Sports  Sports too

The pervasiveness of sexual violence in the world of sports

Content warning: sexual assault, gendered violence, sexism

The ‘Me Too’ movement began over ten years ago with activist Tarana Burke, the program director for Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity, an organization focusing on empowering young women of colour. Only over the past month has it gone viral. Catalyzed by the Harvey Weinstein allegations, now thousands of women have come forward to accuse men of sexual harassment and assault, both in Hollywood and other industries such as business, media, and politics.

On November 10th, this momentum reached the sports world when U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo accused the former president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, of sexual harassment. In an interview with Portuguese newspaper Expresso, Solo recounted that she “had Sepp Blatter grab [her] ass” before they went on stage to present at the Ballon d’Or awards in 2013. This comment came after being questioned on the prevalence of sexual harassment in women’s soccer. During the interview, Solo also spoke about the normalization of this behaviour amongst agents, coaches, doctors and trainers. She later told The Guardian that she believes sexual harassment in sport must be dealt with, and that while many allegations, including hers, involve powerful men, harassment occurs at every level.

Solo’s comments are an extremely important step in exposing the reigning patriarchy in sports. It’s particularly telling that, prior to Solo’s story, Sepp Blatter was only criticised for his financial mismanagement and the corruption within FIFA, not the countless sexist and demeaning remarks he directed toward women throughout his presidency. When calling on newly elected women in the executive committee he said, “You are always speaking at home, now you can speak here!” Just before, he had referred to a newly elected woman as “good, and good-looking.” The most notorious of his sexist comments is a suggestion he made in 2004: that female soccer players should wear tighter shorts so more people will watch. While objectification and sexualisation occurs for all athletes, it disproportionately affects women.

Sports could be an opportunity to transcend and change gender norms. Unfortunately, this isn’t even close to the reality. Instead, the divisions between ideal body types of men and women are reinforced because of the qualities of the human body we glorify in sports — strength, endurance, speed, even size — are ones that our society associates with men. Moreover, this perception is only the result of our constructed notions of gender. Sports culture seems to reify these ideal types, and thus fuels a cycle of toxic masculinity.

Issues of unequal treatment and mistreatment of female athletes and industry counterparts are particularly challenging to address because they occur within a field where there are systematic demarcations between sexes, which has the effect of emphasizing stereotypes. We can — and must — amplify the impact women and other marginalized groups have when speaking against sexual harassment and assault. This includes the leniency often given to male athletes in cases of sexual assault, and the manner in which these issues are approached. When gymnastics gold medalist Aly Raisman, along with 125 other women, recently testified to sexual abuse by a team doctor, USA gymnastics pressured him to resign with a $1m severance package. Cases like this show how far behind the sports world is when it comes to accountability and punishment for dangerous men.

The ‘Me Too’ movement not only publicizes the extent of wrongdoing, but lays the groundwork for women and non-binary people to more comfortably combat sexual harassment and assault. This is an important issue that must be raised in sports and all other industries.