Sports Culture Encourages Harassing Women Athletes
November 2, 2013INDIANA SPORTS PAGE
The world of college sports often supports a culture of sexual harassment for women athletes, believes Leslie Heywood, assistant professor of English and cultural studies at SUNY-Binghamton. "A discrepancy exists between the increasing equality and respect for female athletes on the one hand, and on the other, behavior within the athletics culture that shows profound disrespect for female competitors." Author of Pretty Good for a Girl: A Sports Memoir (1998), Heywood wrote an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Educationon January 8, 1999.
Harassment: Fact of life for female athletes
"Sexual harassment and abuse of female athletes are part of the reality of women's sports,"Heywood charged. Agreeing is Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation: "Sexual harassment or even sexual assault is a significant problem ... that often goes unreported." The extent of sexual harassment of female college athletes is unknown; it's an issue most athletic departments prefer to ignore. Heywood told WIHE she hopes to do the first national survey of harassment of female athletes, "a necessary prerequisite to public awareness that there is a problem." It's really a question of power. Coaches have ultimate power over who gets to do extra laps and who gets to compete; athletes either fail to notice or fear reprisals for complaining when a coach crosses the line from a teaching role to unacceptable sexual behavior.
- Michelle Hite, who ran track at a major Division I university, told Heywood: "One of the reasons I gave up my athletic scholarship was because of the sexual harassment that I felt was as much a part of my athletic routine as practice was."
- Reporter Diana Nyad was raped by her swim coach.
- Mariah Burton Nelson, author of The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football(1994), said: "Some of the "best' male coaches in the country have seduced a succession of female athletes ... Like their counterparts in medicine, education, psychotherapy and the priesthood, coaches are rarely caught or punished." Although today one in three college women participates in sports, some still assume "women who excel at sports are really more like men and must therefore be lesbians because they're not conventionally feminine,"Heywood said. This myth contributes to discrimination against female athletes in general. Other forms of disrespect for female athletes Heywood cited include coach-mandated weigh-ins and publicly ridiculing them about their weight, diets and bodies.Coaches on power tripsAnson Dorrance has coached the women's soccer team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to 15 national championships. A recent article in The Nation applauded him for changing his coaching style to serve women athletes, quoting him: "You basically have to drive men, but you can lead women.... I think women bring something incredibly positive to athletics. They are wonderfully coachable and so appreciative of anything you give them." Two weeks after the article, two former soccer players filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Dorrance, saying he "intentionally and systematically subjected his players to inappropriate conduct and unwelcome harassment and thereby created a hostile environment at UNC."They said he made uninvited sexual advances, monitored players' whereabouts outside of practice and sent them harassing e-mail. Dorrance denied the charges. "The idea that women are 'wonderfully coachable and so appreciative' has a sinister ring"in light of the lawsuit, Heywood noted. "The idea that women are more 'coachable'--that is, open and manipulable--and that they are 'appreciative' of whatever attentions the coach chooses to give them, may lead to unethical behavior." But amid sexual harassment charges, "teams often rally around the coach and ostracize the accuser,"Heywood pointed out. Dorrance noted a "silver lining"to the lawsuit in that it "unified the team very quickly."How to combat harassmentWhile athletics departments claim sensitivity to the issue, most do little about it. An exception is the University of Arizona, which has established an extensive education and support system, including seminars for students and coaches on harassment by affirmative action officers, providing case studies and real-life scenarios. But Heywood sees some problems. First, most originate in affirmative action offices, so it's an outsider preaching to athletics people. Programs should originate in the athletics department, "because there is so much more personal contact and interaction in the world of athletics than in ordinary teacher-student relationships." she believes. Second, "It is hard to convince coaches and athletes that the problems of female athletes are real and significant. After all, what does the self-esteem of a few girls matter when we've got to go out and win the big game? The women themselves ... view the people who come to talk about harassment as an intrusion or distraction...." Administrators should support education programs that clearly explain coaching behaviors that won't be tolerated, and that inform athletes of their rights and recourses available to them if they encounter harassment. The programs must show real support for women who file complaints, by showing zero tolerance for harassment. "The most crucial thing is that we show female athletes that we respect them, value them and take them seriously as athletes,"Heywood said. "Greater attention needs to be paid to coaching ... and how much control coaches should have over female athletes' lives." --Doris Green