Commercial sports media is unrelenting in its sexism; it is no better or worse than the leagues, teams and schools that give the media its headline fodder. The sports media’s framework for conversations about gender, violence and power is not formed by any feminist intelligence—quite the opposite. The media reproduces an ideology of sex which presents gender difference as a difference in species. On some fundamental level, media pundits love stories about “domestic violence” because it lets pundits (mostly men) luxuriate in a patriarchal language about women’s absolute vulnerability/monstrosity. (Media discourse tends to present women as both at once—the victim who seeks out abuse; the victim who asked for it etc.)
This level of institutional sexism is, in fact, a much bigger problem for women in the sports world than is, say, rape and intimate partner violence. This sexist super-structure not only allows gender-based violence to flourish; it requires the violent demonstration of women’s weakness, women’s essential vulnerability. (Ann Travers describes this matrix as “the sports nexus.”) If, say the coach of your team is demanding sex from his players, exactly where do you go for help? Do you go to your national football association—run by men who are as bad, if not worse? How, people ask, as they tune into 48 hours of weekend broadcasts of men’s sports, are these abusers allowed to get away with treating women like dogs?
A world of absolute gender segregation requires heavy enforcement. That enforcement might take the shape of passive acquiescence to the idea that “this is just the way things are” (“well, I can’t report on the women’s football season because editors don’t think that women’s sports is a story—what can I possibly do?”). It might shape the public’s sense of “interest” (“watching women’s sports is boring”). It might take the form of disavowal — a turning a blind eye (as did various people working with Sandusky at Penn State), or self-censorship (“If I come out my career is over”/”If we hire him, we’ll lose our fan base”). Enforcement takes those shapes, as well as more “active” forms—sex-based harassment and worse (e.g. locker-room abuse, gang rape). In media reporting on gender and violence, the active and the passive combine.
We must be nearing the last act in the “NFL and domestic violence” story cycle: media pundits are now calling for Hope Solo to be pilloried. Fans of the USWNT will know well that Solo is facing assault charges. That story is not new. Washington Post editors might want to claim that this is “the domestic violence case that no one is talking about,” but that claim only works we ignore The Seattle Times, which, for example, has covered the story consistently, and responsibly, through their Seattle Sounders FC blog (Solo plays for Seattle Reign). The fact is that the national news media basically doesn’t give a shit about women’s sports stories unless they can be made into stories about men. Unless Solo’s case, in other words, can appear as a footnote to the Ray Rice story and (worse) absorbed into some broad popular sense that women, in general, are somehow getting away with something.
For the media pundit, all of these cases are all the same. This is, in fact, how sexist and racist ideologies work—the media discourse will move towards a “there are two sides the story” structure. Given that there is no way to produce a story of Janay Palmer as the aggressor from the image of her knocked unconscious, we must find some other woman—a woman who is violent just like men are violent. And thus the turn to Hope Solo, who faces fourth degree assault charges stemming from a (by all available accounts on both sides) chaotic, drunken, violent confrontation with her half-sister and 17-year old nephew. Solo’s case is still pending: it was a brawl—and it’s unclear how it got started. The situation was bad enough, however, to merit the charges advancing through the system. Her teams are standing by her. Seattle Reign have been clear that they’ll take appropriate disciplinary action pending the outcome of the court case.
Solo’s story, it must be noted, does intersect with that of the NFL—Solo’s marriage began with another brawl, also involving a group of people. The police were called out in the middle of the night to respond to a “disturbance.” Her fiancé, Jerramy Stevens (who played for the Seattle Seahawks), was arrested on suspicion of assaulting Solo. The charges were dropped. It was another woman, not Solo, who went to the hospital with a hip injury, and a third person was also reported as injured. Solo’s brother blamed the fight on a few unknown men who crashed their party. The fight, consistently reported by the media as domestic abuse, involved eight people at a party that “got out of control.” Is Solo a victim or an abuser? Or something else?
The idea that Solo is an abused partner/abusive partner makes for a good story: “Hope Solo is the Ray Rice of women’s sports.” Women—just like men, except they get away with more!
It is a very sad fact that people in abusive situations get caught up in violent conflict; they can get caught up in the system. They mark each other, and end up marked. I don’t know Solo, I have no idea how to understand these stories of drunken brawls except as an indication of the ubiquity of intense, alcohol-fueled violent conflict in her family—a reasonable take, especially if you’ve read her memoir. In some situations, especially from a depersonalized distance, you can’t see the difference between the abuser and the abused. Violence circulates. This is one reason why police will sometimes take all parties involved in a fight into custody. It is a reasonable assumption that Solo was at risk of being an abused partner. But that Stevens was arrested does not make this so. Similarly, in Solo’s current case, we can’t know exactly what went down—even when the court deciding the case comes to whatever conclusion it settles on.
It is also the case that the court system is woefully inadequate when it comes to addressing intimate partner violence, and that throwing people in jail is no solution to the problem. Community based, restorative forms of justice are rarely discussed in these situations, but they should be. But, then again, where women and mainstream sports are concerned, there is nothing to restore. There is no community to repair.
What we have now is: men talking about men, men coaching and administering men’s sports and women’s sports, addressing an audience imagined as men — women are exiled to a separate and totally unequal system. We get the occasional public sacrifice of gender non-normative people like Caster Semenya (the difference between men and women must be enforced!), or the ritual hanging of problem masculinity (almost always black men) — these figures render the systemic discrimination which defines the NFL, ESPN and just about every apparatus handling the sport spectacle into an anomaly (Semenya) or a managerial problem (Rice) to be resolved.
All of this is to say that it just isn’t helpful to equate Solo with Rice, or, for that matter, Rice with Peterson. Or to imagine that the solution is to pillory any of these individuals. The answer certainly is not to sweep this level of crisis under the rug, but there must be something better than the facile moralizing which seems to be the order of the day.
There are lots of reasons for separating out Solo’s case from those plaguing the NFL and other sports. There is a whole category of precedent-setting Title IX rape cases involving football players and programs. The entire culture/sociology/economics of mainstream men’s sports is defined through intensely gendered forms of brutality. Penn State didn’t happen because people ignored one incident, or downplayed it. It happened because the entire system is set up to protect masculine forms of power and authority.
I recall here that in 2010, there was not one meaningful story published in US or UK-based sports news about the fact that the head coach of the South African women’s football team was sexually abusing players — that this was happening through the men’s World Cup, almost certainly with the knowledge of people at the South African Football Association. It’s hard to believe that FIFA administrators were ignorant of this. And I’d frankly be surprised if that was the only national women’s team that was poisoned by this level of sexual harassment. In 2009, the biggest story in women’s sports was a series of ludicrous fouls conducted within a regional, amateur women’s soccer game that happened to be recorded and broadcast (that in and of itself is a rarity). Everyone reported that incident like it was news.
There are months when it seems that women only appear in the sports pages if they win a world championship or file a rape accusation. So I guess we should be glad Solo’s personal life is so awful, so explosive. Were it not, the US’s win over Mexico and Solo’s shut-out record wouldn’t have appeared in the news as the footnote it is to the story “no one is talking about.”
All of this is to assert that the media’s relationship to women is itself violent. And as long as the day-in-day out struggle of women athletes—to win games, to set world records, to win appropriate support for their sport—remains the story that “no one” is actually talking about, no one gets to indulge the fantasy that a woman athlete’s domestic assault charge is “the same” as that faced by a multi-million dollar male athlete playing for a billion dollar business run by and for men.