Sports Blinders and #MeToo
The #MeToo movement has brought to the forefront what, for years, was shoved aside or ignored. Victims are sharing their stories and reshaping the way society discusses and addresses accusations of sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.
For some of the perpetrators, like Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein and actor Bill Cosby, the consequences have been considerable. Except that’s not exactly the case when it comes to professional athletes.
Fans are often hesitant to hold their favorite athletes accountable for their actions. They’ll put on “sports blinders,” looking the other way, even when an athlete is found guilty of a crime as violent as sexual assault.
For Elizabeth Taylor, an assistant professor in the School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management (STHM) at Temple University, the issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault within the sport industry are personal. She’s conducted considerable research on the topics, and she’s committed to using that research to help drive change.
In this episode of Catalyst, the podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business, Taylor draws on her expertise to detail why fans are often eager to wear “sports blinders.” She also outlines why these “sports blinders” have halted the #MeToo movement’s momentum when it comes to professional sports and athletes.
Changing this trend is easier said than done. That’s especially true given the popularity of professional sports in America.
The key, according to Taylor, could lie in continued education. Is it possible to prepare future sports leaders early, so they’re ultimately able to better hold their employees—including athletes—accountable for their actions? We dive deep into this question and more during this episode of Catalyst.
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Host: Welcome to Catalyst, the podcast of Temple University’s Fox School of Business. I’m your host Tiffany Sumner and today we’ll explore the #MeToo Movement and its impact within professional sports. We’ll look at the idea of how fans have sports blinders when it comes to holding athletes accountable. Even when an athlete is found guilty of a crime as a violent as sexual assault, fans will often look the other way.
I’m joined by Elizabeth Taylor, an assistant professor in the School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management at Temple University. Elizabeth has conducted extensive research on sexual assault and sexual harassment [00:01:00] within the sports industry I spoke with Elizabeth about why fans seem so eager to defend their favorite athletes, despite the allegations against them. In this episode we discuss why the #MeToo Movement has not made its way into professional sports as quickly as other Industries. We also discuss what it will take for this to change. Here’s what Elizabeth had to say about sports blinders and the #MeToo Movement.
Hi Liz! You covered sexual assault and sexual harassment for a number of different angles within sports and athletics. What’s been the Catalyst for your research on the #MeToo Movement in sports?
Elizabeth: So, I was lucky enough to be the instructor for a number of classes during my time at Tennessee. And in my second semester, I was teaching a sport governance course and like most sport management courses, the class was primarily men. [00:02:00] If I had a class of 30, it wasn’t uncommon to have 28 male students in the class. And I was sexually harassed by a student in this class.
So, it started out with an email asking if I would go to a frat party with him. I didn’t know what to do honestly because I had never been in it in a situation like that before—where I was in a position of power and had someone come to me like this. And so, I didn’t do anything. I just responded to the email and I said, “You know I don’t it don’t socialize with students of any gender outside the classroom. Let’s keep it professional.” But that was really it. I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I didn’t tell anyone, like a supervisor or other PhD students. I just really kept it to myself.
A few weeks later, it’s probably the first warm day of the semester and I remember it very clearly. I was wearing a blue dress and a blazer and I walked into the classroom. The same student catcall whistled at me. And again, [00:03:00] I was very taken aback and I didn’t even acknowledge it. I didn’t say anything, I just kind of moved on with the lecture. But it was a really uncomfortable situation and I hoped that no one in the class really thought anything of it.
But a female student came to me a few weeks later and expressed a little bit of concern with this male student. He was making some comments in class both, about me and other students in the class, other female students in the class—about what we were wearing and the way that we looked. And it hit me that I had mishandled the situation, that I should have gotten someone else involved and I should have taken things more seriously.
And so, from that point on I did. I let my supervisor know and he and the department chair kind of took handle of the situation and met with the student and kind of laid everything out for him in terms of what could potentially happen if this type of behavior continued. [00:04:00] I didn’t necessarily want the student to get into trouble because I think he was mostly ignorant, he didn’t understand that what he was doing was problematic. So I mainly wanted him to understand that it was problematic and that if he did this in the workplace, it could result in him getting fired.
