Perhaps the most challenging aspect of Christian sports fandom is the struggle to strike a careful balance between healthy enthusiasm and discerning skepticism—both introspective skepticism (“Is my fandom negatively affecting me?”) and systemic skepticism (“Is my participation in this system negatively affecting others?”). It’s a precarious balancing act, and when we fail, the righteousness of our participation is often compromised.
I’ve long said that professional athletics are more than just morally acceptable; they are worthwhile and often holistically good. But that goodness is entirely contingent on our ability to be responsible consumers—to be people willing to call injustice unjust and to call for change when and where it’s needed.The sports world’s treatment of women must change—now.
This is a call for such change. Companies that prosper from professional sports cannot continue to mistreat women in the name of good business. Furthermore, fans cannot continue to foster an attitude of silent indifference or, even worse, subtle acceptance that allows such mistreatment to fester. It is morally reprehensible, entirely unbiblical, and altogether intolerable. The sports world’s treatment of women must change—now.
For eight years, Erin Andrews, former ESPN broadcaster, has been plagued by controversy surrounding a video of her own nude body, recorded without her knowledge and shared online against her will. The thought of the crime appalls me; I can think of few things more violating to a human being than to be indecently exposed and sexually exploited without either consent or control. Thankfully, the man who took the video, Michael David Barrett, was caught and later sentenced to 30 months in prison for interstate stalking. But while we can be glad that her stalker was apprehended, that 30 months pales in comparison to the approximately 17,000,000 times Erin Andrews’ body was viewed without her permission on the Internet.
Such a violation should stir outrage in a healthy society—and it did, though not in the way it should have. As if being stalked and exposed by a stranger was not horrific enough, Andrews was indicted by headlines and the court of public opinion following the incident. “Probably for like three months,” she said, “everybody thought it was a publicity stunt. The front page of the New York Post said ‘ESPN Scandal.’ To Fox News and CBS, everybody put up that I was doing it for publicity and attention, and that ripped me apart.”
Andrews was made to shoulder the blame for the crime committed against her—an unbearable burden for someone who was surely already burning with shame. And though you’d think it couldn’t, the nightmare continued to worsen: “My bosses at ESPN told me, ‘before you go back on air for college football we need you to give a sit-down interview,'” she explained. “And that was the only way I was going to be allowed back.”
This requirement, which forced Andrews to publicly relive a highly traumatizing series of events, reeks of victim blaming. It shifts the culpability from the person who committed a wrong to the person who was wronged by demanding she answer for the violation committed against her. It’s a deplorable practice undergirded by a painfully common attitude—one that suspects victims of sexual assault or domestic violence to be generally complicit in their own violation. ESPN is not unique in its propensity for victim blaming, though; in the last two years, the NFL has come under scrutiny for a slew of crimes against women that were unnoticed at best and actively hidden or minimized at worst.
This is not okay.
It’s not okay to hold a woman as partially to blame for the blow that rendered her unconscious (as Janay Rice was) on the basis that her assailant is on your fantasy football roster. It’s not okay to excuse unwanted kisses, violent outbursts, or alleged sexual assault because it’s convenient to your experience as a sports fan. And it’s certainly not okay to assume that a woman’s violated body is something she has to account for. The assumption that she should is indicative of a larger trend plaguing sports culture: the supposition that women in sports exist either peripherally or as objects of indulgence that desire to be exposed and consumed as much as some men desire to expose and consume them.
The revolutionary idea that women are, as it turns out, people, and not playthings, is beginning to infiltrate the frequently male-centered American sports culture. The general populous is beginning to quirk an eyebrow at news of sports players’ sexual misconduct. We’re pushing back against the idea that sports are designated safe zones for “boys to be boys,” as if an untamable animalistic instinct to act violently or inappropriately is intrinsic to manhood. We’ve begun to notice that the way women are frequently treated within sports culture is intolerably dehumanizing, and we must continue to demand accountability for this—accountability that goes beyond empty ad campaigns.
At its heart, such a call is central to biblical principles and mandates. It echoes the imago dei, which specifies that women are made in the image of God and therefore should be treated as such. It is a call to protect the vulnerable and seek justice. These practices should be central to a healthy culture. If they’re not, systemic reform is needed, and the people who support and occupy these systems—in this case, sports fans and sports participants—must demand it.
Image via RickMunish at DeviantArt