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The Objectification of Women in Professional Sports

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In the wake of Ray Rice's suspension from the NFL we look at the perception of women in professional sports, how it might link to domestic violence, plus the missteps we take in addressing the issue that prevent progress instead of aiding it.

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If you've followed sports news in the last 24 hours, you know that Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended indefinitely by the NFL following the release of video showing an incident of relationship violence against his wife, Janay Rice, in an Atlantic City elevator. If you'd like to catch up on the timeline of events, including Rice's original two-game suspension and the fallout following, SBNation.com has complete coverage in a single-post package.

Following the announcement of Rice's suspension, the White House released a statement on behalf of President Barack Obama. The text:

"The President is the father of two daughters. And like any American, he believes that domestic violence is contemptible and unacceptable in a civilized society. Hitting a woman is not something a real man does, and that's true whether or not an act of violence happens in the public eye, or, far too often, behind closed doors. Stopping domestic violence is something that's bigger than football - and all of us have a responsibility to put a stop to it."

Not only does that paragraph mark the first time a sitting President has been quoted here on Blazer's Edge, it triggered my tipping point as I was deciding whether to broach the topic on this site.

One strain of logic argues that the Rice incident was a Baltimore Ravens, or at least an NFL, matter. The Portland Trail Blazers lie the length of a nation apart physically, play a different sport in a different league, and hopefully won't have to deal with this kind of heinous act from their players. I was prepared to ride with that until the President's text came across the wire. Though well-meant, it betrays a potentially harmful mindset and a basic misunderstanding of the issues at hand. I figured if the President doesn't know better, what chance do we have? The issue bears more scrutiny.

So today we're rejecting the logic that separates Ray Rice and domestic violence from the Trail Blazers' cozy cocoon. The argument wasn't strong anyway. Violence, objectification, and the darker parts of athletic culture make their home among Portland residents just as they do everywhere else. The damage they cause affects us all. As participants in this society--not just American, but the circle of professional sports--we need to unpack them.

We begin the conversation is a simple affirmation:

WOMEN ARE PEOPLE

Those words seem self-evident. They should be. If you find yourself disagreeing with them you might as well not read further, as you'll find no traction in the rest of this post. Yet as obvious as the statement appears, we tend to qualify it when confronted with the ugly reality of violence against women (physical or otherwise).

  • Our gut reaction upon finding out that nude pictures of women have been disseminated online without their permission runs the gamut from, "Why did they take them in the first place?" to "They're celebrities! What do they expect?"
  • Rape victims face questions like, "What were you wearing? How much had you been drinking? Why were you even out at 2 a.m.?"
  • Domestic violence victims hear, "Why did you marry him in the first place? Why don't you just leave? I'd never let someone do that to me!"

Moving to the consensual realm, we reserve special categories for women we perceive benefiting from objectification: cheerleaders, strippers, bikini models, and reality stars to name a few. As long as the pom-poms and kicks fly we regard them as "more than" in a certain, limited way. As soon as the game's over they're "less than". "I can't take her home to mom, she does that kind of thing." Or, "She wouldn't think about dating me? Well she's just a [insert derogatory term or comment here that leaves a man feeling superiority over the object he deems unobtainable]."

Entire moral codes have grown up around the idea that women fall into one of three categories: pure, pregnant, or dangerous. You don't have to look any farther than America's celebrity circus to see content producers taking advantage of those presumptions, keeping female entertainers virginal then pushing them into the "forbidden fruit" category. You'll also observe plenty of public figures (rightfully) speaking out and saying, "If those are my choices, I'm going for 'dangerous'. At least I have some self-agency that way." Those who run the machine, those who play along for the vicarious titillation, and those who complain self-righteously about folks in the first two groups all perpetuate the phenomenon. Pontificating religious moralist, meet the VMA's. You guys were meant for each other.

From top to bottom these impulses point to the same conclusion:

Yes, women are people, but...***

***[see footnote 3, paragraph 5 regarding morality and clothing clause].

Every one of us nodded at the obvious three-word phrase. Every one of us also has the instinct to betray it. We port along conditions under which it's permissible to view a woman as "less than". You've heard it, you've said it, you've participated. I have too.