So, I took it to my advisor and kind of said to him from a personal side and a professional side, “What should I do in the future?” He was really awesome and acknowledged, “Hey, I’m a straight white male and I’ve never been sexually harassed before. So I don’t know what to tell you but let’s figure it out.” And so he encouraged me to start talking to female faculty. So, I approached the only woman faculty at our next conference. So it’s a conference of several hundred people, a good number of faculty but only one woman faculty and I kind of told her my story. And I remember it again, I was wearing the same blue dress and blazer—because as a grad student I made no money [00:05:00] so I frequently wore the same outfit over and over again—and she said to me, “What were you wearing? Because if you were wearing this outfit, I can see why somebody would have done that because you’re an attractive young woman.”
And so, I was mortified. So not only was I sexually harassed in the classroom in front of my entire class, I mishandled the situation, I brought it to someone who I was hopeful will help me and that’s the response I get.
So I brought it back to my advisor and he was like, “Let’s go back to the drawing board. Let’s start over. I’m going to encourage you to do something a little bit crazy but I think you should make a research project out of this.” So I started interviewing female faculty about their experiences and by the time that I was done conducting interviews, I had interviewed about 25 female faculty and found out that almost all of them—so only one of them had never experienced any type of harassment from a student or a colleague. And it was from students, it was from colleagues, it was from superiors, it was from department chairs, deans, you name it. Women had experienced bullying, [00:06:00] incivility, sexual harassment, sexism. So that’s kind of where the story started and from there, it’s really taken off. I’ve surveyed female faculty, I’ve surveyed students, female students in internships—so I’ve really done a ton of research on the topic in sport and specifically within sport management.
Host: You know, I think with the #MeToo Movement, we’ve seen a lot of really visible perpetrators in high positions with big careers—I’m thinking of Kevin Spacey and I’m thinking of Harvey Weinstein—and the consequences for those two men have been fairly considerable. But when we’re thinking about professional sports organizations, where players or individuals associated with sports organizations have been accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault, it hasn’t seen as if—while they may have faced harsh criticism, [00:07:00] perhaps they haven’t faced similar consequences. Do you think that’s the case and, if so, why?
Elizabeth: Yeah, I absolutely think that’s the case. And I think it’s a really basic answer in that fans and the general public in a larger scale don’t understand sexual violence. And what I mean by that is, I think that most people believe that sexual violence is about sexual desire. And then they don’t believe that professional athletes would ever struggle to find someone who’s interested in them sexually. So if you ever heard of a professional footballer or men’s basketball or baseball player who’s been accused of some form of sexual violence, a lot of the commentary around it from fans is, “That’s not true. Every woman wants to sleep with them.” So there’s this idea that they would never be able to commit that [00:08:00] act because they’re desirable, because they’re an athlete.
But what these fans don’t realize is that sexual violence isn’t about sexual desire at all. It’s about power. And those individuals who engage in these behaviors—so things like sexual harassment, sexual assault—are motivated by feeling as though they’re in power or in control of the victim. Also, that fans are typically willing to excuse deviant behavior as long as the athletes are performing at a high level. So in some cases if there is DNA evidence or video evidence like we’ve seen in some domestic violence cases, as long as the player is performing well on the field and they’re a member of a fans favorite team, they’re typically willing to excuse the deviant behavior.
Host: Right so, there’s this idea of sports blinders where sports fans are so loyal to their team that they’re willing to look the other way.
Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely. They become kind of so engrossed [00:09:00] in their fandom that they’re only interested in the on-field performance of the team and of the individuals who play for the team. And I think a really easy example is Kobe Bryant. I know that his death was extremely tragic and there was a lot of controversy when feminists researchers and feminist scholars brought up his actions and accusations against him early in his career, but Kobe essentially came out and said, “At first, I thought was happening was consensual but now I realize it wasn’t consensual.” So although he didn’t admit his guilt in court and things were settled outside of the courtroom, fans still didn’t believe what happened with sexual assault because they didn’t want to kind of engage in that off the field misconduct that was potentially going on.
Host: The #MeToo Movement has helped various industries, like film as we’ve already discussed, hold people in the industry accountable. [00:10:00] After Kevin Spacey faced sexual assault allegations, Netflix removed him from House of Cards. That’s just one of many examples. We haven’t really seen this in professional sports. Why do you think that the professional sports teams don’t hold the athletes accountable the same way?
