by Professor Stanley Thangaraj, Anthropology, Colin Powell School
Last night, the Super Bowl, as expected, ran a gamut of creative, hilarious, and shamelessly sexist ads. Alongside the Victoria’s Secret ads that depict women as objects on display and items to be had, there was also an emerging genre of “good father” ads, and there was one notable spot on domestic violence, based on a phone call that was actually received by a 911 dispatcher.
It was no accident that the PSA ran during the pinnacle of American sports events. Multiple cases of intimate partner violence and sexual assault come out of both collegiate and professional sports leagues every year. Sadly, the PSAs aired last night don’t come close to opening up legible discourse on the corruption within high school, college, and professional sports. It is time to, as in the words of black feminist scholars like Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde, speak truth to power.
Last week, two football players at Vanderbilt University were convicted of rape. Brandon Vendenburg and Cory Batey were found guilty of aggravated rape and sexual battery. This is a case involving individual acts of violence. But beyond these indictments, there’s a much bigger systemic problem, and it’s a problem that exists within pro leagues all the way down to pee-wee sports. When we maintain, at all costs, the institutions that run the major male sports of football, baseball, and basketball, we silence voices while staying mum on important matters. While these sports allow us to celebrate male athletic bodies, we are often simultaneously supporting a culture of rape and domestic violence.
Vendenberg and Batey will face punishment for their actions. But the football program and the larger institution of Vanderbilt University are not absolved of systematic involvement in this matter. For example, their former head coach, James Franklin, who is now at Pennsylvania State University (an institution with its own recent sexual violence scandal), was not reprimanded for his own sexist ways. On a radio show in late 2012, Franklin commented that he would never hire an assistant coach who had a not-so-attractive wife. For Franklin, coaches who did not have “attractive” wives were men who “settled,” and he did not want that mindset among his coaching staff. Such vile sentiment did not lead to suspension or firing, rather it has become part of the “boys will be boys” discourse that is commonplace across sporting cultures. As long as sporting teams produce wins or promise to do so, all other matters are side issues.
The Vanderbilt football players committed a horrific act of violence. But, sadly, this is not uncommon—at Vanderbilt University or at any other institution. Here on the City College campus, I teach students who are also survivors. The resources for them, both in and out of the classroom, are not sufficient. What we need are resources to prevent sexual violence and resources for survivors who are our next generation of hope. We need gender resource centers that equip students, faculty, staff, coaches, and other personnel with the tools to create, educate, and sustain a livable present and future.
Only when we require courses on gendered violence as part of the core curriculum, like the course taught by Dr. Charlotte Pierce-Baker (author of Surviving the Silence) at Vanderbilt University, do we have the possibility of systemic change that secures all of our lives. What we have instead are superficial measures and cosmetic dressings, be it a college core that does not address sexual violence and social inequalities or sporting cultures that continue to disengage from feminist practice. This brings us back to the Super Bowl. While Ray Rice and him physically assaulting his fiancé, now wife, Janay, caught the media spotlight, his suspension by the NFL was a superficial act, a bandaid for the broken, bleeding system of professional sports. We need to address the foundations of sport that are constructed through sexist and homophobic practices, as addressed brilliantly by Sociologist Michael Messner, sport scholar Jayne Cauldwell, and journalist Dave Zirin. The creation of scapegoats, like Rice, is insufficient in dismantling the sexism and homophobia of sporting cultures.
Even in our everyday experiences of sport, masculinity is always positioned in opposition to femininity and female bodies. As a result, women are marginalized and seen as only commodities or tokens when they enter the playing field. When we watched the game on Sunday, we saw cheerleaders on the sidelines, women in ads, but no women on the field. There was also no presence of gay or queer-identified men. Michael Sam, the first openly gay football player, did not make even the practice squad of any NFL team for an entire season, even though he won prestigious awards in collegiate football.
Alongside the hard-working athletes on Sunday who provided one of the most athletically spectacular games, what we also have in play is a morally bankrupt system of sport at the amateur and professional levels. Our pleasure in watching and playing sports can also lead to incredible possibilities in our society. What we need is a radical version of sport and sporting heroes, like Althea Gibson, Babe Didrikson, and Jackie Robinson, who can change both the operation of sport and larger society. We need a vision of sport that is emblematic of a society that we can all live in.
Stanley Thangaraj is an assistant professor of Anthropology with interests in sport, citizenship, immigration, and justice. His book Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball (June 2015, New York University Press), examines the intricacies of everyday sporting cultures and the problematic exclusions by performing a heterosexual, aggressive, and violent masculinity.