Categorized | Women in Sports

A Culture of Acceptance

Ben Roethlisberger faces the media at Steelers minicamp. (Associated Press)

Do male sports encourage violence against women?


In November 2005, a two-year-old, nine-minute long recording featuring several University of Miami football players surfaced on the internet. It featured a rap song, set to the beat of Aaliyah’s “If Your Girl Only Knew,” and contained lyrics performed by members of the team.

The song began with a disclaimer stating, “This song, in it’s entirety, is not meant to disrespect women, in it’s entirety.” The statement was met with audible laughter in the background before the players entered into a chorus laced with profanities demeaning to women and sexual acts the players would perform on them. The song progressed into a series of verses, each by a different player, stating specifically which sexual acts each player would perform.

The recording was met with criticism from major media outlets, with some of the attention commenting on how the work done to repair Miami football’s previously less than favorable image had been undone by the song, and soon the University of Miami athletic department responded.

“The content of the recording is unfortunate, inappropriate and demeaning,” said then-athletic director Paul Dee. “This speech is not appropriate and does not reflect the values of the University or the Athletic Department… To those who may hear this material, we apologize. Any students whose voices can be identified will be subject to appropriate discipline and/or counseling.”

While the University of Miami athletic department condemned the recording, the incident provided a glimpse into what many academics, journalists, sports administrators and legal experts view as an all too often closed off locker room culture where normal societal rules are sometimes trumped by what has been described as a groupthink culture.

What has that closed culture meant for many athletes and their views toward and relationships with women? Several studies over the years, as well as the daily newspaper headlines, show that some athletes have abusive and harmful relationships with their wives, girlfriends and casual female acquaintances.

In just one week, from May 3 to May 9, 2010, these headlines told the following stories, some of which are just beginning to wind their way through the legal system:

• George Huguely, a lacrosse player at the University of Virginia, was arrested and accused of murdering his former girlfriend, a female lacrosse player.
• Lawrence Taylor, the former New York Giants Hall of Fame linebacker, was arrested and charged with raping a 16-year-old in upstate New York.
• Corey Dillon, the former running back for the Cincinatti Bengals and New England Patriots, was arrested on suspicion of assaulting his wife.
• Zach Mettenberger, a former University of Georgia quarterback, pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual battery stemming from an incident in early March when he groped a woman at a bar.

It was an atypical week to be sure, and colleges and pro leagues alike eagerly claim that the percentage of athletes who abuse women in any way is perceived to be higher than the population in general because the media is more apt to cover such incidents.

Ben Roethlisberger

Yet the National Football League and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, felt it necessary to strengthen the league’s personal conduct policy in 2007 to combat the rising number of off-the-field incidents involving players. That policy was in the news as recently as April 22, when Goodell suspended Ben Roethlisberger, the 28-year-old quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, for six games for allegedly assaulting a college student in Milledgville, Ga. Roethlisberger was already facing a civil suit alleging another assault in Colorado.

“The NFL is definitely trying to get a hold on it,” said Kathy Redmond, who founded the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes after she was raped by a University of Nebraska football player in 1991. “But the hope is that they don’t have to suspend players, because they’re going to jail. I can look at the NFL and say that Roger Goodell hands down more punishment than the justice system – and that’s amazing.”

When asked about the concept of locker room culture and any role it plays in violent acts committed by athletes, though, Redmond agreed that it plays a part. But she also posed a question: Why are athletes doing this to bond? (Redmond and other sources in this story were interviewed by phone.)

“You have to start from the assumption that the members of the team shared – before they ever got onto the topic of women or perhaps before they ever became a team at all – that they shared some general attitudes about their prospects for exploitation [of women] and their source of status amongst other males,” said Clark McCauley, a psychology professor at Bryn Mawr College who has studied the dynamics of violent groups. “If you’re ready to assume they share [those attitudes], and then they come together and they join a team and they’re together for a considerable amount of time, then what you’ll expect is that the group norms will move even further in this direction of seeing women as objects for exploitation and increased status.”

That happens, McCauley explained, because of two psychological mechanisms. The first is “social comparison,” where individuals compete to be the most extreme in the group-favored direction – expecting that the more extreme in that direction attain extra status within the group. The second is “relevant arguments,” where much of the locker room conversation is directed by shared attitudes – with the result being the cross-pollination of opinions and ideas individuals hadn’t thought of before.

Whether the language in that conversation of opinions and ideas directly leads to violence is a separate issue.