"Women Are People" has no qualifiers. You can point out the wide range of human behavior--fashion, dance, relationship choices, career choices--until you have no breath left to spend. You can debate the morality, efficacy, root causes, and ripple effects of those behaviors too. But they are still...human...behaviors. They lie within the realm of possibility for our diverse and wide-spread species. You can tell because--news flash--a human being did them.

No matter what else you think of her, a woman is a person first, last, and always. She's not less than human...not "human, but***". She's a human, period.

This reminder is particularly pertinent to the world of American professional athletics, where most of the women we see are subject to objectification...some consensual and some not. Take an unfiltered look at a sports stadium and you'll see a reasonably full spectrum of women. Switch to the camera view (which is all most of us have) and you'll not notice the mother of three, the golden-aged usher, or anybody else in the middle- or lower-reaches of the pop culture bell curve. If you do see them, they're either in the background or a foul ball just hit them in the head. In the foreground, front and center, you'll find the hotties, chicks the play-by-play guy is commenting to the producer about off-air, cheerleaders, and the triune archetype of wives, girlfriends, and "arena rats". The camera discriminates as it chooses, its criteria both meaningful and unsubtle.

Even the strongest, most visible females at arenas--professional athletes on whom events center--can't escape the stigma bestowed upon womankind. If you're male, incredibly handsome, and the 267th-ranked tennis player in the world you're soon going to be an incredibly handsome accountant. If you're female, incredibly pretty, and the 267th-ranked tennis player in the world you may well end up more popular than the top-ranked player. I cannot even tell you the number of serious-minded sports broadcasters who have discussed the WNBA and LPGA solely in terms of the attractiveness of their participants, feeling free to make suggestive and snide comments in the process.

When's the last time you heard major, accredited news networks ranking the world's top male golfers rated by their crotch bulges? It's no exaggeration to say that the equivalent happens to female athletes incessantly regardless of their talent, work ethic, sacrifices, or results (none of which are taken too seriously). Do these women consent to this? What does that matter? It's not like they're people.

You don't have to scratch far into the professional sports culture before you figure out that you're going to have to work hard and tune out plenty of noise to avoid objectifying, making women "less than".  It may not be possible. At a certain point the system blurs the vast spectrum of female humanity into a fuzzy blob, indistinguishable and mono-purposed, existing for our amusement and consumption. Without a clear target to latch onto, even the best intentions go astray.

Scarily enough, we haven't even touched on domestic violence yet. Everything we've described so far is normal...the larger, generally-accepted background against which physical violence against women plays a small, disruptive, and easily-excised part. To make the leap from general to specific, you have to understand two things:

1. You don't get to choose who you dehumanize and who you don't.

The idea that we can safely distinguish human vs. less-human by morality or familiarity or any criterion is an illusion. Saying, "I can consider that type of person less than human and not this type" just means that your world is big enough to contain plenty of "other than me" folks still. Once those others are gone you'll begin the process anew with the next-most-distant people, and so on. By the time you realize you've run through the environment and are now dehumanizing the people closest to you, it'll be so habitual you'll have trouble getting out of it.

It may seem fair, maybe even reasonable, to consider a person "less than" because of her circumstances. "She was just chasing a rich athlete, waiting for him on the loading ramp hoping to catch his eye. She knew what she was getting into. She benefited from the relationship. She was complicit in this and got what she deserved."  Now watch how many other people get lumped into this category: other girls at the loading dock, the parents who raised them, the dancers strutting their stuff at center court, women in the stands who look cute, women you pass on the street who remind you of them, women who object to what you're doing and make you feel guilty about it. Once you buy into it that fuzzy blob of mono-chromatic female humanity stretches farther than you can see.

2. Domestic violence centers around dehumanization: viewing the other person as inherently "less than" and acting on that assumption.

Domestic violence is not about anger. We all get angry; relatively few of us react by slamming all the people we're angry at into a wall.

