Reckless Indifference

Sep 19, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens fans wait in line over an hour to exchange their Ray Rice jerseys for new against the Baltimore Ravens players jerseys at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 19, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens fans wait in line over an hour to exchange their Ray Rice jerseys for new against the Baltimore Ravens players jerseys at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports /

Violence against women: we know it exists. In the context of sports, we read about players involved in nasty scandals; professional teams pledge then attempt to combat it; high school athletes are educated about it. Yet, it persists. It comes as forms of harassment, verbal abuse, physical or emotional violence. And it is often propelled by a sports media that does not take it seriously.

In the United Kingdom, women’s organizations such as ‘Women’s Aid’ work with the public and teach about the important intersections of sports and domestic violence, and advocates write about the effects of misogyny in sport. Despite cries from some of sports media against abuse and explanations of the horrible effects that plague a culture of misogyny, it continues.  

Why do some famous sports journalists with incredible platforms write with impunity casually insert domestic violence into their pieces? When a cluster of female sportswriters bravely talk about the harassment they face in sports media, why are their colleagues exempted from misogynist comments? Why do sportswriters continue to speak of women’s bodies in unnecessary ways? 

Sports media is a male dominated field and for many of these men, the issue of domestic violence may not be important or necessary to address. It is only as important as a punchline; as a metaphor. When rebuttals are penned, salient points are largely ignored by offenders. And despite many blog posts and pieces written in objection, men continue to add these pieces to the innumerable stories marinated in sexism. 

Just before Wimbledon, the New York Times published a piece, not on the athletic skill of the players, but on their bodies and their opinions of their appearance. This wasn’t an in-depth piece to debunk societal notions of what “athletic” means. It was written by a man who thought speaking about these players bodies and examining the “feminine” look was, for some reason, important. Even worse, the New York Times social-media jumped in and decided to highlight the worst quotes of the piece.

I am unclear as to the motive. To start a cat fight? To confuse tennis fans? To undermine the athleticism of female tennis players? I have never seen a piece from the New York Times detailing the physique of a male tennis player, neither written by a man nor a woman. The article’s author said he was “disappointed and surprised” by the negative reaction his piece received. He insisted it should be a conversation starter. Oh, okay. I appreciate totally do not understand the need for privileged, white male sportswriters to want to attack every angle in the world of sport.

Talented writers of female sportswriting from around the world  have chronicled their struggles in stadiums and locker rooms. Pioneers who have fought against sexual harassment while trying to get stories. There is no denying that a huge culture of sexist mentality exists in sports media. There are women constantly calling out for change.

Will male sportswriters ever step up and support their colleagues and fully support women in sports – be it as competitors or as writers? Will they ever recognize the serious challenges women face and not be reductive? Will male sportswriters step up and call out other men?

I’m doubtful.

After a fantastic year of women’s sport , how can one of the world’s foremost soccer writers get away with mocking an issue as serious as domestic violence in a piece?

I follow prominent soccer ‘gurus’ on Twitter. Imagine my horror when seeing The Guardian football writer Sid Lowe share his thoughts on soccer’s favorite villain, Diego Costa after a Chelsea FC and Arsenal FC match. (Full disclosure: I’m a Gunners supporter and have no love for Costa.) Diego Costa has been aptly described as “a player that everyone loves to hate” and is renown for being, well, aggressive.

During the match Lowe was unsurprised by Costa’s grotesque and combative behavior on the pitch, and thus decided to share a screenshot of the first paragraph of an article he wrote in 2013 about Costa’s aggressive mannerisms: “Diego Costa says that he never takes his work home with him. Which is probably a good thing. If he did, the Atlético Madrid striker might walk through the door, goad the dog with a stick, surreptitiously elbow his wife out of the way on the stairs, shrug his shoulders innocently as she lay in a crumpled heap at the bottom and whisper insults to his children, look the other way and whistle when they burst into tears. He might stroll into the living room and dramatically collapse on the floor, roll around the rug holding his head and appeal for a penalty. He might even get it too.”

I lost my breath. Truth be told, I routinely I lose my breath from reading  passionate and witty prose of the sport I love so much. This time it was for a different reason.

I was infuriated. After replying immediately to Mr.Lowe, I wondered how he thought he could insert an imaginary scene of domestic violence in his piece. Why was no one calling him out? 

To frame Costa’s aggressive behavior during a match as an imaginary scene of graphic violence is appalling. Diego Costa is not married, does not have children and has no charges or convictions of domestic violence against him. Moreover, allegories like Lowe’s could potentially trigger victims and are apologia for violence committed by players or those who love the beautiful game.

