Mary Rolfes: Saturdays aren’t just for the boys

Wednesday, October 9, 2019 - 4:35pm

–

When I visited Boston during the 2018 World Series, I had one objective in mind: to celebrate. I had heard legendary stories of the city’s post-win celebrations and had sort of taken part in one after the Patriots’ 2017 Super Bowl comeback, being a freshman at a Boston-area college at the time. As the Red Sox came inning by inning closer to claiming the title, my excitement at the prospect of an after-party grew. But by paying attention to the game and only the game, I failed to notice the signs that this celebration wouldn’t be nearly as legendary as I was hoping — at least, not for me.

After the final out, my friends and I headed to Boston Common, the city’s central public park, in an effort to join the city-wide celebration. When I arrived, what I discovered was not a welcoming celebration but an overgrown boys’ club. The gathering was dominated by college-aged men chanting insults at one another, acting physically aggressive and vandalizing public property – and, of course, there was the unmissable presence of several red, white and blue flags proclaiming in all capital letters, “Saturdays are for the boys.” This was not a celebration for the Red Sox or even the city. This was a demonstration of hegemonic masculinity and its ability to dominate every possible public space and exclude those unwilling or unable to join in. And it was perpetuated, in part, by social media.

Fan groups have the potential to bring a community together. They can facilitate community initiatives, raise awareness and have even helped a city heal from tragedy. This unifying ability is certainly present at the University of Michigan, home to the biggest stadium in the U.S. Unfortunately, sports-fan culture in the United States is entrenched in toxic ideas of masculinity. While this has been true for decades, the inception of social media has significantly increased the pervasiveness of misogyny by providing an outlet for the widespread manifestation of these aggressive and sexist practices. By utilizing their platforms to normalize and celebrate sexism, infighting and outright violence in athletics, sports social media tends to highlight the worst aspects of fan culture, dividing communities rather than uniting them. By reconsidering the impact these platforms have on our culture, and especially on our campus, we can support a more positive social media presence surrounding our teams and embrace fan culture as the welcoming, community-building environment it has the potential to be.

Social media has given us the ability to connect with others, spread ideas and create a more connected global community. Unfortunately, its impacts do have some downsides, and many social media outlets have served as a platform for perpetuating toxic attitudes, including those surrounding college athletics. One culprit is especially relevant to our campus: Barstool Sports. Barstool was launched in 2003 by U-M alum Dave Portnoy. Since its founding, the site and its many affiliates have gained significant social media influence, posting content related to sports and college culture with a consistently misogynistic undertone. Portnoy has been a controversial figure in sports media. While some have praised him for his dedication to “unabashed masculinity” and anti-politically correct comedy, these qualities have drawn heavy criticism from others. For many years, he has been the embodiment of problematic behaviors in sports fan culture. He is vocally anti-union, claiming on Twitter that he would fire any employee who dared to consider the possibility of unionizing. This statement caught the attention of U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., as Portnoy’s anti-union threats are a violation of national labor laws. Not even two weeks later, he had a few choice words — well, one especially sexist choice word — in reaction to Andrew Luck’s retirement announcement. 

Portnoy’s problematic attitude is not isolated, either. This aggression and sexism pervades Barstool Sports and its affiliates. On the main site, Sex Scandal Teachers is a recurring segment in which women charged with sexually assaulting minors are “graded” based on their looks and morals, using language that blames victims and trivializes sexual abuse. Barstool’s affiliates — many of which are crafted for specific colleges — often engage in sharing similarly misogynistic content. This includes their “Smokeshow” series in which female college students are evaluated based on their adherence to traditional beauty standards, representing the prevalence of the male gaze in college sports culture and implying those who don’t meet their standards are not welcome. Their ethos of “Saturdays are for the boys” is a summation of real, dangerous attitudes about who does and who doesn’t belong on gameday.

As students at a university with a massive presence in collegiate athletics, it is important to consider the impacts these attitudes have on our campus community and on college sports. This isn’t necessarily a mandate to boycott Barstool — after all, what would we do without #GoodBoyFriday? But consider calling them out when they use their platform to spread hateful, demeaning messages. Barstool has a significant influence in college culture, including on our campus — Barstool Blue, U-M’s affiliate, has over 50,000 followers on Instagram and another 33,000 on Twitter. By holding these outlets to higher standards, we can set an example for canceling out the aggressive, toxic aspects of the fan culture of collegiate sports in favor of creating an environment welcoming to everyone. While it may seem these masculine ideals are embedded within the institution of sport, they are perpetuated in large part by individual actions — which means individuals also have the capability to combat them. It’s almost impossible not to root for Michigan — The Killers themselves have even said so. When we belt out “Mr. Brightside,” let’s do it in a place where everyone feels welcome to join in.

Mary Rolfes can be reached at morolfes@umich.edu.