Rape and the Sports Story: Some Observations for Sports Writers

Jessica Luther’s “Changing the Narrative” offers sports writers valuable guidance regarding the responsible reporting of stories about rape. It is full of good advice that should help sports writers to at least not make things worse. Luther’s excellent article inspired me to write out a few thoughts for the sports critic who wants to take their writing to a related, but slightly different place.

Given how often sports writers have to cover this kind of story, they might be wondering why “sports culture” has become synonymous with “rape culture.” Given the ubiquity of rape stories in sports news, perhaps it is time we entertained the possibility that sexual violence is not at the margin of sports culture, but is, in fact, at its center.

Some axiomatic observations:

Where there is segregation there is violence: Apartheid structures are enforced through violence. Radical segregation is enforced by terrorizing people. We need only look to the US’s history of lynchings to be reminded of this.

Mainstream sports culture is segregated culture: Sports culture is segregated by gender. This “sports nexus,” as Ann Travers defines it, is “an androcentric sex-segregated commercially powerful set of institutions that is highly visible and at the same time almost completely taken for granted to the extent that its anti-democratic impetus goes virtually unnoticed.”  (See Travers, “The Sport Nexus and Gender Injustice” in Studies in Social Injustice” 2:1 [2008])

Where we find segregation, we find sexual violence: Whether we are talking about segregation by race or gender, sexual violence is a vehicle for terrorizing people into keeping in their place. Within an intensely segregated environment, sexual harassment and sexual violence are normalized as a means for marking who belongs and who does not belong to a gendered space. The sex-segregated culture of sports, unfolding as it does within a racist framework risks producing women as “to-be-raped” and black men in particular as latent-rapist.

So – we might ask writers addressing rape in the sports world to consider whether or not their reporting participates in the above structures or fights against them.

Do we have to wait for a rape victim to file charges for a sports journalist to report on women in the sports world? To take up the question of the sports world’s sexism? Because as long as that’s the case, as long as women are naturalized as a sub-species by sports media – that media collaborates in creating the conditions of possibility for the normalization of sexual violence.

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