It would come as no surprise that Mr.Lowe did not acknowledge nor reply to me, a lowly female Sports Activist. Nor did he delete said tweets. No mea if no perceived culpa, I reckon.

Lowe might be an authority on Spanish football but he certainly needed a lesson on how *not* to write. I suggested he read a piece by Oliver Brown whose piece “Sport is a cesspit of casual misogyny” perfectly laid out how female professionals are often the center of attacks by colleagues and players. Sports journalists also fit into this category by writing reductive stories that only propel a system of sexism, whereby making it more difficult for women to fully engage in the world of sports. I have witnessed this kind of casual use of violent misogyny in soccer before. It is sickening.

Frustrated, I reached out to a few colleagues (male and female) and asked for their comments on Lowe’s vulgar remarks. Sadly, even those who identified as allies were uncomfortable giving me a comment because of Lowe’s revered position.

One of his colleagues with whom I spoke was horrified. She told me to hold off writing anything until she contacted Ian Prior, Head of Sport for The Guardian and The Observer. So I did.  She assured me she had and alerted him and she gave him my contact details. I waited some more. No reply.

Ian Prior either saw nothing wrong with Lowe’s comments or he simply did not think that using domestic violence in such a horrific manner was problematic. Terribly ironic considering just a year ago Prior was quoted in a piece on ‘Sexism in Sport’ for CNN on the topic on the gender imbalance in sportswriting. Prior gallantly stated: “We, as do all newspapers, do have to ensure the environment a young women comes into is a warm and encouraging. We all have to be conscious of that.”

Creating a warm atmosphere for females is necessary but remaining silent about domestic violence from your own male writers, in your own publication is not. Oh, okay.

Therein lies much of the problem. Men defend male colleagues who are sexist and refuse to acknowledge that their actions are harmful. 

Unsurprisingly, other writers have gone on to cite Lowe using that exact same, terrible example. Because if such a well-known sports writer has done it, well, it must be acceptable.

This is the perfect cycle of awful sportswriting that influences other writers. Dr. Brenda Elsey, author, professor and co-organizer of Hofstra University’s conference on soccer told me via email: “Scholarship has demonstrated that sportswriting plays an important role in constructing gender, racial, and class hierarchies. Writers are crucial mediators between what happens on the field and the social significance of those events. Turns of phrase, metaphors, and descriptive language circulates across borders and reading publics.”

The effect of male writers choosing such offensive wording represents the difficulty to shed the ‘old boy’s club’ image of sportswriting. But there is in fact, much that writers and players can do to eradicate violence against women.  I spoke with Ikram Butt, former professional rugby player in England and now, an ambassador for the hugely successful ‘White Ribbon’ campaign. Part of the White Ribbon mandate is “never to commit, condone or remain silent about men’s violence against women.” Butt spearheads a sports-related campaign that focuses on communicating the evils of women’s abuse to players and fans.  

I asked him about Lowe’s comments on Costa. “The issue of domestic violence should not be treated lightly or used as satire to sell a story. The comments in [Lowe’s] article are offensive and serve no purpose other than glorifying acts of violence and belittling the pain and suffering of millions. Statistics show that sport and sports stars are extremely influential in the lives of many young boys and men who mimic the actions and thoughts of their favorite stars in their quest to be like them.”

Sid Lowe is not alone in thinking that parodying domestic violence is a great idea. Last year during the NBA playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers came out with a cringeworthy video promoting violence as a way to make women Cavs fans.

Brilliant, right? Using physical abuse against them to choose a preferred sports team is as brilliant as men sexualizing women in sports, harassing them while they work and discouraging them from sports media altogether.

What sports writers refuse to recognize is that by choosing words so carelessly they are contributing to what Oliver Brown described as “one of the world’s most stubborn patriarchies.” Lowe continues to carry on with his reductive banter about Costa. Meanwhile, Diego Costa is building a school in Brazil for youths so they can escape violence on the streets. Definitely the bad guy here.

I don’t expect male sportswriters to jump up and start attending Planned Parenthood rallies. But I would expect more sensitivity and respect for half of the world’s population. I would expect editors to make better decisions. And I would hope fellow sports journalists might have the decency to tell a man when his comments are horrible instead of quoting or lauding him.

To show true solidarity and to stand against violence against women means to not simply bloom with words and wither in actions. It means to acknowledge and retract if necessary. It means to not be a sexist jerk while penning a piece.

Sid Lowe doesn’t owe me anything. But he owes it to the millions of survivors of domestic violence to not dismiss their experiences and mock their suffering. And he owes it to sports to be better.