Thursday, January 27, 2011

Do You Get Rape-y Comments Too?: On Sexism & Sports Media

So the "story" of sexism in football culture finally "broke." We have ample footage of Sky Sports commentators Richard Keys and Andy Gray indulging in sexist "banter." From their recent remarks about Sian Massey, to jokes about "smashing it", and a video of the two of them breaking out into giggles (on camera) while reporting on the 1998 women's FA Cup final, we have a veritable archive of evidence demonstrating that sexism animates the way they think, talk and behave.

Anyone who has spent time with football knows full well how sexism and homophobia are seamlessly integrated into sports culture. The banter in which Grey and Keys engaged, a lighthearted exchange of insults to women (or gay men), helps them cement their relationship to each other. It's the sexist handshake - one of the most banal rituals through which members of the boys club identify themselves to each other. (Hi, are you a sexist? Yes! Great! Let's get to work!) This sort of thing forces everyone around them to adopt one of three positions: be complicit and go along with it, leave the room (a passive form of complicity), or protest at the risk of losing one's job and becoming the punch-line of another joke.

As a fan, a player, as a ref or an administrator we are bombarded with statements that are so outrageously sexist they wouldn't be tolerated in any other sphere. How many times have we heard "nobody really likes women's football" or "women can't play in goal"? These are "polite" versions of the Grey and Keys routine leaked by Sky Sports staff. People take the abjection of women's sports as such a given that the declaration that "women's football is boring" is totally uncontroversial - though when you stop and think about it, that statement actually does as much to replicate sexist structures of thought and power as the remarks about "smashing it."

If people think women's football is boring, it's because it's played by amateur athletes who do not have the benefit of the training offered men. It's because when people watch the rare match broadcast on television, there is hardly anyone in the stands - why go, if you've already decided you'll be bored? In the U.S. most local papers do not publish match times or match results for women's games (even those played at the highest level). Traditional sports media is so hostile to the women's game that the US pro league and its fans rely ENTIRELY on new media forms of micro-broadcasting (e.g. Twitter) for information about the season. These are our most reliable sources of information about our teams.

We would be burying our heads in the sand if we didn't see these egregiously sexist remarks as on a continuum with the sports media's black-out on covering women's sports - both are structured by sexist "common sense."

As has been reported by The Guardian, the Sky incidents were not exceptional, but typical of the work environment at the network. And that working environment is not an exception, but rather a mirror of media representations of sports culture as an all-male universe - played by men, watched by men, managed by men.

Strangely enough, when that story broke I was working on a blog post about the sexist insults I've received since I started writing about this sport. The whole topic got me so down, I put the article aside. This Sky Sports debacle pushed me to return to it:

"Do you get rape-y comments too?"

I often ask this question of fellow female sports bloggers. We then swap stories - our experiences with sexist and homophobic vitriol is connected to our commitments to our blogs as spaces to which sports fans can turn when they want or need something less violently sexist than mainstream spaces. We seem more likely to receive comments laced with a rhetoric of sexual violence when readers experience our writing as feminist - and it doesn't take that much for some to reach that trigger point. Sometimes, just knowing our gender is enough.

When I first started this blog in 2007, I cross-posted a few articles with Soccer Lens. (Warning: I can't write this without recycling obscene and offensive language.) I admit my first post was a full-on feminist polemic, in which I questioned media dismay at the baldy sexist and abusive behavior of Man U players at what became known as the team's "Christmas Rape Party" (thank you British Tabloid culture).  It's a patriarchal organization, I wrote - just look at how they treated their women's team (abysmally) - and I went on to suggest that the "rape party" incident was just the worst example of a much bigger, and deeper problem in British football culture. (Is that point really controversial?)

It was one of the most "aggressive" things I've written.  The comments posted to Soccer Lens nevertheless rattled me. I expected insults and criticism. But more than one comment was sexually violent in its language - I recall one that mapped out a rape fantasy (involving a female soccer player).  Anal rape seemed to be a preoccupation with posters.

More upsetting than these comments was the fact that I had to point out that these comments were offensive - the blog was moderated, and someone at Soccer Lens had approved them for publication. The site's editor was sincerely apologetic.

