Gender Based Violence & Sports: A Critical Examination

One of the most important lessons I have learned in the first half of my fellowship year is to own your personal narrative. A big part of defining your personal narrative revolves around identifying those things that excite you and that you are passionate about. For me that passion is soccer—or more appropriately football/futbol! It has been my passion since I was a kid and I have been lucky enough to play competitively on the field, and work on the back end for Manchester United, a world renowned institution. While my placement position with The Grassroot Project in Washington, D.C. does not revolve around soccer, it does ignite a second passion within me: pursuing Sport for Development programs as a strategy for social justice, health equity, violence reduction, and conflict resolution.

Numerous sources, such as the Sport for Development Network, point to the ability sports have—via popularity and convening power, and when integrated with other strategies—to bring people together to talk openly about sensitive issues. However, sports have also has been a major source of perpetuating dominant versions of masculinity that directly legitimize misogyny, and in extreme cases, gender based violence. The latter of which, by all definitions, is a public, global health issue.

It would be wrong to directly link a specific sport to the violence that spills into the domestic sphere. Sports at all levels have historically been a breeding ground for a deeply entrenched, toxic masculinity. Evidence of this can be seen in high publicity cases such as NFL player Ray Rice’s assault on his wife , the Steubvenville rape case, and numerous other major accusations of professional athletes involved in domestic abuse, sexual harassment and violence.

Toxic masculinity, as examined by Jaclyn Friedman, “defines itself not only in opposition to female-ness, but as inherently superior, drawing its strength from dominance over women’s ‘weakness,’ and creating men who are happy to deliberately undermine women’s power.” I was exposed to this version of masculinity growing up in Latin America and playing soccer throughout high-school. I was also exposed to it playing college soccer in Canada and non-league level in the UK. Weakness, defeat, pain, and discomfort were constantly equated with female attributes and vulnerability, regardless of which continent I was on.

While I knew it was wrong, I never came out publicly condemning the attitudes of my teammates, or coaches. Why? I didn’t want to seem vulnerable among my peers, and I didn’t want to be labeled as the ‘sissy,’ — criticisms thrown around on and off the field, which also points to how toxic masculinity is deeply entrenched in our language(s). As Friedman puts it, breaking this version of how men define each other is going to take real work and ‘destabilizing’ our own identities. I am willing to start by acknowledging how I was guilty of allowing these micro aggressions to occur and, at certain times, guilty of committing them too, for which I am sorry.

Acknowledgement and apology are very small steps to fix such a large structural problem. Nonetheless, I believe it is within sports that these issues can begin to change. High publicity campaigns such as this year’s Superbowl Ad denouncing domestic abuse, and Duke Universities I Don’t Say campaign involving its high profile athletics program, are important steps. These steps make the conversation accessible to sections of the population who might have no interest in politics and gender dynamics, and may be guilty of maintaining a culture of misogyny.

Due to the popularity and reach of sports, we can enable youth to connect with positive messages about women, and in imagining a more equitable world. Because of the intense media attention that sports garners, the use of elite athletes and major sports institutions can provide an arena to challenge these behaviors. The more young men, specifically those involved in sports, can look beyond the toxic attitudes and behaviors of those around them, we can make larger steps to end Gender Based Violence. It requires a movement of men who are willing to unpack and interrogate their own ideas of masculinity and further re-examine what values we take from sports.