Bad Sports (New York Times)

My second book, The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football, was published in June 1994, the day after O.J. Simpson was arrested and charged with killing his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Brown. Since I mentioned O.J.’s history of domestic violence in the book, I received hundreds of interview and article requests from print and digital media outlets. Here’s an article I wrote for the New York Times on June 22, 1994:

O.J. Simpson is not alone.

Baseball star Darryl Strawberry has admitted beating his wife and pointing a gun in her face.

Basketball star Moses Malone was accused by his wife of physical and verbal brutality including death threats. He insisted he never hit her or threatened to kill her but admitted having “moved her out of the way.”

Golfer John Daly was arrested at his home after allegedly hurling his wife against a wall, pulling her hair, and trashing the house. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor harassment charge and was placed on two years’ probation with the stipulation that he complete domestic violence treatment program.

Juanita Leonard testified in divorce court in 1991 that boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, her former husband, often punched her with his fists, threw her around, and harassed her “physically and mentally in front of the children.” He threatened to kill himself with a gun, she said. He threw lamps and broke mirrors. Ray Leonard denied none of this. At a press conference, he admitted having struck his wife with his fists. Yet he justified the behavior by saying that he and Juanita “fought, argued,” and “grabbed each other,” but that “that was in our house, between us.”

Alabama men’s basketball coach Wimp Sanderson resigned in 1992 after Nancy Watts filed a sex discrimination complaint against him. Watts, his longtime secretary and mistress, alleged that Sanderson hit her as part of an ongoing pattern of physical and sexual abuse, and was awarded $275,000 in a settlement. Sanderson claimed in court documents that Watts received her black eye by colliding with his outstretched hand.

Spectators also get into the swing of things. Boston Celtics fans have hung banners in the arena claiming they like to beat rival teams almost as much as “we like to beat our wives.”

“I’m going to go home and beat up my wife,” Penn State football coach Joe Paterno once said at a press conference after his team lost to the University of Texas. Later he defended the statement as “just part of the sports culture, locker room talk, harmless, a joke that did not mean anything.”

What is this sports culture?

Legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon writes in Feminism Unmodified: “Athletics to men is a form of combat. It is a sphere in which one asserts oneself against an object, a person, or a standard. It is a form of coming against and subduing someone who is on the other side, vanquishing enemies….Physicality for men has meant male dominance; it has meant force, coercion, and the ability to subdue and subject the natural world, one central part of which has been us [women].”

Whether hockey fights, football tackles, or baseball brawls, intentionally hurtful acts are portrayed as natural – for men. Sports violence is considered appropriate. It is considered masculine. Our concept of violence is inextricably interwoven with our concept of expected, condoned male behavior. Boys are given boxing gloves as toys, while girls and women who attempt to join wrestling, boxing, or football teams are often ridiculed, sexually harassed, or simply barred from participation.

The women male players hear about are the “cunts” and “pussies” of locker room humor; the short-skirted cheerleaders; the university “hostesses” who escort the men around campus during the recruiting process. The locker room is not a place to brag about your wife’s professional or personal accomplishments. It is a place where men discuss women’s body parts in graphic sexual terms, where they brag about “scoring,” and, if Joe Paterno is to be believed, where they frequently joke about beating women.

In The Hundred Yard Lie Rick Telander writes, “In my years in the locker room I have heard so much degrading talk of women by male athletes – particularly the use of women as objects to be conquered and dominated…that I feel certain the macho attitudes promoted by coaches contribute (perhaps unwittingly) to the athlete’s problems in relating to women.”

Ohio State sociologist Timothy Jon Curry recently employed researchers to record men’s locker-room conversations over a several-month period. He offers this as a typical example of an exchange between two athletes:

“I just saw the biggest set of Ta-tas in the training room!”

“How big were they?”

“Bigger than my mouth.”

Sexist comments, like racist comments, can get men fired in some circles. But not in sports. In the manly sports world, sexism is a badge of honor, a common ground, a familiar language.

Curry found that talk of women-as-objects took the form of loud performances for other men. Talk about ongoing relationships with women, on the other hand, took place only in hushed tones, often behind rows of lockers, and was subject to ridicule. “This ridicule tells the athlete that he is getting too close to femaleness, because he is taking relatedness seriously,” writes Curry. “‘Real men’ do not do that.”

A former college football star who asked not to be named says of Curry’s research, “That’s right on target. We never talked about respecting women.” This man, who later signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, recalls college teammates making such sexual boasts as, “She didn’t want to do anything, but I held the bitch’s head down.” His college teammates hosted “pig parties.” The man who brought the ugliest date would win a trophy. This football star says he learned to respect women from his mother and three athletic sisters, and did not attend the parties. But he would laugh at his teammates’ jokes, an act he now regrets. “I remember the first time they showed the trophy,” in the locker room, he says. “I was a 17-year-old freshman in a room full of upper-class men. It was boisterous, raunchy, there was screaming and yelling. I laughed along. Men are extremely cliquish. I didn’t want to be left out.”

Phoenix Cardinals quarterback Timm Rosenbach quit pro football after the 1992 season, leaving behind a $1.05 million annual salary. “I thought I was turning into an animal,” he told Ira Berkow of the New York Times. “You go through a week getting yourself up for the game by hating the other team, the other players. You’re so mean and hateful, you want to kill somebody. Football’s so aggressive. Things get done by force. Then you come home, you’re supposed to turn it off? ‘Oh, here’s your lovin’ Daddy.’ It’s not that easy. It was like I was an idiot. I felt programmed. I had become a machine.”

O.J. Simpson was not insane, a defense that some lawyers are speculating might serve him well in contesting the double murder charges that face him. But he was programmed. He was, like all of us, a product of his culture – in his case, a male-dominated American culture but also, more critically, a football culture that taught him to equate masculinity with violence and with dominance over women.

He was the product of a culture that, to this day, reveres football players regardless of their off-field behavior. Even after he pleaded no contest to beating his wife on New Year’s Day, 1989, Simpson continued to work for Hertz, and to be described by fans and in the media as a “great guy” and an “American hero.” This past week, he was also described as a loving father, though he reportedly spent virtually no time with his grieving children until their mother’s funeral, instead secluding himself with his friends and lawyers. When, after learning of his imminent arrest, he fled and was chased by police along the Los Angeles highways, commuters stopped their cars to wave to him, and to chant, “Go, O.J., Go!” They acted as if nothing – not wife-beating, not alleged murder, nothing at all – mattered except a football player’s ability to do exactly as he pleases.

Which is exactly what football heroes will continue to do until we, as a society, stop worshiping them, and stop training male athletes to hate women.

2 Responses to “Bad Sports (New York Times)”

  1. flyingcuttlefish Says:

    … “I’m going to go home and beat up my wife,” Penn State football coach Joe Paterno once said at a press conference …. precious! And you have it up all this time! Worthy in a court case!

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