Silent But Deadly: The Treatment of Women in Professional Sports

Posted May 7, 2015

All that glitters certainly isn’t gold.

Nowhere is that more evident than in professional sports. Whether it’s the harsh, and consistent, reality of concussions in football, the indentured servitude during the construction of World Cup facilities, or point shaving and gambling in multiple sports, the things we’ve come to love and cherish often wind up being a steaming pile of crap masquerading as a delicious chocolate bar.

The issue is that it’s beginning to happen in even more troubling ways. When the NFL came face-to-face with the Ray Rice scandal this past summer and the spotlight was turned on the long history of players being accused of domestic violence, the league went to great, and very public, lengths to assure people that the issue was being addressed.

With the public nature of the scandal, and the outrage directed at the NFL, plus a year full of attention paid to rape on campus and the offensive treatment towards women in public situations, it seemed like we, as a culture, might finally be paying enough attention to a troubling issue to finally make a meaningful difference.

Then this weekend happened.

It started with the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, which garnered more national attention than any sporting event in recent memory. As was to be expected, much attention was paid to Mayweather’s multiple instances of domestic abuse (and none to Pacquiao’s history of homophobic remarks, but that’s a story for another time). However, the Mayweather camp then made the boneheaded decision to deny credentials to two female ESPN reporters who have been among his most vocal critics.

It seemed like an admission of guilt that probably should have attracted more attention. Like Bud Light admitting that it may have slipped up when it released bottles that asked people consuming alcohol to remove “No” from their vocabulary.

Yet, just a day earlier, another athlete with a history of assault allegations was being handsomely rewarded when the Tampa Bay Bucs drafted Jameis Winston with the first overall pick. Arguably the most talented player in the draft, Winston seemed like a lock to go first overall, but in a league that is trying to change its stance regarding violence towards women, it seems off-putting that a guy accused of sexual assault could still be selected first. Especially when another highly talented player went totally undrafted because the police wanted to question him regarding the murder of his ex-girlfriend, while stating multiple times that he was not considered a suspect or even a person of interest.

However, what’s most troubling about the Tampa Bay Bucs situation is that they interviewed 75 people in order to vet Winston before drafting him; yet, they never interviewed the woman who accused Winston of attacking her. What’s more, they never even contacted her lawyers.

If you’re going to decide whether or not an employee is going to come work for you, and you know that somebody has accused him of doing something illegal, don’t you want to find out what happened there? Regardless of the infraction he committed.

It’s an omission that seems tone deaf; yet, it’s not as bad as what happened on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, notorious asshole and murderer of all New York Knicks optimism, James Dolan, decided to hire Isiah Thomas as the President and part-owner of the New York Liberty. For those of you who may have missed it, this is the same Isiah Thomas who lost a $10 million lawsuit for sexual harassment when he was the coach of the Knicks.

Thomas allegedly made inappropriate advances on a woman who worked for him, then fired her after she complained about it. Seems like the logical choice for a position in charge of a women’s basketball team, doesn’t it?

Sure, moving from Mayweather to Thomas might seem like a stretch; domestic violence isn’t comparable to unwanted verbal advances, but we all agree that neither is acceptable. Still, both persist while we don’t hold those responsible accountable. If we want to make sure our culture can make any meaningful progress, then we need to keep calling out the instances where teams and individuals seem utterly incapable of doing so.

Sometimes, it’s the silence that is the most damaging.

Author’s Note: As I was posting this article, a friend of mine mentioned a video shown at the Cavs-Bulls playoff game last night (linked to below) in which a Cavs fan violently throws his girlfriend across the room because she’s a Bulls fan. The video then urges fans not to “make them same mistake she did” and finishes with her relenting and changing her fandom. Certainly a bit tone deaf there as well.