For the longest time, we didn’t need to get into the fray. We didn’t need to talk about the uncomfortable topic, to confront our stereotypes or hero worship. We didn’t have to deal with the ugliness and ignorance directly. It was always someone else’s problem. We in Western New York could make passing comments and go about our business.
But the rape investigation involving Buffalo’s favorite native-born hockey son has forced a mirror in front of our collective faces.
The case of Patrick Kane will play out on the timetable of the police and district attorney as they continue to investigate. Regardless of the legal resolution, this is an opportunity, a teachable moment, to address the intersection of rape culture and athletics.
Rape culture involves conversations, jokes and actions that normalize rape. Locker rooms are places where that culture can breed. It happens at all levels of sports. In 2012, two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio were convicted in juvenile court of rape after assaulting a 16-year-old at a party and documenting the assault on social media. Two former Vanderbilt football players were found guilty of rape and sexual battery charges in January after a 2013 incident.
I could continue. Examples, sadly, aren’t wanting. And they aren’t produced in a vacuum. The male athletic world often supports the view that women are the spoils of success. Too often good guys turn a deaf ear to the talk, deciding it’s best not to get involved. The vulgar comments, often written off as “just a joke,” help to normalize sexual violence and create an environment in which sexual assault becomes just part of the party.
Victims often are portrayed as sluts or gold diggers, although sexual history and what you were wearing and who you were flirting with and how much you had to drink have nothing to do with consent. Those topics often are brought up, though, in the court room and the court of public opinion, which is why some victims agree to a settlement instead of having their social life and sexual history examined on the witness stand.
The accused athletes are not unfailing heroes. They’re not your “brah” even if he did once buy you a shot. Nor do all athletes abuse their protected cocoon of athletic privilege.
So let’s step away from our corners and our fierce loyalties and take a beat.
Let’s move beyond playing the ill-informed “he-said-she-said” game and really examine the ways in which our sports culture perpetuates rape culture.
The problem, of course, is that this becomes uncomfortable. This means we have to confront all the times we laughed at someone making a lewd comment, all the times we let a rape joke slide by without calling out the person who said it, all the times we rolled our eyes and said “boys will be boys.”
When we allow comments and actions to go by without comment, we contribute to men seeing sexual conquests of women as their right as star athletes. Rape, after all, is about power and entitlement – two qualities that too often are allowed to develop unchecked in men’s team sports.
I’ve dealt with many athletes at many different levels. From my experience, there are a multitude of good guys who get it. Guys for whom “respect” is more than just a word plastered on the training room wall.
Here is an opportunity for those guys to step up. To say something when a teammate is out of line in his comments about or behavior toward women and stop looking the other way.
Here is an opportunity for us to examine the ways we reinforce a sense of entitlement for male athletes, especially one that gives them permission to feel “entitled” to women.
Here is an opportunity to address the elephant in the sports world as leagues try to cultivate a ticket-buying and merchandise-purchasing female fan base while athletes continue to commit violent crimes against women.
It’s a chance for sports to become a leader in changing the greater culture, if only we were brave enough to face our inconsistencies and address our own enabling behavior.