Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Culture of Athletes Needs Changing

The recent murder of UVA senior, Yeardley Love, a Lacrosse standout, by her ex-boyfriend, George Huguely,also a Lacrosse standout, just before graduation, has been traumatic for the UVA campus. But it has affected far more people than just that campus. This vicious act of domestic violence at an elite school has touched us all in one way or another.

Add to that the arrest of Lawrence Taylor for rape of a 16 year old girl, and the allegations against Ben Roethlisberger of sexual assault, and these are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to athletes committing crimes against women. Numerous professional athletes have been charged with domestic violence, including the manager of the Braves, Bobby Cox, Rockies pitcher, Pedro Astacio, and too many to list here now.

And that is a sad commentary on our sports culture, our culture in general. It is that culture about which Sally Jenkins wrote recently in this Washington Post article, "George Huguely, Ben Roethlisberger, Lawrence Taylor: Male Athletes Encouraged To Do The Wrong Thing":

George Huguely is said to have been a vicious drunk who menaced Yeardley Love, yet there has been no indication that any of his teammates said anything to police. Ben Roethlisberger seems to be a serial insulter of women, whose behavior is shielded by the off-duty cops he employs. And if the charges are true, Lawrence Taylor ignored the bruises on a 16-year-old girl's face as he had sex with her, never thinking to ask who beat her.

It's a bad stretch for women in the sports pages. After reading the news accounts and police reports, it's reasonable to ask: Should women fear athletes? Is there something in our sports culture that condones these assaults? It's a difficult, even upsetting question, because it risks demonizing scores of decent, guiltless men. But we've got to ask it, because something is going on here -- there's a disturbing association, and surely we're just as obliged to address it as we are concussions.

"We can no longer dismiss these actions as representative of a few bad apples," says Jay Coakley, author of "Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies," and a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado. "The evidence suggests that they are connected to particular group cultures that are in need of critical assessment."

Well, that's putting it mildly, isn't it? Women being murdered by someone they know, the ultimate act of domestic violence, is nothing new. That is disturbing enough. But there's more:
What do we mean when we ask whether there was something in the lacrosse "culture" that led to the murder of Yeardley Love? The Latin root of the word "cultura" means "to grow." It means the attitudes, practices, and values that are implanted and nourished in a group or society.

There's a lot we still don't know about Huguely and his "brothers," but three attitudes and practices of at least some members of the Virginia lacrosse team seem obvious: physical swagger, heavy drinking and fraternal silence.

In 2008, a drunken Huguely was so brutally combative with a female cop that she felt she had to Taser him. Last year, he assaulted a sleeping teammate who he believed had kissed Love, several former players say, and this year, he had other violent confrontations with Love herself, witnesses say.

We can argue about gaps in the system, but one constituency very likely knew about Huguely's behavior: his teammates and friends, the ones who watched him smash up windows and bottles and heard him rant about Love.

Why didn't they tackle him? Why didn't they turn him in?

Undoubtedly, many of the young men on the Virginia lacrosse team are fine human beings. I don't mean to question their decency. I don't mean to blame them.

But I do mean to ask those who knew of Huguely's behavior an important question. Why did they not treat Yeardley Love as their teammate, too?

Where were her brothers?

Why was she not deserving of the same loyalty as George Huguely? She played lacrosse. She wore a Virginia uniform. She was equally a champion. And yet because she played on the women's team, she seems not to have been accorded the same protection that Huguely was.

That doesn't just break the heart. It shatters it into a thousand pieces.

Where were her brothers indeed. I can appreciate that Jenkins doesn't want to paint the entire team with a broad brush, but in much the same way the Atlanta Falcons and Virginia Tech Hokies remained silent about Michael Vick's dog fighting, these young men remained silent about Huguely's violence toward Love (and their own teammate). Not to equate dog fighting to murder by any stretch, but to highlight the culture of tacit acceptance of bad behavior by athletes in general.

As noted above, it isn't just Huguely:

The allegations against Huguely, Roethlisberger and Taylor share something in common. In all of these cases, the alleged female victims were treated as undeserving of inclusion in the protected circle. They were "others" rather than insiders.