Domestic violence is not about the choices or perceived shortcomings of its victims. Think back to every sub-optimal choice you've ever made. Think back to every time you've done something to upset or offend another person. Can you even number those occasions? Now consider...did a person a foot taller, twice your weight, and ten times your strength appear and start punching you every time either of those things happened? Would you, or anyone, deserve that?

Domestic violence revolves around power and control. It's one person saying to another, "I am greater, you are lesser. You are subject to me and I will use every advantage--any means necessary--to enforce your subjectivity." Both anger and the victims perceived choices/shortcomings become excuses to maintain control.

"She made me mad so I hit her."

"She stayed with him so he hit her."

No...he hit her. He hit another human being--a full, flawed, wonderful, mixed-up, precious human being--for no better reason than he could not stand for there to be any human in the room equal to him. That's the reality of domestic violence.

Remember what we just said about women in the sports world...the casual and near-mandatory "less than" status they're afforded in the name of elevating those who please the (largely male) viewing audience. Couple that with the definition of domestic violence as dehumanization enacted physically, control enforced for self-gain. This is why the issue affects us all, why we need to discuss it more, and why we dare not accept sports culture and its effect on women whole cloth, without close examination.

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Thus armed, we're ready to look at the White House press release and the statement that "hitting a woman is not something a real man does". It's as bad of a counter to domestic violence as I can envision.

At heart, the phrase is a veiled version of a common response when any group is made uncomfortable: "We're not all like that!" When you read "not something a real man does" you should translate, "We 'real' men don't do this and are thus excused from your scrutiny, wrath, and any responsibility for this matter. You want to turn your attention to those fake men over there." Now the issue gets reduced to "not-real man" Ray Rice and an elevator and a suspension, none of which are sufficient to frame it.

Domestic violence is not a demarcation line between "real" and "fake" males. Real men hurt real women every day in every town, city, hamlet, economic class, and racial category across the land. The issue is real.

We cannot address a phenomenon that centers around a man exerting power, maintaining control, and making excuses for it when other men react to it by exerting power and maintaining control (painting themselves as "real" men condemning and dehumanizing "fake" men) and making excuses for it. ("Wasn't me! Not all like that!") Most men aren't abusers. Every man who accepts, let alone follows, that line of reasoning abets without lifting a finger.

The "real vs. fake" designation takes on added meaning in a professional sports context where athletes are celebrated for, and isolated into, a world different than most of humanity.  We worship our athletes because they do things we only wish we could do. Some of us take it further, dreaming of the lifestyle and riches that go with those unique abilities. We love them because they're not us, because they transcend our routine or its restrictions.

Under those circumstances it's all too easy for a professional athlete to lose touch, to slip into an existence where everything one does or feels is right by fiat. If I'm not the only human in the room, at least I'm the most unique, most popular, most wealthy, dare I say the best? Few of us start out thinking that way. Repeated enough, how long before that universe seems real?

Defining manhood otherwise threatens to deconstruct the athlete's success, divorcing the reward from the work. This redefinition can be done--must be done--but that work has to happen with the athlete, within his community, spoken in the same language and lived out in the same environment. Aspersions from outside, including the designation of "fake" when the connection between worlds is already tenuous, only drive people further apart. They provide another reason for their targets to dismiss the issue, disengage from the conversation. Worse, they provide incentive to drag people close to you--including women--further into your reality and away from the outside world. Since isolation is the first and strongest prerequisite for domestic violence, that's far from ideal.

We cannot say whose world is real and whose fake. Perception depends on perspective. We do know that domestic violence is ruining lives on both sides of the line. Perhaps that would be a better starting point than trying to figure out who's a "real man".

.

So far we have sports fans, sports broadcasters, professional athletes, and the President of the United States all participating in the culture from which domestic violence springs, all at risk of making the problem worse (intentionally or not), and all distancing themselves from each other and the issue by pointing fingers at everyone else. It's a mess that nobody seems to acknowledge, let alone clean up.

