Misogyny in Sports

A Division 1 college sports experience demonstrates a toxic culture.

Equality

Written by: Kelly Fisher

07.01.2021

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Photo by: Mitchell Luo

Toxic cultures are unfortunately still common in sports environments, where sexism can be especially pervasive. A problem this large needs action from different actors, but what could be the role of professional athletes? 

Sports have a large role in societies all around the world.  From the excitement of matches, global status of star athletes, and the high number of kids who participate in sports growing up, sports are everywhere.  Yet a topic which doesn’t receive much attention is the negative side of sports which can be toxic environments and where sexism is celebrated.  This is something I have personally experienced. 

When I was 18, I was recruited to the rowing team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has a strong and top-level rowing program. It was an exciting and incredible opportunity to compete at a Division 1 level in University Sports (the top division), where I traveled the US competing against teams including Boston University, and the Naval Academy. Yet throughout my time on the team, there was always something that didn’t sit with me well. 

A Toxic University Sports Environment   

The team had a toxic culture where aggression was celebrated, while sensitivity was mocked and ridiculed.  Showing emotions was seen as weak, and while bonding and strong friendships developed, these friendships often revolved around activities and ideals which had to be deemed “manly” enough.   On a team of forty, I felt as though I was able to connect with only a few others, but for the most part, as someone who always considered emotional intelligence as valuable, I felt out of place. 

Sadly, I do remember a moment where I felt “accepted” by the others on the team.  After a weekend out partying, I had quite drunkenly slept with someone, and it was this that earned me status on the team.  I remember sitting at dinner after practice, getting “props” and more attention than I was used to.  At the time I felt cool, but later I would reflect on how messed up it was that it was this type of action that made me popular and better regarded on the team.  

Words Matter  

Insulting and degrading language was commonly used.  While I won’t repeat the many things I heard which I disagreed with, sexist, racist, and homophobic comments occurred often, and were rarely challenged.  I wish I could say it was only common within the rowing team, but having spent time around many other athletes at the University, it seemed as though this culture was baked into sports environments as a whole.  While there are many reasons why I quit the rowing team after a year, wanting to be away from this culture was an important one.    

Athletics and sports teams are central in many societies, and often are a large part of children’s lives.  Being a part of a team teaches many great life skills, including teamwork, communication, goalsetting, dealing with success and failure, and the list could go on.  But sports teams can also foster unhealthy environments.  While I have highlighted my own personal experiences with this, it is a larger trend globally.    

Sports and Exclusion  

Homophobia is a particularly large problem in sports environments.  Unfortunately, homophobic slurs and insults are common in most sporting environments, from locker rooms, to what fans chant in the stadium.  In one of the largest studies about the LGBTQ+ community in sports, The “Out on the Fields” study found that regardless of country, including those which are very open and accepting, LGBTQ+ athletes feel unsafe being openly gay.  In a survey conducted by the BBC among professional women athletes in the UK, 65% reported experiences of sexism, and only 10% had reported it.  This occurred in a variety of ways, from the comments that males in the same club or organization would make comments to them, to how they were treated by referees.     

Manliness  

Michael Messner, a distinguished professor in Men and Masculinities research writes, sports teams are areas in which men are constantly proving themselves and trying to prove their manliness.  This can have many unfortunate consequences, including creating an atmosphere where anything seen as feminine or girly is rejected, resulting in a highly sexist environment, as noted in this well researched piece in the Atlantic.     

Sports are going to create competitive environments, which can at times mean aggression and hostility will be present.  This doesn’t mean that all these other toxic problems have to be a part of them.  What could be some possible solutions?  

How Professional Athletes Can Help Address this Problem 

Professional athletes are some of the most celebrated and well-known individuals around the world.  In the case of male athletes, they are also some of the most well-paid.  As leaders, and role models for many people, but especially those who are athletes and participate on sports teams, athletic superstars’ words and actions matter.  Due to the prominent role these athletes have in society when they speak out on a problem, it can often have a large impact.     

Athletes have helped bring extra attention to many different problems.  From the way that the NBA in the US has been important for conversations around racism, the NFL about breast cancer awareness, and Women’s soccer teams for equal pay, they have helped make these issues more prominent and visible.  However sexism, which is a large problem in sporting environments, has not received much attention.    

Speak Up 

If the most iconic and celebrated figures spoke out against sexism, it would have many positive impacts among sports teams.  Sadly though, many athletes, and especially male athletes either are silent or casually reenforce sexist ideas.  If male athletes spoke out it could have the potential to set new precedents about what should be celebrated in heavily male environments, such as sports teams, and shift expectations as well.  For a long time, this issue has been ignored, and in a way, accepted even.  It will require action from many different actors to address this problem.  Athletes, who have a history of shining a light on social problems, have a unique opportunity and position in society to speak out on this problem. •