What Ray Rice shows us about sexism in sports

The now-famous video of Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice striking his then fiancée and now wife Janay Rice in an elevator has sparked a North American conversation about violence against women.

Do leagues like the NFL foster a culture of misogyny?

The now-famous video of Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice striking his then fiancée and now wife Janay Rice in an elevator has sparked a North American conversation about violence against women, with some looking at the relationship between violence and sport.

For instance, do leagues like the NFL foster a culture of misogyny?

"NFL athletes are squeezed in many ways, they are asked to do unreasonable things," says Gamal Abdel-Shehid, an Assistant Professor at York University’s School of Kinesiology and Health Sciences and the author of Who Da Man?: Black Masculinities and Sporting Cultures.

Abdel-Shehid says professional athletes operate in a pressure-cooker atmosphere. They are told what to do, where to go, what to eat and are constantly asked to endure excruciating physical pain. 

"Some guys are going to buckle and they may not understand how they are buckling and take it out on the people around them," says Abdel-Shehid. 

Abdel-Shehid sees a connection between the commodification of professional athletes and the high incident rate of domestic violence associated with these players.

"If somebody sees themselves as an object they are going to treat someone else as an object too," says Abdel-Shehid.

Women on the side

Some research studies have suggested a strong link between aggressive sports and sexism, misogyny, violence and homophobia.

"The broader culture of sport in general teaches a disrespect for women and elevates men above women in all kinds of ways," says Stacy Lorenz an Associate Professor who teaches Physical Education and History at University of Alberta.

The peer group dynamics and the way masculinity plays out in the sports arena tends to promote a culture where women — as well as men who don't meet that particular standard of masculinity — are undermined, says Lorenz.

"In the sports world, women don’t really matter and aren’t to be taken seriously," says Lorenz.

The women who are part of this world are relegated to the sidelines, "as cheerleaders and as prizes in the beer commercials," says Lorenz.

Training ground for sexism

"Sports can be a training ground for a narrow view of masculinity in which violence is equated to what it means to act like a man," says Mavis Morton, an Assistant Professor at the University of Guelph’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. 

Morton says the sports arena becomes another place that continues to reinforce and support attitudes and behaviour that devalues girls and women and sees violence as acceptable.  But she stresses that these conditions are not unique to sports.

"It’s not so much about sports or a particular kind of sports. It’s about another context where attitudes and beliefs and values that undermine and devalue girls are allowed," says Morton.

Violence on and off the field

"It’s a mistake to say this is a Ray Rice problem," says Nathan Kalman-Lamb, co-author of Out of Left Field: Social Inequality and Sport. "This is a social problem. This is a problem with toxic masculinity and rape culture."

Kalman-Lamb says men are socialized to use violence as a tool to resolve all kinds of situations particularly in sports. 

"In sport men are taught that through violence on the playing field they are going to receive rewards, monetary accolades, and celebrity. Violence is consistently validated," says Kalman-Lamb. 

The development of these instincts towards violence on the field is what creates a problem off the field, where athletes eventually come to see aggression as normal because they are asked to rehearse these kinds of behaviours over and over again says Kalman-Lamb.

The fans fight back

The initial response by the NFL to Rice was to suspend him for two games — causing widespread outrage and a public relations nightmare, with people flooding social media to express their anger over the handling of the case.

"The reality is that violence against women happens every day in many ways," says Morton.

She says the good news is that there’s something that each one of can do every day to help change the culture that creates a breeding ground for violence against women. She says we have to become more aware of the connection between how we talk and what that says to people around us.

"We have to speak up every time someone makes a comment like ‘you’re playing like a bunch of girls,’" says Morton because these are the kinds of comments that make it permissible for women to be seen as less than men. 

Abdel-Shehid says we also have a lot of power as sports fans as these franchises rely on ticket and merchandising sales to survive. He says we have to hold the teams and the league responsible for the kinds of cultures that they foster, and stop supporting teams that don’t take issues of domestic violence seriously.