Will Sports Finally Have Its #MeToo Moment?

We might be on the verge of a big #MeToo breakthrough, but are we ready to handle it?

We’re coming to a moment of reckoning, or at least, that’s what it feels like. Last year Harvey Weinstein was ousted. That was followed by names like Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey and eventually, the majority of the Dallas Mavericks front office. A year into the #MeToo movement gaining mainstream traction (it’s been around for significantly longer), it’s begun to dismantle some of the archaic, patriarchal power structures that have subjugated women for so long. But it’s about to come face to face with it’s toughest challenge yet. 

I’m of course talking about athletes.

Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the world’s most recognizable and marketable soccer stars, continues to suit up for Juventus and Portugal despite an ongoing investigation into a sexual assault charge made against him for an incident that occurred in 2009. Meanwhile, fans will continue to cheer for him and jerseys with his name stitched into them will continue to sell. Every time you fire up FIFA 19 you’ll be greeted by his visage, running across your screen (unless EA Games makes good on their promise of a patch, but up until a week ago, you could still see ads on Twitter saying “be like Cristiano”). Ronaldo will continue to get paid millions of dollars for both playing the sport he loves and from the numerous endorsements he’s accumulated throughout his career. What do we do with that?

The answer, as it’s always been, is nothing. Nothing at all. But it shouldn’t be. 

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It would be easy to say that the sports world is just not equipped to handle this right now (not true) or that there isn’t a precedent for this from the past (also not true). It would be easy, and it would be wrong.

Many among us like to view sports as an entity that lives between the real world and a complete separation from it. It’s a past-time that provides us with an escapism, not unlike the one we get from TV and films. It’s a topic of conversation that comes up when we’re exhausted from talking about politics or changing ideologies. But regardless of what it does for us, it does not exempt athletes from inappropriate behaviour, and it doesn’t have the gravity to warrant shielding athletes from any kind of consequence. 

Much like the entertainment industry (and any industry really), sports have a tenuous and ongoing relationship with misogyny. From how we treat female athletes (about that later), to the near impossibility of breaking into sports media as a woman (shout out to Doris Burke). The world of organized sports is one of the oldest standing clubhouses there is. Think back to all the furor of a mere rumour that teams were interviewing Becky Hammon for a head coaching position. 

One example of sports’ antiquated perception of women is cheerleading, a practice that undoubtedly requires both skill and hours and hours to master. But the reason for its continued existence is less clear. Few, if any, players point to it as a necessary motivational device that can swing an outcome. In reality, cheerleaders exist simply for the entertainment middle-aged men.

The world of organized sports, until recently, seems like something if not entirely closed off to women, full of barriers to entry. It works from an organizational level down. Most executives are men in positions of power and twice already in this decade, we’ve seen how willing these men are to abuse that power: first with Donald Sterling and then with the Dallas Mavericks.

We often skew the dynamic of relationships of athletes with their accusers. Yes, men like Weinstein are powerful in their own right, but his accusers were also at times popular or had visibility in popular culture. Strong female leads and characters, though not as frequent as they should be, have begun to appear in popular culture with more cadence. In sports, we encounter one of the biggest disparities of how we often perceive men and women (not often consciously).

We tend to not perceive women’s athletic associations as equal. There are policies in place that are often downright detrimental to female athletes (such as pregnancy leave that saw Serena Williams plummet in the rankings) to the percentage of revenue these athletes receive. One need only to spend five minutes on Twitter following the WNBA salary negotiations to stare into the worst impulses of the male sports fan.

It is evident we have a lot of work to do. One can’t help but wonder when we’re going to start.

So what will happen with Ronaldo? It’s hard to tell. As of right now, it appears that he will continue to enjoy all of the benefits of his status, not unlike another high-profile case.

In 2003, a 19-year-old hotel employee in Colorado went to the police, accusing Kobe Bryant of Rape. Bryant at first denied having sexual intercourse with the woman but faced with DNA evidence his story changed. He maintained that he did not, however, rape her. Following an investigation, Kobe Bryant was arrested and immediately released on $25,000 bail. Even during his trial, he was allowed to fly back and forth from the courtroom to his games.