Therefore in lieu of responsibility and due consideration we'll take an indefinite suspension for Ray Rice so we can feel good about how we reacted and get on with our lives. (Can we talk about how this affects the Ravens yet?) In the process many of us will blame his wife for marrying him. We'll speculate that it's either her fault or it must not be that bad. In this way we distance Mr. and Mrs. Rice from any resemblance to us or anyone we know. They're not real. This isn't real. But we handled the unreality well.

Who is made more human by this? There's got to be a better solution.

That solution starts with us uniting around this issue instead of running from it. All of us need to admit our tacit participation, our tendency to dehumanize each other and to push back when called on it. We need to find ways to discuss, acknowledge, support, and to the extent we can, prevent domestic violence. We need to come together to change the culture from within rather than expecting it to be moderated by actions and penalties from on high.

I am not saying we should feel guilty looking at cheerleaders at a game, regarding it as tantamount to abuse. Cheerleading and observing fall within the normal spectrum of human behavior. The relationship is both consensual and bounded enough to enjoy freely if all parties desire. But at least we can take a moment to remember that we're watching human beings dancing out there...that our enjoyment does not give us the right to put ourselves above that which we observe, as if casting down someone else exalted us. Demeaning others doesn't lift us up; it ruins the whole world. Maybe we can be a little less tolerant of that ruination, or at least realize when we're engaging in it. Heck, we'd be ahead of the game if we looked at cheerleaders and thought, "This is a woman, of which there are many in the world. Some are being treated as if they're not so beautiful. I will remember, watch, and care about them too."

Athletes and fans could work toward a world where humanity isn't determined on a sliding scale based on how fast you can run, high you can jump, or how fancy your car is. Humanity is defined by the gift of drawing breath on this earth and the opportunity to affect others for the better. Abusers sometimes turn out to be fast runners, high jumpers, fancy car drivers, and diehard fans, We should be straight about that. We should also own our capacity to say no, not just to abusers themselves but to the message they send about women and humanity as a whole. We have the power to create new messages in our professional sports culture if we care enough to do so. We should be as passionate about that ability as we are about the others.

Beyond that, the male-dominated, professional sports world probably needs to listen more than talk. We send a powerful message when we support and follow victims of domestic violence, when we hear their stories, when they tell us what they need to hear from us and we respond accordingly. This is far better than anything we could concoct in a commissioner's office. It's also better than seeing powerful men standing at national podiums (or sitting in front of broadcast microphones) justifying themselves and condemning other men without even bothering to invite women into a conversation about domestic violence which primarily affects women. (Keep control and power, disassociate with excuses and finger-pointing...we can't fix a problem by repeating it.)

It's also important to be aware that even if we don't have the words or tools to process these things right now, people in our communities are working to support victims of domestic violence as we speak. For the most part these agencies go unnoticed and under-funded. If you're a sports fan, the price of taking your family to one game could do wonders for a mom and her kids who left everything behind to live in a safe shelter. If you're a professional athlete, the sales tax on a sports car could revolutionize an entire program.

Many of these programs are grassroots, run by people who have experienced the pain and shock of domestic violence themselves...people who have dedicated their lives to helping others in similar circumstances. If you don't know which agencies do this in your community, why not? Dare we read and get indignant over one national incident while failing to address others right next door? Could we--the male-dominated sports community viewed with suspicion in so many places--come together by taking that much responsibility, at least?

We're not going to change our perception of women in sports nor our misunderstanding of domestic violence overnight. I'm not sure we even know what needs to be changed yet. But let's at least use this opportunity to pay more attention to these issues and our part in them, our contribution to underlying cause and cure alike.

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard

You can find more information on domestic violence at the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Or call 1-800-799-7233 | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) or your regional domestic violence support agency when it's safe if you need someone to talk to as you're figuring out how to cope.

Also I meant what I said about this being an opening to discussion and the voices of women being necessary to lead us. The comment section and Fanposts are always open but if you've got a longer message about negotiating the sports environment as a woman,contact me at blazersub@gmail.com. We'd love to feature your thoughts and experiences.

And speaking of, SBNation's Sarah Kogod has shared her voice and part of her stor, at SBNation.com. You can read her article here.