Elizabeth: I think one of the main reasons is that there isn’t typically legal action taken by the victim. So a lot of times, they may be talked out of it, they may settle outside of court. And so if there isn’t this legal action, they may not technically break any sort of organization or league policies. So the league is really focusing on the policies that they have in place and a lot of times those policies allow players to continue unless there are legal actions taken out against them, like if they end up in jail obviously then they wouldn’t be able to play.
But unless that [00:11:00] happens—and it doesn’t often happen that way—these players are earning the millions and millions of dollars and so they want them to continue to play. And we see this in sport across the board. We even see it in college athletes as well. Athletes are typically afforded numerous second chances and they’re allowed to get away with this deviant behavior. That’s why we often see the same athletes getting in trouble over and over again for these types of behaviors because they’re afforded second, third, fourth chances. We saw it with Jameis Winston, right? When he was at Florida State, he was accused of assaulting a woman and the university settled and paid her almost $1 million. But he didn’t see any ramifications of that. He ended up being the top draft pick, he ended up signing a huge contract and then later got in trouble again with an Uber driver for similar behavior. So I think a lot of time, they’re not held accountable unless there’s some sort of legal action taken against them.
And the league gets away with that by not having strict policies, similar to the NCAA. [00:12:00] They want to stay out of those issues and investigation. So they allow the police or some other body to do the investigating and it often doesn’t lead somewhere because the victim may not be willing to press charges—they may be nervous, they may get talked out of it. So, it’s oftentimes very complicated for the victim to continue down the process.
Host: Is the lack of accountability in the sports industry also due to little or no presence of female voices and leaders?
Elizabeth: I think this is absolutely an influential factor. So, we see very few women in coaching positions, in administration positions. And although sport organizations have recently held their organizations accountable for the treatment of their women employees, so for example the Washington Football Team, [00:13:00] I think we don’t see the larger scale changing organizational culture across the board because there are so few women in high-ranking positions. So, there is the ability for leaders to sweep things under the rug and act like it’s not a big deal because they’re not impacted by the things that are happening.
I think it’s really interesting to note, though, that such a large percentage of sports fans are women. So for example, 46% of NFL fans are women. You would think that these instances would deter women from being fans of a league or a team or a player but we’re not really seeing that. We’re seeing kind of the same behavior in women fans—that as long as a player plays for their favorite team or as long as a player is performing well on the court, they’re really willing to let things slide or to come to their defense. Or maybe they say, “Well, it was just that team. I’m not going to be a fan of the Chiefs because they have one player who did something wrong but I still love the Packers.” [00:14:00] Something like that where they’re willing to excuse the behavior of certain players and maybe not others.
Host: I’m sort of curious, what do you think would cause sports leagues to hold players more accountable?
Elizabeth: That’s a really interesting question. I think maybe the only thing that would cause teams and leagues to start holding players accountable would be if these instances started hitting the team in their pocketbook. So, if fans stop buying merchandise, if fans stop buying tickets, [00:15:00] if they no longer purchase the NFL Network or something like that. And really started to hold the team accountable or the leagues accountable for the things that they were allowing players to get away with.
But I will say we have seen some recent changes. I mentioned the Washington Football Team before and they recently let Derrius Guice go, who was a rookie player who came from LSU very highly-regarded. But it came out a few months ago that he was accused of raping two women during his time at LSU and the team almost immediately let him go. So, I’m not sure that was the overlap with the sexual harassment allegations that were brought about by a female employee from the organization or if there are policy changes that are happening in the organization along with some of the changes like to the name and logo [00:16:00] but we are seeing some changes happen. They’re very slow, they’re very few and far between. But like I said, until it really starts hurting teams in the pocketbook and influencing their bottom line, I think across the board, we’re not going to see a wide-scale change.
Host: So how does this apply to historical cases? By that, I mean controversial figures who maybe have become historical landmarks or have monuments made in their image. What’s your perspective in those instances on how sports teams and leagues will handle them?
