Listen Up, Sports: 7 Ways To Be Less Sexist

Listen Up, Sports: 7 Ways to Be Less Sexist

Chris Kluwe and Lynn Harris

Chris Kluwe consistently set team records as a punter for the Minnesota Vikings, and others. As an advocate for equality, he proudly and profanely broke the NFL’s code of omertà around locker-room politics. He tweets a lot about video games.

Lynn Harris is Breakthrough’s Vice President of Communications.

OK, sports. Listen up. At this point the game could go either way. But we’re still in this. There’s still a chance to turn this thing around and win something meaningful.

Something like better treatment of half the world’s population.

Ending violence and discrimination against women is not your job alone. We can all do more. We can all up our game.

But there’s still a huge role sports can play. Better than it is now.

How about that 2015 Women’s World Cup? The one that turned out to be the most-watched soccer event in U.S. television history? The one that more people watched than the NBA finals or the Stanley Cup finals? The one where female players are apparently paid 40 times less than their male counterparts? THAT ONE.

Robert Silverman recently wrote in the New Republic that the “sports world—through casual misogyny, glass ceilings, and indifference to violence—really, really doesn’t care about women.” That’s a shame, because clearly there are a whole lot of female athletes and female fans and fans of females and fans of SPORTS who are keeping this whole thing alive. And who care about the messages you’re sending. Listen, sports: UP. YOUR. GAME.

The momentum is there. You can win this. Today offers an unprecedented opportunity. To clean up your own house, yes. And, in doing so, to do even more. Because you, pro sports, have immense, outsize power to grab attention, forge role models, and uphold—or raise—standards for what we as a society find acceptable and admirable. It doesn’t have to be just a public relations move either. You could be the Derek Jeter of culture change. This is your moment. Don’t mess it up.

The world should not have to have seen the infamous elevator video perma-playing everywhere in order for the NFL to finally hold Rice, and itself, an itty bit accountable. But given that we did see it, we can no longer look away. People—and advertisers—are paying attention. Fans are speaking up. Some, and not just Knicks fans, are even walking away. Because of plays like this:

  • Hey boxing! Want to send the message that money is more important than domestic violence, crime, women, children, LGBT rights, good sportsmanship, and a decent fight, combined? NAILED IT.
  • Isiah Thomas. Known harasser. Thanks to James Dolan/Madison Square Garden, he’s also the new coach of the New York Liberty of the WNBA, where “W”=”Women.” This is NOT A GOOD LOOK.
  • NFL! Freshly committed to challenging violence against women, yet sporting enough to gloss over brand-new Tampa Bay QB Jameis’ Winston’s history of dodging credible, under-investigated accusations of sexual assault. (Winston claims in his defense that “the only thing as vicious as rape is falsely accusing someone of rape,” which is wrong on enough levels to cause spontaneous concussion.)
  • Tip to the Cleveland Cavaliers: A promo ad for your team, even one that pays homage to Dirty Dancing, in which an angry dude hurls a woman over his shoulders and down to the floor, visibly injuring her, is not at all appealing to ladyfans, or to humans.

On the other hand, we’re seeing some of you start to get things right. Baby steps in some cases, but baby steps are better than no steps. NASCAR, you—citing NFL precedent—suspended Kurt Busch immediately when a family court judge found it likely that he’d committed domestic violence. (He was reinstated when a D.A. declined to file charges—an unfortunately all too common occurrence in domestic violence cases.) Hockey: the L.A. Kings suspended Slava Voynov hours after a domestic violence arrest. Major League Baseball, in long-term partnership with Futures Without Violence, has launched (in the words of chief legal officer Dan Halem “a multi-year plan to attempt to change the culture vis-a-vis players and…everybody else in baseball.” RESPECT. Outside the U.S., there are calls for soccer (“football”!) to address the reportedly rampant violence against women in its ranks. The inertia of centuries is starting to change course.

So let’s clean up the obvious misbehavior, the stuff no one can look away from—and let’s also remember that these incidents don’t occur in a vacuum. You can’t be only reactive, dropping the hammer when someone steps wrong and then calling it a day. You have to be proactive, to identify the structures that allow this behavior to continue, and then use longer-term strategies to induce broader change, inside and outside sports.

Such as:

  1. Pay women better. As Jezebel reports: “In golf, the PGA tournament prize money, $250 million, is five times the amount of the women’s LPGA, $50 million. In 2013 the WNBA’s salary minimum was just under $38,000, and the team’s salary cap was $913,000. On the other hand, the NBA salary minimum was $490,180, the team salary cap was $58.7 million, and players like Kobe Bryant alone make $25 million per year.” Come on.
  2. Hire more women. (Refs are a start, but especially coaches.) It’d be nice for boys—starting in high school and younger to—see women as role models, humans, and equals, not the spoils of entitlement or the perks of unpaid labor.
  3. Current coaches, you can help with this by not calling your players “girls,” “women,” or worse (starts with “p,” but is not “players”) when you’re trying to motivate them. There are plenty more colorful insults out there that don’t perpetuate centuries of gender inequality, and honestly, you shouldn’t need them to motivate your athletes in the first place.
  4. Speaking of which, stop treating male athletes like gods. This breeds entitlement at best, rapeyness at worst. If a player is shielded from the consequences of his actions, he’ll never learn to change them. Professional players don’t act badly for the hell of it. It’s part of a pattern of behavior, and the best time to break that pattern is before it gets established. High school, college, the warning signs are there. Stop enabling them.
  5. Fans following along here: the best way to support your team is to call on them—and your fellow fans—to do the right thing. It’s okay if your team loses a game or two because they chose not to value physical talent over ethical behavior. Your team’s record is ultimately unimportant. Or at least less important than the society we all live in together.
  6. Dude fans in particular: When your bonehead friends harass female sports reporters (or any female, really), tell them to knock it off because it is embarrassing, unacceptable, potentially illegal, and oh hey, about to go viral. Breakthrough’s #BeThatGuy animations—which just ran for the second year at the Indy 500—show that when you speak up, everyone else will have your back. You can stand up to send the message that fans say no to all shapes and sizes of violence and that everyone deserves a bonehead-free sports experience.
  7. Fans in general: Keep making noise. Snarls/tweets of disgust (or support, depending), public pledges to say #noMayPac while donating the $99 cost of pay-per-view to prevent violence against women; whatever works. You’re being heard, even if it doesn’t look that way every day. Game by game, it adds up: to changing advertisers’ choices, to shifting public sentiment, to fighting the real fight of the century together.

Now let’s get out there and win.

Photo credit: Abigail Keenan

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