The rot in athletic culture

Participating in sports can help young kids and teenagers strengthen self-discipline, strategic ability, and the skill of working well with others, not to mention giving them more opportunities to be physically active.

Throughout the U.S., however, athletes are often worshipped or zealously protected. The fans cheering them on come to identify with them, fighting vicariously through them against ‘the enemy’ (whether it’s another school or town’s team, with tensions rife even in some little league games); this is especially true if the athletes are boys, and if the sport is super-popular, like football or baseball.

Another problem concerns the darker side of the traits cultivated in athleticism – when physical strength and aggression aren’t tempered by moral and mental strength. When aggression and domination are held up as the most worthwhile qualities – and in the case of boys, the qualities that most strongly define them as men. Sports becomes about crushing and humiliating others to show off your own perceived strength.

The Denver Post recently published an article about a 13-year-old boy attacked by upperclassmen at a wrestling meet:

At the state high-school wrestling tournament in Denver last year, three upperclassmen cornered a 13-year-old boy on an empty school bus, bound him with duct tape and sodomized him with a pencil.

In this case, the victim’s father, who was the school’s principal, reported the attack to police. And the community turned on them. The father wound up leaving his job. The boy’s schoolmates harassed and bullied him and openly supported the attackers.

The article goes onto to detail other sexual assaults (often part of so-called ‘hazing rituals’) perpetrated by boys against other boys. In some cases, teachers or coaches know and shrug it off. They expect the victims to take it silently and shrug it off too (‘boys will be boys,’ and all that). And there’s a price – of social ostracism and vicious bullying and harassment – when the victim does speak out or press charges.

I’m reminded of the Steubenville rape case, which concluded with two football players charged with raping a teenaged girl. Many people in their community and school supported them, and those same folks turned on the victim, spreading around photos of the rape and harassing her. They victim-blamed and slut-shamed her – a far too common response to rape victims. But ultimately I think what fueled their rage was that she was proof of a strain of ugliness in the culture of the community, a town known to prize its football players and identify with them. Many in the community felt that by exposing the depravity of these particular players, she was calling into question the decency of the community as a whole; a slur on the players was a slur on them. And rather than examine themselves, and look at a culture that mindlessly celebrates aggression and domination, they defended the players.

Yes, I know this isn’t limited to sports. When people identify with an athlete, a celebrity, a religious figure or organization, and there’s evidence of terrible behavior on the part of any of those figures or entities, they might feel a flicker of doubt about themselves. “I’m a good person, so could I really have identified with something or someone evil?” As a form of protecting themselves, and their beliefs about themselves, many people will then deny the evil and turn on the victims of it. (See my post on the book, Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me.) In athletics, this way of thinking, combined with the encouragement athletes receive to dominate others in a humiliating fashion, creates a culture where sexual assault is more likely to occur and then be defended or excused.

Granted, sexual assault isn’t the only way to humiliate or dominate someone, but it’s particularly potent and damaging. There may be some differences in how people perceive the victims; girls will frequently be shamed as ‘promiscuous’ or ‘sexually damaged,’ while boys will have their masculinity fundamentally called into question. But there are many similarities too in what’s expected of the victim: chiefly silent shame and diminished personhood. The expectation is that the victim exists to give others a power trip; it’s never only about sexual release, because in a number of cases, as with the boys’ hazing rituals, the attackers don’t experience sexual release – and the people witnessing and cheering it on don’t either. It’s the heady sensation of being able to use and hurt without regard for the will of another person; other people are yours for the taking, and there’s nothing they can do about it, because you’re stronger (physically, anyway). Notice also how in the rape of boys, the victims are essentially ‘feminized.’ The attackers, by penetrating a male victim, treat him as ‘not male’ and assert their manhood over him; he’s expected to bear this silently and maybe, if he isn’t ‘weak,’ become a man in spite of it and pretend it never happened – maybe even prove how manly he is in the future by doing it to someone else. Until then, he needs to ‘know his place.’ (In this culture, a victim who’s a girl will have to also stay silent, but forever accept that she’s now ‘in her place,’ reduced to a discarded ‘plaything’ – someone who couldn’t possibly be able to hold her head up high as a person.) It’s all part of the same culture of toxic aggression and warped ideas of masculinity. The victims have a role to play in this culture – and when the victims step out of that role and refuse to be silenced, they face a communal backlash.

Are all athletes like this? Of course not. But there are too many of these incidences – sexual assaults, along with various forms of extreme bullying and humiliation. And while the perpetrators are relatively few in number, they’re championed by crowds of enablers. If the perpetrators were shamed instead of the victims, they would be far less likely to do these reprehensible things. But ultimately, it’s not enough to just use shame against people. We need to look at the behaviors that parents, teachers, and coaches are modeling for athletes. What are these young people really learning about strength and what it means? What are they learning about power, status, and the sense of entitlement towards other people’s bodies – their use of other people’s bodies for personal amusement, power trips, and gratification? Enough with the excuses and the callousness from bystanders, the unthinking identification with people. Enough with saying ‘boys will be boys’ (which, when you think about it, is such an insult to boys – many of whom are kind and decent people). Participation in athletics could be, and often is, a positive part of people’s lives. It doesn’t have to be enmeshed in this warped culture.