Elizabeth: This is also a really interesting topic because I think we’re seeing this issue being raised by a number of students and faculty on college campuses across the country with relation to the recent Black Lives Matter movement and historical landmarks and monuments of individuals who were openly racist, individuals who are slave owners. So this is not something that’s unique [00:17:00] to issues related to sexual violence. But I think fans are largely unwilling to believe that great players, especially historically great players and coaches, would be capable of committing those types of crimes. We saw it at Penn State with Joe Paterno, right? So when everything came out that Joe Paterno knew what Jerry Sandusky was doing and covered it up, fans really rallied behind Joe Paterno. And there were discussions of removing the statue of Joe Pa and fans are openly against that even though he did, he knew, he covered it up, there is evidence to suggest that.
So, I think we still see a lot of resistance for the removal of these historical landmarks and monuments because fans don’t want to think someone of such a great stature and potentially a great present on campus. Or with a team or someone who is so successful in a coaching position could ever commit these types of crimes. They don’t believe that they’re capable of doing them. [00:18:00] So, I think that’s why we’re seeing such resistance. Again, I think the only thing that will change it is if fans are willing to openly stand up against it and change their consumption behavior. So, whether it’s again buying merchandise, buying tickets—if teams are making money, and they are, they’re not going to change the things that they’re doing.
Host: So, I think that the impact of the #MeToo Movement, which was really an awakening, is likely to be felt for many years to come. Has there been any progress in sports with regard to holding athletes accountable and do you think the industry might be ready for its own awakening in the near future?
Elizabeth: Yeah so, like I mentioned with the Derrius Guice and the Washington Football Team example, I think we are seeing small changes. Individual players who likely haven’t proven themselves or haven’t been star players may be feeling a little bit more pressure [00:19:00] or may get some sort of punishment put down on them.
But I think there are just a couple things that really have to happen in order for this change to be widespread. And one of those things is continued education on topics related to sexual violence. So this is kind of where my recent research has shifted to figuring out—if we’re talking to students, sport management students specifically, about issues of sexual violence that they are the future leaders, they are the future coaches, the front office staff. The idea behind it is if we can get them before they start full-time, they’ll understand how to not only identify issues related to sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual violence, but they’ll also understand how to navigate them. And they won’t just be by current standards. They’ll be able to step in and say, “What’s happening right now is problematic, here’s why it’s problematic,” [00:20:00] and help change the organizational culture.
So, if we can get sport management students early and we can change their ideas and help them understand that they should never have to put up with sexual harassment or any type of sexual violence as an employee, and if they see that happening with their colleagues they should step in, we’ll hopefully be able to see changes.
As issues related to diversity equity and inclusion—so topics about gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation—continue to be more openly discussed, I’m also hopeful that we’ll be able to see change based on thatm as well. Because I think that there are a number of taboo topics within sport. So we still see controversy related to players kneeling during the national anthem, even though players like Colin Kaepernick have come out and say, “It doesn’t have anything to do with the flag, [00:21:00] it doesn’t have anything to do with the anthem here’s what it’s about.” We see some similar things with sexual violence as well, again a taboo topic that isn’t fully understood and we don’t like to talk about it. So as we become more comfortable having these types of conversations, I’m hopeful that fans will start to hold players accountable and start to really again, hit them in the pocketbook and hit them where it hurts because I think that’s when we will be able to see the wide scale change.
Host: Thank you Elizabeth for joining me and sharing your insights on the idea of sports blinders. While the #MeToo Movement has been an awakening for many industries, professional sports isn’t one of them. Fans don’t often hold their favorite athletes accountable for their actions even when it comes to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. That’s disheartening given the impact the #MeToo Movement has made in so many areas and industries.
As we learn today, one of the keys to changing this trend is continued education. [00:22:00] Elizabeth is working directly with sport and recreation management students early in their education to help them identify and address these issues. As educators and researchers such as Elizabeth continue to explore this topic, these future leaders will be better prepared to hold their employees and athletes accountable. Let’s hope this leads to real and tangible change.
Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Visit us on the web at fox.temple.edu/catalyst. We are produced by Milkstreet Marketing, Megan Alt, Anna Batt, Stephen Orbanek and Karen Naylor. I hope you’ll join us next time. Until then, I’m Tiffany Sumner and this is Catalyst.
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