Sports Illustrated's profile of Roethlisberger and the men who look after him is utterly damning. According to the magazine story, on the night that he allegedly accosted an over-served undergrad in a Milledgeville, Ga., restroom, Roethlisberger held up a tray of tequila shots and hollered, "All my bitches, take some shots!" He exposed himself at the bar. He forced his hand up someone's skirt. Yet police sergeant Jerry Blash described the alleged victim as "this drunken bitch," and Roethlisberger's bodyguards apparently blocked off the area. Protecting Roethlisberger, being "in" with him, took precedence over ethics.

"Who needs the bodyguard here?" Coakley asks incredulously. "What is the role of bodyguard? It's not to maintain male hegemony and privilege. It's to maintain order."

The charge of third-degree rape against Taylor prompts another question. Police allege that a 16-year-old runaway was beaten by a sex trafficker and brought to Taylor's hotel room, where, according to police report, instead of protecting her, he allegedly protected himself with a condom. If Taylor is guilty, how could he have acted in such a depersonalizing way -- unless he viewed her as more object than person?

According to Coakley, the data is clear: Certain types of all-male groups generally have higher rates of assault against women than the average, and their profile is unmistakable. They tend to include sports teams, fraternities, and military units, and they stress the physical subordination of others -- and exclusiveness.

Common sense tells me that "sport" in general is not the culprit in all of this so much as excessive celebration and rewarding of it: binge drinking, women-as-trophies, the hubris resulting from exaggerated entitlement and years of being let off the hook. We are hatching physically gifted young men in incubators of besotted excess and a vocabulary of "bitches and hos."

What has happened to kindness, to the cordial pleasures of friendship between men and women in the sports world? Above all, what has happened to sexuality? When did the most sublime human exchange become more about power and status than romance? When did it become so pornographic and transactional, so implacably cold?

The truth is, women can't do anything about this problem. Men are the only ones who can change it -- by taking responsibility for their locker room culture, and the behavior and language of their teammates. Nothing will change until the biggest stars in the clubhouse are mortally offended, until their grief and remorse over an assault trumps their solidarity.

That bears repeating:
The truth is, women can't do anything about this problem. Men are the only ones who can change it -- by taking responsibility for their locker room culture, and the behavior and language of their teammates. Nothing will change until the biggest stars in the clubhouse are mortally offended, until their grief and remorse over an assault trumps their solidarity.
And it is far past time for them to do so. Athletes who have remained silent need to do so no longer. As long as they refuse to speak up, to speak out, they bear responsibility for the outcome as well.

Honestly, a lot of these athletes could learn a thing or two from people like Tim Tebow. While I may not agree with his stance on Choice, or even his brand of religion, at least he is a stand up guy. I cannot imagine someone like Tebow remaining silent if one of his teammates was acting in the same manner as Huguely, nor would he ever act toward women like Huguely did (threatening to kill a woman police officer because she was a woman?? Wow.).

Bottom line, we cannot, we MUST not, lose more young women like Yeardley Love to the unchecked violence of fellow athletes, athletes who have been protected from having to bear any responsibility for their violent tendencies, or any athletes at all. We cannot lose one more young woman this way, not one more.


Anonymous said...

It starts with the money, Rev. These athletes generate a lot of revenue for a lot of people, so they're catered to. Just like the folks in Hollywood. I guess all that adoration goes to their heads and they think they can get away with anything... because they can. They've got handlers to cover up for all their mistakes. Not unlike the politicians and their spinmeisters. It's all about the money and power.

And while men are the only ones who can change the culture of violence, women need to stop playing the game. As long as these guys have their fans and groupies who make excuses for them, they'll have no incentive to change. Not when money can buy silence or a slap on the wrist.

It's very sad, indeed.

Rabble Rouser Reverend Amy said...

SF, you make some excellent points. Yes, it is abt the money, their sense of entitlement, and the protection those who hold the purse strings provide.

But their is also the misogyny inherent, it seems, among a lot of these men. Yes, women need to stop being groupies and hangers-on, but it's the attitude toward women in general that is such a problem, IMHO.

Great comment, SF!