But the fact that I had to explain that those comments were offensive was so demoralizing I made a decision to stay away from mosh pits like Soccer Lens and Big Soccer. Life is too short, and there is a bigger need, in my view, for abuse-free zones like this blog. I now sometimes cross post with Pitch Invasion, and I share my articles with Women Talk Sports.

Last year, a Pitch Invasion reader posted a zinger in response to my article there on The Damned United (the site's editor deleted the remark):
"Just a silly stupid little split arse tart spouting about something it knows nothing about. Go back to playing with your Barbie dolls dumb arse fucker"
There is nothing about Pitch Invasion that would have encouraged this reader to think such a remark was acceptable. What really shocked me was his use of "it" instead of "she" - I'd never heard this, except as spoken by the psycho in Silence of the Lambs ("it puts the lotion on its skin"), and then recently as spoken by Richard Keys.

Fortunately, From a Left Wing readers really don't write stuff like that. I do get surprising comments from wayward readers intent on demonstrating to me that men are "better" than women (faster, stronger, more interesting). I delete a fair amount of those. Nothing makes me happier than knowing I am doing my small part to confine such thoughts to oblivion.

Jeff Pearlman, a columnist for Sports Illustrated has written an article for CNN about the internet "trolls" - the people who jump into public forums and call people "fucking retards" and worse. He tracked down a couple recent offenders, and was surprised to discover they were decent guys - sports fans who turn up the volume on their comments because they don't feel like anyone is really listening anyway (or that this is the only way to be "heard" - by which I assume they mean "noticed").

I couldn't really relate to his article. Because the guy who called me a "split arse tart" is probably a "nice guy". That's the thing about sexism, homophobia and racism. It's not the exclusive property of assholes. Most of the people who engage in these cultures of hate and discrimination are not obvious monsters. They are normal people.

The worst offenders are probably "great guys" AND sexist pigs. Richard and Andy meant no harm with their sexist banter, and Sky didn't take the culture of its workplace seriously because it's just boys being boys. And maybe the fact that these boys are doing it with a smile and no deliberate malice makes it worse.

The racist equivalent of this stuff is generally seen as "worse" in sports culture. And I guess that makes sense. Where most sports cultures have had to take on their racist administrators, fans, and athletes they have yet to confront their sexism. Men of color are at least seen as athletes. Of course in a broader racist culture determined to lock men into their bodies this becomes another turn in racist discourse. But in sports culture, women are not only not seen as athletes - they are not even really seen as people.  As my previous post points out, women are quite literally treated as a different species in sports culture. In this sense, sexism is the new racism.

Sexism and homophobia are both openly expressed within the most professional halls of sports culture - by Sepp Blatter on down. Blatter asserts that gay people planning to attend the World Cup in Qatar just shouldn't have sex, and he giggles on saying this. And then reporters giggle. Because, you, know, there's so much to find funny in Blatter's homophobia and in the deep history of homophobia in football culture (as a few have pointed out, the last time the World Cup was in England, homosexuality was criminalized in that country).

In the US Brett Favre is in a shitstorm of trouble (finally) over his harassment of any woman, it seems, who dared to cross his path in a professional capacity. That situation was created by the Jets and by the NFL - however - as neither organization seems to have respected the most basic EEOC guidelines regarding discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Ines Sainz gracefully put up with the offensive behavior of Jets players, because you have to if you are going to work in sports media, and you have the misfortune of having tits. Female sports reporters "lucky" enough to get a job have to wait for the lack of professionalism with which they are treated to get caught on camera - and for someone else to leak that "story" - before anyone steps in to moderate the bastards.

The only thing that bothers me more than the story of Andy Grey, Richard Keys and the sexist handshake is the hypocrisy of the media that acts as if has nothing to do with creating the world within which such behavior is not only tolerated, but imagined as defining sports culture itself.

It is not incidental that this was provoked by the spectacle of a woman working in football. For, really, this - the image of a woman participating in the sport is the real problem. We see all too few of those images - because a sexist common sense makes such images seem ridiculous too all too many people.

When I see The Guardian, Sky Sports and the BBC reporting on the hard stories in women's sports (such as the mismanagement and corruption that limits international development of the women's game, or the struggles attending to the professionalization of women's soccer, or the impact of the sexist attitudes on the management and development of the women's game, or the accusations of harassment directed at national team managers in a range of sports) I'll believe that there actually has been a crisis of conscience in sports media, and that the times are actually changing.
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