Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Five Stages of Grief: My Evolution as a Feminist Sports Fan

I grew up watching and playing sports. NFL, NCAA, and other acronyms were a normal part of my vocabulary. But as I’ve become an adult, I’ve struggled to find my place in a sports world designed to highlight male athletes and cater only to male sports fans’ every desire. Could I be a feminist and still watch my favorite sports? Was I a bad feminist if I didn’t watch the WNBA?


Sure, there are problems in other sports leagues, with other athletes, but MY teams are fine...right? When I was a freshman at USC, one of our quarterbacks was arrested on rape charges. The charges were (of course) dropped and the story has been largely forgotten as his career progressed from college to pro.

This was the first time that I truly saw the sexist vitriol and victim-blaming implicit in media coverage of athlete sexual assault cases and it shook me – because I could sense myself needing to believe that Mark Sanchez was innocent, could feel myself being vindicated by the media coverage that encouraged and enhanced that belief, casting doubt on the victim’s claims from the second the story broke. In retrospect, not a proud moment to remember defending an alleged rapist.


The next time an athlete on one of my teams was accused of sexual assault, I was more prepared for the press and social media bias – and this time it was even worse. Six years had passed since the Sanchez case in 2006, and the sports “blogosphere” had evolved (devolved?) considerably. Just one sample headline from this incident? “Sexual Assault Allegations Against Drew Doughty? F*ck That.”*

The spread of blogs and social media coverage by nonprofessional, mostly male (and white) authors had created an incredibly hostile atmosphere for female sports fans and writers. I stopped reading blogs that I had been used to reading daily, disgusted and angered as the coverage of the incident devolved until the athlete was, as frustratingly inevitably seems to happen in these cases, cleared of all charges.


But was I done being a sports fan? Of course not. I'd just watched my team win their first Stanley Cup! Life was good! Instead, I entered the bargaining phase. Surely, I thought, it was OK to still watch sports if I spent the rest of my time continuing to donate to Planned Parenthood and fighting gender discrimination in my workplace. My feelings about sports during this phase are almost perfectly summed up by this so-true-it-hurts piece from The Onion (“Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist To Enjoy TV Show”):

“Honestly, it’s pretty exhausting to call out every sexist stereotype or instance of misogyny in popular culture, so sometimes I have to just throw my hands up and grant myself a little time off,” Jenkins said. “And given the state of modern media, momentarily suspending my feminist ideals is the only way to get through a night of TV without becoming totally livid or discouraged.”

I made it several years using this mechanism, simply tuning out all the many problematic aspects of professional sports and turning my feminist switch off whenever I turned the TV on.


Then Ray Rice was only suspended by the NFL for an insulting, measly, sickening two games after knocking his wife unconscious (on camera, no less). Then one of my teams chose to keep a player on their roster after he pled no contest to domestic abuse against his wife. Yes, they wanted to continue to associate the LA Kings name with someone who “punched [his wife] in the jaw, choked her three times, pushed her to the ground, kicked her and shoved her into the corner of a flat-screen TV.”**

Around this time, I found myself actively avoiding sports. I stopped playing fantasy football. I cancelled my cable subscription. I no longer set my schedule around LA Kings games.

Yet here I am today, writing this blog post with the NHL All-Star Game on in the background. What changed?


I learned to accept and appreciate sports for what they are. I started following feminist bloggers who called out the sexist garbage. I also recognized that the major professional sports leagues will never care about their female audience if we all turn off the TV. If we keep watching, keep caring, keep protesting, then maybe things will change. And things are slowly changing for the better. Just in the past two years, I’ve seen one of the most popular hockey blogs promptly fire a writer after news broke of his sexual harassment, begin regular coverage of the new National Women’s Hockey League, and manage to professionally cover a star’s sexual assault charges while calling out the victim-blaming seen elsewhere – all of which would have been inconceivable not too long ago. And all of which I credit to the growing outcry by female fans and bloggers about sexism and misogyny in sports.

Are sports in America perfect? No. Are the pay, sponsorship, and media coverage disparities between men’s and women’s sports problematic? Absolutely. Will the Budweiser commercials next week during the Super Bowl be misogynistic garbage? Almost certainly. But despite all this, I still love sports and I’m proud to call myself a feminist sports fan, because I know I’m part of a community of women fighting for our right to be included in this space.

*I refuse to link to this blog because they don’t deserve the traffic. I also prefer to spare my reading audience from the content of that “article,” let alone the comments. If you’re really curious, there’s always Google.

**Yes, the player in question was eventually voluntarily deported to his home country of Russia, terminating his contract. But the Kings still made sure to retain his NHL rights should he return to the U.S.


Amanda said...

This post really resonated with me and I've found myself grappling with the same stages of grief. Consumers have incredible power—-and while it's sometimes hard to stomach the misogyny of the sports world--I think you're absolutely right that the industry will change if women consume professional sports.

I have always wondered why U.S. women's soccer has been so successful, and seems to be supported at a higher level than other female leagues. Maybe it's because major league soccer isn't as established in the U.S., thus leaving a space for female teams to flourish? I'm curious if you have an opinion on this.

Meredith Hankins said...

I think you're right that the relatively lower popularity of soccer leaves a window for women's soccer to flourish. I've found that to definitely be true with hockey. A more nuanced take on my original article would have further explored the differences between how the NHL and NFL have reacted to complaints from female fans. The NHL has a small enough fan base that they can't afford to alienate women, whereas the NFL can get away with not caring (to some extent). I think this explains why the NHL has reacted better to claims of sexism, and why hockey is the most recent sport to gain a new women's professional league.