Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sports, Patriarchy, and Privilege

While we're on the topic of sports and their place in our society, this story cannot go without comment. Aspazia at Mad Melancholic Feminista and Jessica at Feministing have already written about it, but the best account is at I Blame the Patriarchy.

A group of women soccer players at a party found a woman unconscious with vomit in her mouth (not her own), surrounded by players from the De Anza Community College baseball team cheering as another sexually assaulted her. The soccer players rescued the teenage girl and took her to the hospital for treatment for alcohol poisoning. One of the women who rescued is quoted in the the SF Gate,

"She was literally lifeless. Her eyes were completely shut. On the ride to the hospital, I had to keep my hand under her nose to make sure she was breathing."
The terrible conclusion of the story is that all charges were dropped against the assailants by the district attorney for insufficient evidence, despite eyewitnesses, hospital reports, and a second woman who came forward to tell of the same thing happening to her by the same team in the same house months earlier.

While legitimate ire has been expressed over claims that the sex with the unconscious minor was consensual, the line that really got me was a quotation from Steven Rabaglioti, the host of the party and member of the team. After the charges were dropped he had these sage words for his victim.
"I’d ask her why she chose to put us and herself through so much. My only thought is I hope that she learned a lot, as well as about herself, in the last two months."
It's not the complete arrogance or lack of utter human empathy for what this young woman has been through that is thoroughly stunning here (o.k., yeah, the complete arrogance and utter lack of human empathy are thoroughly stunning here), it's the sense of moral superiority in light of what really happened. What I find fascinating is that I have no doubt that Rabaglioti's statement was not posturing, but something he actually believes. He does consider himself morally superior and does sincerely hope this young woman has learned her lesson.

Friedrich Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals argues that
From this rule that the concept of political superiority always resolves itself into the concept of spiritual priority, it is not really an exception (although there is room for exceptions), when the highest caste is also the priest caste and consequently for its total range of meanings prefers a scale of values which recalls its priestly function.
In other words, those with the social power get to determine what is right and wrong and they do it in such a way that favors their own power and desires. While the underlying point about our moral vocabulary only having a basis in the distribution of political power is ultimately problematic, if we consider social norms and mores instead of morality itself, the point is very well taken. Those in control have the power to effectively demonize those they despise and to make them culturally culpable for actions for which they are not responsible. that is exactly what we are seeing here.

One of the differences between liberals and conservatives is a function of scope. All the conservative invocations of "personal responsibility" are part of a deliberate rhetorical trick to limit the scope of conversation. They want us to only talk in terms of personal responsibility because they want to drive attention away from questions of the role of larger institutional affects on our decisions. By making us little atoms and ignoring the larger influences, we can avoid certain questions -- the sort of questions that many on the left, feminist scholars among them, demand that we confront.

Why did this male athlete feel perfectly legitimate in wagging his finger and saying tsk,tsk to a young woman who suffered a terribly traumatic experience while in his home? Because he is put in a position of power. In the social structure of colleges, male athletes occupy a special place that instantly endows them with great social capital. They have a place of unquestioned privilege in the social order. I was a lacrosse player in college at a school that had no football team. I've seen it from the inside.

Fraternities are bad enough. If you look at college campuses, you almost universally find gender parity. Yet, if schools went to gender-blind admissions, the accepted group would be overwhelmingly female. Significantly less qualified men are admitted for gender balance because experiments showed that skewed numbers of men and women resulted in large transfer rates (something harmful to the institution). It turns out that the majority of men in my classrooms are only there to keep the smart women from transferring; yet, they, of course, are the most enraged outspoken opponents of affirmative action when the topic is raised in my ethics classes. Irony can be so ironic. Same thing when you look at actual achievement in college, women outperform men.

Young women are the heart of the intellectual life of a campus, yet the social power on campuses almost always rests squarely upon not only men, but those men who are the most active in undermining the school's true educational mission. The lion's share of the social power is given to the most offensive fraternities and to the athletes.

Certainly it is true that one can be an athlete and be intelligent, caring, and a force for good. But let's tell the truth, college athletes are not pulled from the ranks of the normal student body. I, myself, was the recipient of such special treatment. I was accepted to an extremely prestigious Ivy League university. I may have been able to get in on my own, but I was admitted, in fact, without applying. I had sent in the first part of the application, basically just name, address, and social security number, and was later informed that I had been accepted even though the admissions people had apparently "lost" my transcript, essay, letters of recommendation, and any other measure of academic ability. I was invited to attend this great university because I could stop a shot in a lacrosse game. I've known many a lacrosse player in my times and the overwhelming majority could not have gotten into, much less through, their institutions of higher learning if they had not been athletes. Yet, these were the big men on campus. Our culture of celebrity, especially sports celebrity, extends to campuses in a way that gives athletes a special standing.

The best piece of advise I ever received was to never do the same favor for someone twice in a row. After the second time, it will no longer be seen as a favor, but taken for granted. However, if you say "no" once, even if you agree every time after, it will always be remembered that it is something not deserved, but rather something you are putting yourself out for. Athletes are always given the social favors and cease to see them as favors, but entitlements. We have an entrenched culture of athlete privilege in our intuitions of higher learning and the effect is not only in undermining the intellectual life of these institutions, but comes through in statements like Rabaglioti's. He and his buddies are baseball players. Of course, every girl wants to have group sex with them. I have no doubt he thinks the young woman was not only willingly there, but at the time was happy to be so. By later filing charges, she simply doesn't realize what a place of honor she had. By alleging wrong-doing on the player's part, she is simply failing to understand who it is she is dealing with. These are athletes and she a mere adoring fan who followed through on her admiration.

It is not only the athletes who are on steroids, in college athletics at all levels patriarchy is juiced as well.