Keith Strudler: Columbia And Harvard
In the backwash of the Presidential election, it might be easy to assume that the language of racism, homophobia, misogyny, and other assorted bigotry exists primarily if not exclusively in our nation’s rural environs. To discredit that hypothesis, you need look no further than the urban outposts of Columbia and Harvard Universities, where we’d assume the intellectual discourse would seem almost a different language from the hate speech of Middle America. In fact, it’s supposedly places like Columbia and Harvard that Americans are so angry about in the first place. Super rich, out of touch, too politically correct, too multi-cultural – whatever the alt-right says about places of deep thought on the coasts.
But we sometimes forget, bigotry, and the language of it, comes in all income brackets and IQ’s. Which is the case at these two storied universities, or more specifically, in pockets of their athletic departments. Last month at Harvard, the university cancelled the remainder of the men’s soccer team schedule after it discovered an ongoing document where players ranked and described the appearance and sexual prowess of athletes on the women’s soccer team. This shared Google document, referred to as a “scouting report,” has been around since 2012 – and who knows how long before off-the-cloud. Once revealed recently by the campus paper the Harvard Crimson, university administration acted in accordance.
Similar accusations are abound in New York, as the Columbia men’s wrestling team stands accused of lewd and offensive behaviors of their own. As reported and revealed by a student news blog, wrestling team members traded racist, sexist, and homophobic texts amongst each other, all with a remarkable, and appalling sense of levity and entitlement. They are far too egregious to share on air, but let’s simply say they even manage to outdo Trump’s hidden video – which isn’t easy. The university has put the program on halt, with more detailed sanctions surely to come. Whether that simply means the end of the season, or perhaps more – perhaps expulsions or even the death of the program – is up for grabs.
It’s important to recognize that these certainly aren’t the first cases of male sporting teams using this kind of deviant rhetoric. More than a few scholars have discussed the tone of far too many male sports organizations, including what is often referred to as a “rape culture,” something fairly evident in the published language of the Columbia wrestling squad. Anecdotally, a lot of us who’ve been on sports teams have seen or experienced a discourse that’s nearly unimaginable outside of that context. So when Trump referenced “locker room talk,” this wasn’t a product of his imagination – as seemed to be pretty much everything else about his campaign. This tone exists. And exists in even the most esteemed and allegedly educated and cultured locker rooms in America. Without being cliché, these are likely the future leaders of American industry, something that does not bode well for breaking more glass ceilings or ending institutional racism in the workplace.
It’s easy to denounce this language and feel pretty good about ourselves. And I’m completely okay with some of these athletes – the ones truly responsible for this behavior – to suffer severely, and publicly. One of the worst parts of our digital culture is the ability for people to hide behind phones and keyboards in anonymous insult. I’d certainly like to see those perpetrators come face to face with the offended. Shame can be a wonderful motivator.
But the issue here isn’t simply the punishments. It’s the solution that matters. I’d suggest that most people at northeastern liberal Ivy League universities know that simply reprimanding the guilty doesn’t solve the problem. And for the record, as much as I’d like to blame this on our President-Elect, this hate speech came long before his election – and in some cases, before his candidacy.
The sad reality is, there isn’t a quick fix, since these kinds of offenses are manifest in lots of places where people don’t wrestle and kick and whatever. But at the very least, sport cannot remain a space of dominant masculine hegemony, where men are given dominion, either physically or sociologically, over the games we play. That means ending the practice of recruiting six-year-old boys to play football and girls to cheer on the sidelines – which is what happens in towns across America. It means ending the divergent rules between men’s and women’s games, even for the same sport. It means ending the culture of idolatry for young male athletes, where they come to believe that they can truly have whatever, and whomever they want.
Will this end these kinds of abusive and disgusting comments by men’s sports teams? Probably not. But in times like these, it’s more important than ever to try.
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
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