Panelists Argue Connection Between Sexual Assault and Sports

There is an explicit connection between sexual assault and the sporting world, according to a panel discussion hosted by the Georgetown University Women’s Center on sexual assault in sports in the Healey Family Student Center on Wednesday.

Director of the Women’s Media Speech Project Soraya Chemaly moderated the panel, which included Jessica Luther, an investigative journalist and author of “Unsportsmanlike Conduct,” Women’s Studies Professor Bonnie Morris and The Nation Sports Editor Dave Zirin.

Zirin said sexual violence and athletics were inherently linked.

“This idea of rape culture and sexual violence is so deeply baked into the cake of sports,” Zirin said. “One of my ‘aha’ moments was realizing that this is not some sort of red state, blue state issue; this is not rural versus urban; this is not Northeast versus Texas; this is touching high schools everywhere, regardless of socioeconomic, regardless of ethnicity.”

Morris said tendencies of male coaches to demean athletes through comparisons to women or women’s body parts, as well as the association of early childhood toys and clothing with stereotypical understandings of gender, leads to an athletics industry dominated by masculinity.

“I also think we’ve seen a consolidation, as a result of the economics of college play, that sports for big guys have been getting most of the funding, whether that’s basketball, football, and the sports for men with smaller bodies, or that are not contact sports—diving is just one example—those get so much less press, and we spend so much more of our time celebrating the most aggressive of sports, which of course include the biggest salaries,” Morris said.

Morris said athletes and society as a whole should embrace body types and gender identities other than the traditionalized, stereotypical perception of masculinity.

“There are alternative masculinities out there, but they’re not hardly introduced in Saturday morning cartoons to kids, and they’re not necessarily marketed at Target,” Morris said. “I think we need to keep having these discussions about what is modeled at home, and what is within the reach of the kid with a limited allowance to express different kinds of incipient sexuality and gender identity.”

Luther said athletes must work to change the culture of their sports.

“If you care so much about your program that you’re willing to send horrific things to strangers that you’ve never met, why don’t you just actually send your concern and your angry words to the people who could actually make your program better?”

Zirin said the athletics world markets itself as the only option for a successful future for young black men.

“The sick message — and this is facilitated by the NCAA, which is supposed to be about education—the only message they’re really sending is that if you’re going to be a young black man in America, you better be Jameis Winston and not Trayvon Martin; you’d better know how to throw a football or we’re not going to value your life,”  Zirin said.

Sara Brady, who works for Inside Higher Ed, a website focusing on education, attended the event and said the discussion shed light on ties between sexual assault and masculinity.

“I hadn’t given a lot of thought to this topic as it is concerned as a male socialization ritual, rather than specifically an act of violence against women,” Brady said.

Annabelle Heisley (COL ’19), attended the panel and said she had never considered the interconnection between sports and sexual assault before.

“I think everything was mind-blowing, in what they were talking about,” Heisley said. “I’ve always known sexual assault happened, but it’s so true — it’s so deeply ingrained, there’s no way to just take one part out of it and still have sports the way sports are.”

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