Ezekiel Elliott sat out a football game on Sunday, which, in the grand scheme of things, is relatively meaningless. It was the first of a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s domestic violence policy, which is marginally more meaningful inasmuch as it represents at least an attempt by the league to deal with a disturbing problem.
This problem far too often manifests in domestic violence or sexual assault — terrible crimes, to be sure — but those crimes are not the root of the problem. They are symptoms of an insidious disease in our culture, one that has jumped to the forefront of the entertainment world in recent weeks: sexism.
Anyone with a computer is probably aware of the litany of sexual assault allegations confronting a wide swath of (mostly white) male actors, comedians, directors and executives in Hollywood. What they reflect is a culture of gender discrimination that has pervaded the movie and television industry forever; encouragingly, the exposure of noted scumbag and alleged rapist Harvey Weinstein ignited a waterfall of accusations against enough misogynist thugs that one could be forgiven for believing things will change moving forward.
If, dare to dream, things are truly changing in the entertainment world, it would leave one broad category of our culture lagging behind — the sports world, it seems to me, is the last bastion of toxic masculinity.
The no-longer-shocking frequency of domestic violence in sports is hard to avoid. This past weekend featured Chiefs DT Roy Miller getting arrested and charged with domestic battery on Saturday morning. His teammate Tyreek Hill has drawn headlines for a deeply disturbing and violent incident that involved punching his pregnant girlfriend. Examples of abusers with thriving careers abound, from MLB’s Aroldis Chapman to boxing’s Floyd Mayweather.
It’s not especially new, as we know — Vice published a list of 44 NFL players accused of assault in 2015; the NFL instituted its specific domestic violence policy far more as a PR response to pieces like that and the Ray Rice media coverage than as an attempted culture change.
The source of the problem, though, has always been that culture, one that simply dismisses genuine respect for women as an optional accessory.
The commitment to optics at the cost of real impact is exemplified by the Elliott case. Zeke was not only accused of multiple incidents of abuse by a former girlfriend — accusations that NFL investigators found credible enough to issue the suspension for domestic violence — but also caught on video less than a year later yanking a woman’s shirt down to expose her breasts at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
Though the league’s letter to Elliott included an assertion “that your behavior during this event was inappropriate and disturbing, and reflected a lack of respect for women,” it was decreed that the incident merited no further punishment — perhaps because the woman reportedly was not upset, perhaps because the behavior was not unlawful, per se; I won’t pretend to understand the NFL’s motives.
But even a league mired in constant scandal and run by out-of-touch old white men felt compelled to issue that admittedly toothless scolding and specifically reference respect for women. It’s an explicit acknowledgment of the real problem, even if it does nothing to actually address it.
The toxic masculinity that has historically been allowed, if not encouraged, to exist in locker rooms at almost every level of almost every sport is so common that tens of millions of Americans actually accepted a presidential candidate’s confession of criminal assault as “locker room talk.”
Beyond the horror of domestic violence and a culture of constant sexism, that environment leads to things like the recent examples of less-destructive but still problematic behaviors. From Cam Newton’s dismissal of a female reporter to Novak Djokovic questioning equal pay in tennis. The sports media is culpable, too, just ask female athletes who competed in the Rio Olympics.
The world is changing. Whether the current presidential administration likes it or not, our culture and society are becoming more open and progressive. As time passes, societal norms will move toward inclusivity and equality, not away from it.
The people — almost exclusively men — who run our sports leagues have to decide if they want to willingly step into the future or be dragged kicking and screaming like Hollywood. They must choose whether they want to voluntarily establish inclusive and respectful practices or desperately institute new PR-based measures with each new scandal.
The only way to fight a disease, especially one as insidious and well-established as sexism in the sports world, is to treat the source. That means education — not about how to avoid detection or how to batten down the hatches when the heat comes or how to have a designated fall-guy, but about what it means to genuinely respect women. I’m not asking for Rob Gronkowski to co-author a paper with Gloria Steinem, but it would be nice if he had heard the term “intersectionality” once or twice.
For what it’s worth, it’s completely reasonable for men ages 19 to 25 to need an education about respect for women. I self-identify as a feminist, my grandmother was a national board member of Planned Parenthood, and I can still think of dozens of times that a woman in my life has had to explain why I should change one behavior or another. Like any form of discrimination or hate, sexism’s kryptonite is education and exposure.
Of course, the problem of gender discrimination is much bigger than the NFL or sports. It’s a societal issue that needs to be addressed at a much larger level. But the power brokers in sports would do well to take a lesson from the recent experiences of their entertainment counterparts and make proactive moves toward cleaning up pervasive sexism, or at least dislodging it from its comfortable perch at the center of sports culture.
The sooner that process begins, the sooner we can stop obsessing over whether Zeke will play on any given Sunday and start having real conversations about equality and respect.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.