When I started writing about college football on the internet eight years ago, the last thing I ever expected to spend much time writing about was misogyny and sexual assault. It's not that sexual assault cases in sports were unheard of -- this wasn't that long after the Kobe Bryant fiasco, after all -- or because there was no misogyny in sports discussions. But it wasn't often noticed, it certainly wasn't called out, and a white, straight Southern Baptist male is about as unlikely a crusader on women's issues as you can find.
Time affects you. I have found out that people I know have been sexually assaulted. We've all seen the Jameis Winston case, and we've witnessed the horrifying and boorish behavior of the NFL during the Ray Rice scandal. Social media means that every person who says something sexist is going to get publicly and repeatedly raked over the coals. And over the last several months, I've witnessed myself grow more and more involved in doing the raking.
The most recent example came tonight -- Monday night, if you're reading this later -- when Men's Health Magazine decided to make itself looking like a room full of idiots with a piece on, as a picture in the tweet accompanying the post put it, "How to Talk about Sports with Women." I promptly spent more time than I probably should have ripping the piece to shreds, or at least trying to. I don't even think about it anymore; it's a reflex. And I can't tell if that's encouraging or sad -- encouraging, because it means that I and millions of others are no longer going to be quiet about this kind of thing, or sad, because it means that there's still this kind of stuff out there.
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In the grand scheme of things, of course, an irreverent article about discussion sports with women, even one as condescending as the one from Men's Health, isn't going to cause any real harm to anyone. At least not on its own.
But I have a mind that makes connections. I can't help it. And sometimes those connections are valid, and I'm more than willing to concede that sometimes they aren't. But as I thought about not posting anything else on the Treon Harris sexual assault investigation -- we all agree it's terrible and we have to wait to find out more; what more is there to say? -- I bumped up against the Men's Health article. There are strands here that get to something larger about the way we think about sports as it relates to women.
To go any further here requires a massive dose of nuance. Just to make sure that no one takes this the wrong way: I am in no way saying that the Men's Health article, or articles like it, lead directly to sexual assault. That would be a ludicrous argument to make.
They are, though, of a piece with some of the reactions in some corners of the Internet to stories like the Harris investigation. There's still a part of sports and a portion of the sports fandom's audience that struggles with how to talk about women, or even engages in outright hostility towards them. And even some well-meaning people occasionally cross the line and dabble in those themes, without meaning it. We have met the enemy, and he is us.
Because how often have we made a joke -- men and women -- about whether a player is going to get laid after a game-winning play? It seems harmless enough at the time, and it's probably accurate in many cases, but it's loaded with the kind of baggage that we don't bother to unpack. Put simply, it says that women are trophies to be won in athletic competition. How often do we talk about the player who makes the clutch shot in the women's NCAA basketball tournament, or the star pitcher in the Women's College World Series, and discuss how many men are going to want to sleep with her that night? Are we really willing to say that the disparity there is all a coincidence?
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And again, don't get me wrong -- this is not about me taking a holier-than-thou approach to this and saying that others are to blame. I am also to blame. I'm sure that anyone with enough time and energy could troll through this site or my previous writings, dig around in my Twitter timeline, and find examples of where I have engaged in the all-too-casual combination of sexism and sports.
It's not just horrible people saying terrible things that enables misogyny, and perhaps even encourages the baser elements of fan bases to engage in slut-shaming or victim-blaming when accusations of sexual assault creep up. Because we can call out the horrible people and the idiots. That's easy.
What's makes a better conversation about women and sports hard is the fact that some of us who mean no harm also inadvertently enable those who do. That's the more difficult element of this problem to combat, and I'm going to admit that I don't have all the answers on how to do so. I suspect that mostly, it's just being careful, and then ever more careful. It's impossible to think twice about everything we say in a hyperactive world of Twitter and Facebook and all the other media we use to communicate now. But maybe if we just think twice more often, we can start to make a difference.
That might not stop sexual assault; simply changing the way we talk about women and sports won't do that. But if we start to demand respect for women as the price of admission to polite conversation, that might create a more welcoming climate. It might make women who are attacked more likely to come forward, because it might make it less likely that they'll face a different kind of attack for doing so. And that might start to make an actual difference in the problems we face.
That's a lot of mights, but it's the best I can come up with right now. I think it's worth trying, and I'm not going to stop trying until I get it right. I hope you'll do the same.