public response was swift, hateful and overwhelming. "People would call me a little slut who had no athletic ability and was just upset that it hadn't worked out for her," says Hnida. "Most recently, some guy wrote that the reason I dropped my charges was because a videotape surfaced of me performing consensual acts on football players. There's no tape and there were no consensual acts. To this day, I meet people who just hear my name and hate me, simply because I made 'their' football team look bad."

This kind of public blowback isn't just re-traumatizing for the victim -- it impacts our ability to bring rapists to justice. After all, judges and juries live in the same sports culture we do -- and participate in it themselves to varying degrees. So it's not hard to guess why a study by USA Today in the wake of the Kobe Bryant rape trial found that athletes charged with rape were far less likely to be convicted or even agree to a plea deal than non-athletes. And the more athletes get away with rape, the more likely they are to rape again, and the more likely other athletes are to see it as an appealing act with few consequences.

All of which makes the initial reactions to the Roethlisberger case pretty hard to swallow. It hasn't even been two weeks since the charges were filed, and already we've seen ESPN try to make the whole thing disappear by issuing a "do not report" memo to its entire staff, while gossip blogs like Perez Hilton and TMZ led the charge of accusing the woman of being a "lying golddigger." Legions of apologist fans followed suit, charging anyone who allows that the alleged victim might be telling the truth with "obstructing justice" and inventing their own facts right and left. (My favorite is the story that a woman invented a fictional husband for the alleged victim to have an online affair with, and then fictionally shipped him off to Iraq and had him killed there. This purportedly led the alleged victim to seek therapy before she ever met Roethlisberger, which somehow calls into question her mental stability. Leaving aside the question of why some random woman would do this, or even how it could happen, this is somehow supposed to prove the alleged victim is crazy?)

The alleged victim is already suing Harrah's, her employer, for telling her that "most girls would feel lucky to get to have sex with someone like Ben Roethlisberger" and trying to cover up the whole incident. Would that she could sue ESPN, Perez, and their millions of nameless sycophants, too. She can't, but that doesn't mean those parties should face no consequences for their crimes against the safety of all women. While she's arguing her case out in court, it falls to each of us to cross-examine sports misogyny apologists -- wherever and whenever we find them -- in the court of public opinion. If we do it with even half as much fervor as they have when they rush to their heroes' defense, we have a real chance of changing the verdict.

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