Starting in the 2001-02 academic year, Sarah McMahon, the associate director of the Center on Violence Against Women and Children at Rutgers University, began to survey 205 student-athletes across both men’s and women’s teams to better understand student-athlete culture. She interviewed a number of the athletes individually. Her first report was published in October of 2004 and several more have been published since.

What she found was a “rape-supportive” collegiate-athlete culture that has misunderstandings about what constitutes sexual assault and may have a tendency to use language, when in groups, that is degrading to women without seeing it as being harmful.

“I do not think that someone who is using sexist language is more likely to go out, necessarily, and commit a sexual assault,” she said before adding that “it’s in a culture where women are degraded that acts like sexual assault, harassment and violence can occur. You can’t really commit violence against someone unless you objectify them.

“So not that it’s a one-to-one link. But it does present an atmosphere where women are degraded and that leads the way for other types of behavior or language to be accepted or tolerated. To me that was an indicator that it’s a culture that accepts degregation of women.”

It’s a culture Mitch Abrams, a sports psychologist, is quick to point out isn’t just limited to athletic teams. Research points to athletes and fraternities, he said, before adding that those are two distinct groups of males research can look at.

With athletes, the evidence of that has been readily accessible over the years. In 1986 current Philadelphia Daily News columnist Rich Hoffman examined athletes and violence against women in a four-part series. Since then there’s been a never-ending stream of literature and research examining the issue. In 1995 the Journal of Sport & Social Issues published an examination of male student-athletes at schools boasting Top 25 athletic teams reported for sexual assault. And one of the three principals in that study, Jeff Benedict, has published multiple books on the subject since, including Public Heroes, Private Felons.

While these takes have all differed in their numbers (Hoffman’s piece claimed one in three sexual assaults on college campuses was committed by an athlete and the Journal of Sport & Social Issues claimed that 19 percent of such offenses were committed by athletes while they only made up 3.3 percent of the student population) they have agreed on one point – even with the high visibility and close scrutiny membership on an athletic team brings, athletes continue to commit violent acts against women.

“At a certain point you just want to ask [athletes], ‘What are you? Stupid?’ ” said Abrams, who has given presentations to athletes about how the media will cover them. “I tell this to athletes, and they groan when I do, but it’s the same thing I tell inmates. ‘You’re going to be held to a different standard. You might not think that’s right. You might not think that’s fair. I’d agree with you. But it’s the truth. So know that ahead and drive defensively.’”

So prevalent have the media reports been, that starting in 2000 the San Diego Union-Tribune began entering into a database all the instances in which NFL players were accused of crimes. A review of the database revealed that 90, almost a fifth of all cases, were violent crimes committed against women – an overwhelming majority of which were committed during the offseason.

Click here to search the Union-Tribune’s NFL arrests database

Both the NFL and the NFL Players Association have taken steps to address the issue. The NFL has the aforementioned personal conduct policy and the NFLPA is involved in several charitable works aimed directly at the issue of violence against women, some of which include: supporting the Department of Justice’s 15th Anniversary Celebration of the Violence Against Women Act; a soon-to-be published book written by players about protecting daughters, and several works done by individual players. One example singled-out for praise by the NFLPA in a recent interview was the work done by Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten’s foundation, which actually sends people to work in battered women’s shelters.

But even with charitable work such as Witten’s, reports of violent acts committed by athletes against women continue to trickle in. These accounts range from the immature (running back Larry Johnson spitting his drink in a woman’s face while at a bar in 2008) to the unbelievable (in 2001 offensive tackle Victor Riley rammed his SUV into a vehicle carrying his wife and infant daughter; in 2003 running back Michael Pittman did the same thing), to the infamous (wide receiver Rae Carruth’s conspiracy to murder his eight-month pregnant girlfriend in 1999).

But for such a publicized problem, such incidents continue. Since NFL commissioner Goodell enacted the personal conduct policy in 2007, he has suspended 16 players for various offenses.

“One of the things that I did find in my research is that they do listen to their coaches and that there’s a huge opportunity for coaches to address it,” said McMahon when asked for ways to address the current state of locker room culture. “For example, our head football coach here, Greg Schiano, has been very proactive in addressing the issue with the team. He has a presentation for his team every year. He gives the presentation, he talks with them, he makes it clear to them that certain types of behavior are or are not acceptable. That came through in the focus groups that I did. Some of the guys, we asked them if their coaches had asked about it and some of them said no. But for those of them whose coaches did, they were really clear about what the message was.”

Redmond, though, was less hopeful.

“I’ve heard that some coaches address this topic,” she said, “but you have coaches who are shuffled around – who were players and coaches before – who are aware of it and don’t do anything. What you have, is basically an acceptance of this culture.”

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