the language of the sports scandal: sex and sexism

For a good while now I’ve been stuck on that phrase “rape culture.” Especially as it gets hitched to “jock culture.”

Not so long ago, Sports Illustrated published an exposé of Oklahoma State’s football program, alleging every sort of misconduct under the sun. The story came under a lot of fire for questionable reporting: as reasonable as an investigation of the program might be, taken as a whole, the five-part series seems unevenly reported and sensational. (For a portrait of the abusiveness of college sports, the standard is surely Taylor Branch’s 2011 story for The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports”.)  If you know the subject about which the SI reporters are writing, this story is interesting but not exactly news; in places it is under-researched, and even a little clueless.

One chapter in the SI series drew my attention: “Part 4: The Sex.” I found myself intrigued partly because it opened up conversation again about the forms of sexual coercion that lurk – quite visibly – on the margins of mainstream sports culture. Over the past couple years, thanks to the Penn State, Steubenville and Vanderbilt scandals, US journalists have been paying a little attention to the aggressive sexism that seems to be embedded in men’s sports programs.  (They are paying a lot more attention to it than they used to, but they still pay very little attention to the sexism that structures mainstream men’s sports top to bottom.)

Anyway, thanks to Sports Illustrated‘s portrait of the place of sex in Oklahoma State’s recruitment program, problem-masculinity came back in the news as folks meditated on the kind of man football programs seem designed to produce – national heroes and/or entitled, rage-filled, brain-injured, drug addicted, dog-fighting criminals. Thus the headline given to Jessica Luther’s article on the NCAA’s passivity regarding sexual exploitation within campus football programs: “‘We Felt Like We Were Above the Law’: How the NCAA Endangers Women.” An otherwise good critique of the NCAA’s passivity regarding harassment within the sports program it regulates is framed as a story about rape culture – the way two connect (harassment and rape) is complicated, more complicated than many of these formats allow. One is often presented as reducible to the other. And people resist that reduction for all sorts of reasons. The comment section – never a measure of anything but the lowest – quickly converts her story into a question of who is to blame for what. (Answer, always: “Not me!”) A subset of that discussion are those people who try to draw a line around rape and not-rape: if the women participating in recruitment have sex with players willingly, what’s wrong with that? There’s a lot of fuzzy thinking mapped onto awful situations and little room for insight and progress.

The question of what’s wrong with consensual sex within sexist situations is a good question. And that – consensual encounters within sexist environments – is the background against which “Part 4: The Sex” is staged. None of the people interviewed are victims of rape. One person reports a story about a hostess receiving “unwanted advances” – this gets treated in the story as evidence of much worse.  (An “unwanted advance” does not qualify as harassing in and of itself.  An “unwanted advance” is only harassing when advanced  after a person has said “No thanks.” Or when such things are made into a condition of your employment or study.) That SI profile was written by non-feminists, by sports journalists who have a vague sense that something isn’t quite right about this scenario but who don’t have the political acumen – or desire – to think the story out.

What’s wrong with “hostessing” programs during a campus recruitment effort is not that sex happens in such settings, but that sex happens with the deeply sexist structures of those settings.

It is important to spell that out – because otherwise these stories turn all problems into the presence of sexual desire and or sex itself. And that mode of thinking is symptom number 1 of a sexist environment (and homophobic). Sexism is not simply a system that devalues one gender in favor of another. It is a system that dumps the world’s trouble onto the category of sex, and assigns all of the symbolic trouble of “Sex” to the subordinated gender. In a gender segregated environment, the entrance of that “sexed” gender into the room basically ruins everything. She either destroys the pleasure that men take from their patriarchal relations to each other (making their sexist forms of sociability impossible), or she “ruins” it by drawing out the worst of their “natural” impulses (rape). Often in such stories rape gets naturalized, rendered as inevitable – there’s an incoherent assumption that rape is organic to these spaces but no strong sense of why or how.

What’s wrong football program “hostesses” is that they are the only visible role allowed to women college students who want to get involved with the program, aside from cheerleading. It’s a role specifically designed to bring women into the process, not as members of the sports community but as trophies. And so a former player can say the following:

“There’s no other way a female can convince you to come play football at a school besides [sex],” says Artrell Woods, a Cowboys wide receiver from 2006 to ’08, who says he did not have sex with an Orange Pride member on his recruiting visit but was aware of others who did. “The idea was to get [recruits] to think that if they came [to Oklahoma State], it was gonna be like that all the time, with … girls wanting to have sex with you.” (Sports Illustrated)

The reporters don’t pause over the actual problem here: perhaps because it is too obvious, it’s the “given.” In not only these football programs but in sports media more broadly, it often seems women actually don’t have anything to offer a male athlete except sex. The irony of this story being reported in Sports Illustrated whose only issue dedicated to women is its swimsuit issue is not lost on the story’s readers.

SI sex sells comment

Sports media gives us a funny picture of the world. One in which the seasons roll on, in which one scandal takes the place of another and none seem to produce change in the culture by which we are eternally scandalized. It’s the discourse of moral panic. Communal handwringing over the scourge of this and that. That and this being real, actual problems that get turned, however, into an abstraction, “The Sex.”

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