Throughout the case, Kobe’s accuser was described as mentally unstable, a danger to herself and her past (such as a recent hospitalization were brought up). Much like many other high profile cases of this nature, it felt as if she was on trial more than Kobe ever was. The court dismissed the charges, Kobe went on to sign a deal with Nike (and many other endorsements), win two more championships and even win an Oscar. And what of the woman who put forth very credible accusations in terrifying detail

Kobe isn’t the only one to go through this process. Ben Roethlisberger comes to mind. Or Derrick Rose, who still has stans on Twitter defending him daily.

Then, the Dallas Mavericks happened. The key difference here was that the Mavs case was on an organizational level. No one is buying jerseys with executives names on them. Some fans may not even know who the GM of their franchise is. They just want to see the athletes compete and that’s it. The Mavs promptly cleared house (some men implicated were already gone when the news dropped), accepted all of the consequence from the NBA, implemented new policies and installed Cynthia Marshall to oversee the changes. They moved swiftly, and yet, before the news became public, Earl Sneed kept his job twice following two arrests.

What happens with Cristiano could be indicative of change and that’s what the optimist in me wants to believe. So far, the allegations are both credible and the evidence seems to corroborate them. In almost any other line of work, this would warrant if not outright termination, at least a mandated leave of absence until the end of the investigation. It’s not like someone in his position won’t be able to feed his kid for missing a few games.

Unfortunately, sports fans seem to be unwilling to hold their athletes to the same kind of standard. It appears being good at a sport and bringing your team wins qualifies you to somehow be above the law and above consequence. We may be saying all of the right things on Twitter, but we will continue to suit up and cheer, forgetting for hours at a time the bigger forces at play.

The truth is, I don’t even know where we could start. We could start with cheering a little bit quieter? With purchasing less merchandise or tickets? Watching fewer games? Ideally, we would be eliminating the special circumstances of athletes and those in power. Players like Cristiano and Kobe grew up believing in a world where they’re above everyone thanks to a specific set of activities and as such the behavior follows. You tell someone they’re special long enough, they begin to believe it. Maybe (definitely) this is one of that place where they should be just like everyone else. And it’s on all of us.

From an organizational perspective, teams should take a closer look at their sexual assault policies right now, without waiting for another incident to respond to. Implement very clear rules about athlete behavior much like they do with violence or drug consumption. Perhaps start by not re-hiring someone credibly accused and found guilty of domestic abuse multiple times. That seems like a good place to start. Yes, you run the risk of having to suspend or fine a player, but perhaps if a player is guilty of sexual abuse that is a fair consequence for their actions.

For fans, there is a lot of digging we need to do ourselves. For the longest time, I’ve been a devout Kobe Bryant fan. Growing up on the Showtime Lakers my fandom rolled smoothly into the Kobe and Shaq era and I never looked back. I consciously closed my eyes to July 2003 and everything that followed. I celebrated Kobe’s victories in the Purple and Yellow without much acknowledgement of his past. I watched him win an Oscar and made Twitter jokes about it.

Not until recently did I have the strength to sit down and look at what happened that one night in Colorado, read the reports, explore the evidence. Ignoring his history was problematic. What we did as fans and what the Lakers did as an organization was problematic.

Acknowledging that perhaps Kobe was not a good person that night will not take away him being a good basketball player. People can be both. It’s not going to take away from the Lakers championships (although maybe it should have) or from his stats. Not anymore at least. But maybe even that is my cop-out. The fact that I’m allowing myself to do this only when he is no longer suiting up for the Lakers. And that is a sign of weakness. To wait until the end.

With Ronaldo, we have a chance to get it right. He may be innocent, the investigation may conclude so. He also may be guilty and we should commit to that possibility with equal conviction. When the investigation runs its course, if there is enough evidence in place, we must not brush it aside because of his greatness. This is our chance to at least start to get this right. If not all the way, at least in the beginning.


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Serge Leshchuk
Serge Leshchuk
Serge Leshchuk is a senior writer at Grandstand Central, number one Process devotee and nihilist Raptors fan who also does video production. You can send your complaints about any Celtics related articles to him directly on Twitter.


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