This week I’m devoting several posts stemming from today’s Title IX anniversary, ongoing matters related to investigations of sexual assault on college campuses, the O’Bannon v. NCAA trial and continuing cultural issues relating to women and sports, including sexuality and exclusion from such sports as baseball.
These posts build on my 2011 blog series “Women’s Sports Without Illusions,” and my 2012 e-book, “Beyond Title IX: The Cultural Laments of Women’s Sports,” which is available on Amazon.
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The images of a white Ford Bronco carrying O.J. Simpson around Los Angeles were still fresh in my mind when I picked up a book that would dramatically alter my understanding of the women’s sports movement.
The timing of the former NFL star’s arrest for the murder of his wife and a male friend and the publication of “The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football” in the summer of 1994 couldn’t have been better for the blending of grievous cultural issues and the drive for women’s progress in sports.
The book, subtitled “Sexism and the American Culture of Sports,” was written by Mariah Burton Nelson, who played basketball at Stanford in the early 1970s and had written two previous books on women in sports that were well-received.
This one should have earned more scrutiny. But the Simpson saga, and other tales of alleged male athletic perfidy against women, were all over the news in the early 1990s. At at time in which landmark sports-related Title IX cases were just around the corner — most notably Cohen v. Brown — the culture of sports, especially as it related to gender and sexuality, was coming in for scathing rebuke from feminists.
From the outset, Nelson channeled notorious 1980s feminist legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon with fierce polemical prose, launching a broadside against the sports mainstream as not just excluding women, but also being a lethal enemy of all female human beings:
“Women seem to intuit that football and other manly sports hurt women. There’s something about the way certain games are played and the way they’re worshiped that’s injurious to women’s mental and physical health.”
That’s one hell of a claim to make, but Nelson goes on like this, for 250 more pages, repeatedly trashing football, sports talk radio, lagging enforcement of Title IX, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and other frequent targets of women’s sports activists.
Where Nelson takes a dark, insidious turn is in her attempt to connect these matters with issues like sexual assault involving athletes and an absolutist deconstruction of traditional masculinity, labeling most expressions of male behavior — especially in sports — at the very least as borderline criminal. This is her most scurrilous charge:
“Maybe the question is not why so many sportsmen rape, but why more of them don’t?”
I can’t recall ever being angrier reading anything in all of my life. I was tempted to follow the lead of the great writer and critic Dorothy Parker (no relation, alas), who wrote in an unfavorable review of a book that it “should not be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force.”
Twenty years later, I still find this an offensive, slanderous piece against the entire male gender. Nelson is vile and crude in her blanket condemnation of men and popular sports, and in her relentless efforts to portray women as helpless victims of male athletic violence and sexism.
The question I had then, and that still resonates now, is how any of this helps the women’s sports movement. In bashing men (something Billie Jean King has never done, in all of these 40-plus years), Nelson made women appear to be the antithesis of what Title IX was yielding — strong, confident women benefitting from athletic competition and educational opportunities.
Just as women were truly beginning to excel on the playing fields, courts and pools of America, sports feminists supposedly working on their behalf were undermining those achievements with a litany of whiny, caustic complaints taken far too seriously by the establishment press (of which I was a part at the time).
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But Nelson was mimicking feminists in the larger society, and she succeeded. There were few critical reviews of her screed (an exception was the book critic at my former newspaper). I proposed an opposing essay in a national sports publication, but an editor I had become acquainted with there backed off at the suggestion. Mainstream feminism had jumped the tracks, as far as I was concerned, by turning away from equity issues and obsessing over cultural grievances that did not relate to the lives of most women.
Now, many of the same issues are resurfacing, and they also are being uncritically amplified in the media. Two decades after the “Take Back the Night” date rape hysteria, college administrators are coming under siege for how they handle claims of sexual assault. In 1993, Katie Roiphe expressed her disenchantment with rape-crisis feminism in her book “The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus.”
She was excoriated for this, of course, just as skeptics of the current mantra of “rape culture” are being pilloried today. Roiphe did not mention anything about sports and sexual violence, but there’s plenty of that happening currently. Where Title IX for years had been synonymous with sports, it’s now being used as a bludgeon by the Obama Administration to prompt changes in how colleges and universities investigate sexual assault. There are concerns that schools are being pressured to ditch due process and the presumption of innocence.
Dozens of universities are being probed, including Florida State University, specifically over rape charges involving Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Piled on top of rape charges involving high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, and Maryville, Mo., those who traffick in sports and cultural grievance have plenty of ammunition for claims that are taken almost at face value.
(More on that tomorrow.)
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Yet the issue of Title IX and sports is facing something of a crossroads on this, the 42nd anniversary of its enactment. Few college cases are generating much attention for the moment, although critics of the law’s current enforcement provisions (myself included) continue to speak out on the illogic of proportionality.
There’s plenty of activity involving high school sports, including the possible regulation of privately funded booster clubs, as activists seek to extend federal gender equity reporting obligations to the prep scene.
In a courtroom in Oakland, Calif., a federal judge continues hearing arguments in the case of O’Bannon v. NCAA that could radically alter the college sports landscape. The NCAA has invoked Title IX as a reason why college athletes in revenue sports shouldn’t be paid, but that claim was invalidated before the trial began. There’s a wide range of opinion on whether Title IX should apply (pro and con) since there is no legal precedent.
The case law that stems from the O’Bannon case, and other efforts to break up the NCAA’s long-held insistence on “amateurism,” could very well help shape the future of college sports for women.
Yet the culture vultures dominate the discourse, such as there is any discussion at all about the real status of women in sports. Nelson’s book helped shape a dubious narrative that persists today.