What are we waiting for?!

I hate stereotypes. I know I’m not alone by any stretch of the imagination, but I do. I really hate them. The ideas, not the people who hold them. So when I was a teenager reading Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini and loving it more and more as I turned the pages, I wanted to scream when I got to the locker room scenes involving the boys basketball team. It seemed like every stereotype of boys’ attitudes toward girls was there. “Come on,” I thought. “I don’t know any boys at all who are like that, and even if I did, I’ve never heard talk remotely like that in the locker room. No wonder so many people hold these stereotypes. Why do authors do this?!” In the back of my mind, I was aware that the locker room in Amherst High got relatively little use in gym class so it wasn’t really a fair test, and I was also aware that I was no varsity athlete and never would be. Still, it all seemed terribly unfair to me.

Fast forward to when my son was 9 and playing town baseball. His team had a party to celebrate the end of the season, and while the kids ran around and played, we parents sat around drinking Diet Cokes and talking about our kids and how they were growing up, their schools and teachers, and so on. Only after a while, I realized it wasn’t “we parents.” All the fathers except me were hanging out by the pick-up truck which held the beer coolers, talking at that point in time about rebuilding tractor engines. I was in fact talking with all the mothers. I shook my head to myself, briefly contemplated getting up and joining them as I could anticipate some joking, some of it friendly, about my hanging out with “the girls,” and then decided “Whatever.” and stayed in the conversation which I was enjoying. Kids were my world. Tractor engines weren’t.

I would never have thought to connect these two moments if the Penn State scandal hadn’t happened. But in point of fact, they very much are connected. There can be, though of course there isn’t always, an undercurrent of misogyny in boys’ and mens’ athletic teams. I’ve learned by now that the locker room talk in The Great Santini was based on Pat Conroy’s experience as a high school and college athlete, and actually does reflect countless locker rooms around the country. And the gender divide at my son’s baseball team party extended to practice and games. Only fathers coached, no matter how talented an athlete a mother may have been. Though wives occasionally kept score during games, they often found that men scorekeepers assumed they knew little if anything about the sport and often came across as blustery and dismissive even when they were, in fact, in the wrong.

So what does all this have to do with Penn State? The allegations involve the rape of boys by men. How does that relate to misogyny?!

Go back in time, not very far, to the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Texas. The New York Times article reporting the allegations stated that among the town’s concerns were, “If the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act? (…) ‘It’s just destroyed our community… These boys have to live with this for the rest of their lives.’ (…) Residents in the neighborhood…  said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.” In other words, one might conclude, the little tease brought it on herself and in the process ruined the lives of 18 boys and men. An 11-year-old girl. Gang raped.

Meanwhile, the young boys allegedly abused by Jerry Sandusky have been given the kind of sympathy and support you would hope and expect rape victims would have. Only – wait, they were boys raped by men. Think back two springs ago when a woman teacher was accused of statutory rape of one of her male students. Out came the jokes about women desperate for sex, cougars, boys living out their teenage fantasies. Sympathy for the victim? Not one whit. So is there a deeper issue here? Is homophobia rooted in misogyny driving many of our reactions to the Penn State case?

Beyond that, one also has to wonder why no one at Penn State spoke up, why nothing was done once they realized what was going on. I’ve heard the question raised, what if there had been a woman on the coaching staff and she had found out – would she have reported it on the spot? I come at the gender divide from somewhere in the middle, hyper aware that both men and women exhibit a wide range of attitudes, behaviors, and cultures when given the freedom to do so (driven by brains that are more alike than different, not to mention the fact that “female-wired brains” can exist in men and “male-wired brains” in women), and I think the question has to go deeper than that. Woman or not, was there no one on the coaching staff who lived by the ethic of care and in the kind of relational world where they would feel some level of compulsion to stop Sandusky?

My best guess is, probably not. My admittedly brief experience as a father in youth sports taught me that all too often (and I feel extremely fortunate that most of my son’s head coaches have not been in this group), women and girls were seen as inferior, and men and boys who exhibited so-called “feminine” traits suspect.

And so children get raped and nobody does anything about it.

At times like this, I don’t really care that feminism is a dirty word to many people. We need people of all genders out there, speaking up, acting out, working with every ounce of energy every moment of the day to ensure that all genders are respected and treated with dignity.

Now.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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3 Comments

Filed under Athletics

3 responses to “What are we waiting for?!

  1. Wonderful post, Bill. You’re going deep–past the quick fixes and legal retributions that dominate the conversation around the Penn State case, to see where these behaviors come from in our competitive American mindset.

    I think it’s all about winning and losing, which are embedded into American kids via media and (shamefully) schooling. Very moving piece. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Nancy! Your point about competition is well taken. As one of the 7th graders said the other day, “There’s a place for competition.” but discussing where exactly that place is and how large it might be usually brings up vastly differing opinions.

    On this topic, readers may be interested to go to your own excellent blog also connected to the Penn State tragedies, “Sports” at http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teacher_in_a_strange_land/2011/11/sports.html

  3. Laurie Wasserman

    Bill,
    Well written piece which will make many readers stop and think, question what is fair and just at the expense of children’s lives. Rape is an act of violence, with damaging, life changing horrors if not addressed immediately. As a teacher, your blog brought back a tragic situation of two former students (females), who had been sexually assaulted by a male student. I was questioned by other teachers (did the girls “Ask for it?” “Did they lead him on, etc.”) I was horrified and angered by these fellow teachers, who are supposed to keep kids safe (this happened in school). This was 10 years ago and sadly I see things haven’t changed that much in the past decade.

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