Sitting atop the Ivy League standings, the Harvard men’s soccer team prepared for its game against Columbia in the first week of November. A victory would have clinched a berth in the NCAA tournament and all but ensured a share of the Ivy League title. But Harvard never competed against Columbia; in fact, it never played again that season.
The Princeton men’s swimming and diving team had three meets remaining on its schedules on Dec. 15, 2016, including the Ivy League Championships. The title was clear in its sights. And yet, the Tigers never traveled to Cambridge for the tournament.
The Columbia wrestling team’s season had also been cut short the month before. All three of these Ancient Eight teams had sent sexually explicit, homophobic or racist remarks among team members in private messages.
Harvard — the most publicly scrutinized case because it was the only instance in which specific messages were disseminated — exemplified the allegations brought against all three teams.
These were among the Harvard soccer team’s comments: “She seems relatively simple and probably inexperienced sexually, so I decided missionary would be her preferred position.” “She seems to be very strong, tall and manly, so I gave her a three because I felt bad. Not much needs to be said on this one, folks.” “Yeah … She wants cock.”
One member of the Columbia wrestling team even conveyed the hope that a specific women’s player would be sexually assaulted.
What can possibly explain the presence of derogatory — and specifically sexist — messages among three Ivy League sports teams? As our nation’s president would have us believe, the answer lies in “Locker Room Talk.”
To be fair to the athletes, I do believe that we must understand the condition of many of the students who made the lewd remarks. In the case of Harvard — again, this was the only one in which specifics were released — first years were involved.
As the Stanford prison experiment demonstrates, peer coercion can be insurmountable.
It is easy to condemn the comments of the Harvard soccer team’s “report” and we should. But, to be fair, we must understand the situation. As future team members, the first years come to campus with an unhealthy combination of admiration for and fear of their team’s upper-level students. As an incoming student athlete, one looks to the older members of the team for guidance, a means of securing a smooth transition and friendship. The seniors become mentors. The juniors become guidance counselors. The sophomores become friends.
The immense pressure to appease those older than you cannot be overlooked; when everyone on the team -— the only people you know at the school — demands something, and when your fellow first years oblige, what are you to do?
The following year, things might not become easier. Then, you are only a single sophomore on a larger team. All your teammates demand that the incoming student athletes repeat that which you had to do the previous year. You might feel powerless. You are one in a crowd of many. And as history has always indicated, you fail to speak up. You are a victim of tradition, of circumstance.
In your junior year the vicious cycle continues.
Nevertheless, even in our worst circumstances, we are and must be defined not only by our actions, but also by our inactions — by what we say and what we don’t say. We do not express words that we have not previously thought. But when you think something that you fail to voice, it’s as if you never believed it to begin with. What we do defines us.
Moreover, in no situation can we blame our actions or words — or lack thereof — on those around us. In no social situation is what we utter social coercion. In no situation are the actions and remarks of a team member without agency.
In no circumstance can we blame what we say or do on our company.
But one must ask, then, why exactly did our president find solace in the defense that his words were “Locker Room Talk”? Why should we overlook what is said or done in a locker room? More specifically, why is it that “sports” and “sexual assault” are uttered in the same sentence so frequently?
I love sports. But love entails honest analysis. Fans must acknowledge that players on the teams for which we cheer are sometimes perpetrators of domestic or sexual violence. We must recognize that the arena of sports itself is often an excuse for the worst possible actions.
And we must speak out.
Kevin Bendesky | firstname.lastname@example.org