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Keith Strudler: Locker Rooms

This is a commentary about locker rooms. I know you’re heard plenty about locker rooms. First from presidential candidate Donald Trump. Then from most of his surrogates, who affirmed his narrative about crude discussion in that space. Then from a bunch of journalists that questioned locker rooms as a viable excuse to brag about sexual assault. And finally from lots of athletes who largely denounced the idea that locker rooms are in fact a place that enables such discussion, although a few did admit to some lude and obscene discourse. So we have heard more than our fair share of talk about locker rooms, which some of us primarily see as a place to simply get dressed and showered after working out.

Locker rooms have been given a clear gender distinction in this conversation. When Trump referenced “locker room talk,” we all assumed what that meant. By inference, locker rooms are places where men hang out before and after playing aggressive male sports; outside the earshot of women who might not appreciate their manly rhetoric. This assumption isn’t surprising, given the historic hegemonic control of sport. But we should at least recognize that thanks to Title IX, amongst other things, women hang out in locker rooms as well. And to be fair, I can’t imagine Donald Trump would have said that in a women’s locker room – although who knows at this point.

It’s also fair to say that “locker room” has a different meaning depending on its context and inhabitants. As a former college athlete myself, the locker room was far different an hour before our conference championship meet than after an easy run. It was also different during final exam week than the first days of the semester. My personal most vivid recollection of my college locker room – and we had two, since we moved buildings after my sophomore year, was the unwavering smell of Bengay. You eventually got used to it, but it always hit you when you first walked in. I also remember how important location was. It always seemed like the slowest runners got put near each other in a faraway spot. Anyone with such distinction called it “scrub row,” which contrary to Trump’s assertions, recognized the self-deprecating conversation that happens in lot of locker rooms. Believe it or not, not everyone brags about everything, especially dressed in a towel and nothing more.

This isn’t the first time a locker room has been the center of gender controversy. For years, teams and leagues kept female journalists out, making sure they couldn’t get the same stories their male counterparts did. And when women were finally let in for interviews in the late 1970’s, some athletes and coaches turned the space into a den of harassment and abuse. That changed slowly over time, but it reinforced the stereotype that certain things happen in locker rooms that are just too macho for women to handle.

Locker rooms have also gotten lots of press around the increased awareness and acceptance of gay athletes in men’s sports. When people like Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers and Michael Sam came out, everyone wondered how straight guys would handle sharing a locker room with gay teammates. Turns out, most everyone can handle it just fine. Whether that’s true in high schools across America is up for debate – and probably depends on a lot of different things, from location to education and awareness. But for anyone – like say Donald Trump – who fancies male locker rooms a place of unwavering heterosexual conquest, you’re way off.

So where does that leave today’s male locker room, the place where Donald Trump says men say things, outrageous and even illegal things, about sexual domination of unwilling women? That’s hard to say. To the extent that sport is framed as a place of male privilege, then yes, I’d expect locker room rhetoric to echo that narrative – although to be fair, nothing like what Trump said. But demeaning talk about women, objectification – yep, that’s all possible. When sports are contextualized as belonging to both men and women, where girls play just like boys, when Title IX is taken seriously and women aren’t seen simply as cheerleaders, then no, I’d imagine you wouldn’t hear much sexist diatribe, at least not relatively speaking. Locker rooms aren’t sacred spaces, as much as we fancy them. They’re simply extensions of who we are on the fields and courts. It just happens to be behind closed doors, which makes it feel safer, or more secure, I suppose. But a locker room is only as good or bad as the people inside of it. Which, in 2016, I’d hope is far better than generations past. Even better than say, 2005, when apparently locker room talk was truly beyond the pale.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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