Marlee Burridge: Sexual abuse in women's sports

Monday, May 21, 2018 - 10:13am

The culture surrounding female athletics is often inappropriate and usually ignored. We talk about the need to stop objectifying women, yet the former president of the International Federation of Association Football still felt he could say women’s soccer might be more popular if the players wore “tighter shorts.” Not that this quote needs any analysis as it is so blatantly disrespectful, but he is saying women’s athletics will not be valued unless there is some type of added sexualization. Nobody would ever tell male athletes they might be more successful if they played every sport shirtless. It shows the kind of double standard and inequality female athletes constantly face.

 

The objectification and discrediting of women in sports still exists, and female athletes continue to be viewed as sexual objects through the male gaze. As English writer Virginia Woolf so astutely pointed out in 1929 – nearly 100 years ago – “The best woman was … the inferior of the worst man.” However, to counteract this destructive mentality, many athletes have started movements to gain respect and equality such as “Equal Play, Equal Pay,” the U.S. women’s soccer team's campaign for wages equivalent to male counterparts.“With athletes slowly acknowledging the gender inequality in their fields, there may be hope for change. But that’s just the beginning.

 

The objectification of women athletes perpetuates both inequality and has led to an incredible number of sexual assault cases. As an institutional problem that is underreported and ignored, many female athletes are uneducated on what to do when these situations arise. Most female athletes are coached by men, most athletic trainers are men, most team owners are men; not surprisingly, the only female-dominated part of women’s teams are the players themselves. This discrepancy has normalized a culture of sexual harassment: “The athletes complained about a thriving sexist environment where verbal abuse went unchecked, sexual jokes and sexual allusion to what athletes must do to make the team were commonplace and there was a high tolerance for homophobic and sexist attitudes among the coaches.”

 

A recent example of this that shook both the University of Michigan community and the entire sports world is the Larry Nassar scandal at Michigan State University. Many administrators of both MSU and USA Gymnastics supposedly knew he was sexually assaulting female gymnasts. It is clear there is a widespread issue when the people with the authority to stop these kinds of actions do nothing. The issue lies in the fact that these incidents are happening, the perpetrators aren’t punished and these athletes are uncertain about what they should or can do. If this kind of behavior is going to be normalized by sports, the least that could be done is to educate women on their resources and options for reporting it. Many of these issues arise from abuse from the male coaches; these are the most common cases.

I myself can speak to this issue. Just before I left for college, it was discovered that my 32-year-old soccer coach was having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old teammate of mine. Many people went straight to victim blaming and asked why she would even consider doing that. It is extremely important to remember this is not her fault. Most youth coaches are very charismatic and develop strong, trusting relationships with their players. This situation was no different. He manipulated her into believing he loved her, despite the outside factors that he had a wife and was twice her age. As I mentioned earlier, this is sadly all too familiar for many young female athletes.

Furthermore, many female athletes fear getting cut from a team or losing playing time if they displease a coach. These stories and the countless others like them are “testimony to the culture that exists in sport which pressures female athletes to put up with the sexist environment and gives the impression that those in positions of authority, who have sexual motives, have little or no difficulty in selecting vulnerable athletes upon whom they prey.” The objectification of female athletes starts at a young age and many young, talented women face abuse. This kind of sexualization and abuse has pervaded the women’s sports industry and, tragically, a very large number of female athletes are familiar with the very real consequences it causes.

 

The men running these organizations have failed to create a safe environment for female athletes to report their abuse. This indirectly perpetuates the issue of sexual assault and therefore reinforces the inequality women are facing in sports today. There need to be programs put in place that educate female athletes on sexual assault. They need to know what they can do if they find themselves in one of these situations and they need to be sure if they do choose to come forward, they will be treated with respect and be believed and the process will be just. Without these kinds of programs, objectification, sexualization and abuse will continue to be normalized and the inequality will persist.