The world of professional sports has become one of the most lucrative businesses in history, running parallel to other industries such as Hollywood movies and music producing record labels. Networks rake in billions of dollars every year and more and more complaints have arisen in recent years regarding the large salaries of athletes (Zirin). It’s unlikely that this will change as audiences take it all in, using social media as a tool to discuss games and strategies and advertising their favourite teams. However, it is quickly becoming apparent that the large business of sports is a less than friendly place, particularly on social media. It was on Twitter that actress Ashley Judd was bombarded with misogynistic, vulgar, and violent comments and threats in response to a tweet sharing her opinion on a basketball game during March Madness (Alter). An avid basketball fan, Judd was shocked to see such an intense response (Judd). The tweets ranged from family insults to threats of sexual violence that became increasingly more common and sinister (Judd). A victim of sexual assault, Judd chose not to remain silent and instead pressed charges and wrote an opinion piece for an online magazine in the hopes of unpacking the connections she saw between social media and misogyny (Judd). Unfortunately, Judd’s case is not unique. Many women face the response she faced, although seen on a larger scale than most due to her celebrity status, every day in relation to sports and the largely masculine connotation it carries.
The response Judd received can be largely attributed to capitalism as a system of power and its use in the realm of sports. The need to make a profit and sale forces many corporations to focus its attention on a target audience. In the world of sports, networks capitalize largely on gender expectations. Almost all major sports networks such as ESPN and CBS Sports are marketed almost exclusively to men. Their marketing targets men by placing them in almost all systems of expertise and power, and provides a code of conduct and expectations for boy and manhood (Aulette, Wittner, 444). As sports rely heavily on physical skill, this suggests men are exclusively capable of meeting the physical proficiency required for success. Their branding of sports encourages hyper masculine behavior (Aulette, Wittner, 444). These behaviors base themselves around a dominator model in which violence and threats are used in order to maintain position and stability of a hierarchy, particularly one in which males are on top (Aulette, Wittner, 271). Physical dominance, often in the form violence can be seen both in game play as well as in athlete personas. Sports such as football, hockey, and wrestling foster games that are often violent in nature. These activities are full of punching, tackling, and body checking (National Football League, Section 3; National Hockey League, 67-68). Players cannot opt out of these components of the game if they wish to be successful and maintain the credibility of their team. Their physical dominance is rewarded through their wins and additional commentary provided by the network as they draw attention to themselves and their playing (MacGregor). As a result, the audiences become more aware of violent players, encouraging and cheering them on (MacGregor). In addition to this, many athletes are recruited and encouraged to participate in additional violence outside of gameplay, becoming entertainment for the viewers who now relish the idea of their favourite players asserting themselves against others (MacGregor). Audiences are conditioned to believe that these highly successful male athletes have earned their place as a result of their physical dominance, and as a result feel inclined to follow in their footsteps.
Sexual dominance is also given positive reinforcement by professional sports networks. The male viewers relationship with women in sports remains highly misogynistic, placing women into the role of eye candy, or non-participatory, not allowing them to take part in active or expert way. Women are almost never granted positions on expert panels, and are lucky to receive jobs as sideline reporters (Morrison). They are separated from their male counterparts, suggesting they are classified in an “other” group. This further asserts men as the only active participants in sports, and the only ones with enough knowledge to share any opinion. The largest role for women on these networks is in their presence as eye candy for the target male audience who can now be determined as heterosexual. In searching through Google Images for examples of cheerleaders in the NHL, NFL, and NBA, a great deal can be revealed about female presence in sports. Female cheerleaders can be seen wearing flashy, tight fitting clothing that exposes a great deal of their body, hypersexualizing them (Aulette, Wittner, 414; Baltimore Ravens). These outfits are not conducive for extensive physical activity and so they can be largely seen dancing, often in a highly sexualized manner, and being lifted into the air by male counterparts (Baltimore Ravens). Male cheerleaders are dressed in plain athletic wear to indicate that they are not the main focus, and are not present in dance sequences but are used for intricate stunts requiring additional strength (Baltimore Ravens). Their gender based roles in cheerleading further strives to suggest that women are only capable of physical skill that does not require strength, and are therefore unable to fully assert dominance through physical and violent means, and can therefore not advance in the hierarchy; whereas the males are shown as fully capable of this. Their contrasting outfits condition the audience to believe that women are being presented for heterosexual men on a platter in between game play. Their revealing costumes suggest females in sports are only to be objects of the male gaze, they are dehumanized and replaced instead as sexual objects to be consumed, and not true members of the sport (Aulette, Wittner, 429). As the subject of the gaze, females can do little to assert themselves sexually, allowing males to again be placed in the dominant position.
Judd’s commentary on the March Madness college basketball games broke the established rules set out by the capitalist intentions of the world of sports. Not only was she not participating as a mere subject of male gaze, and instead dared to have an opinion on the play of the game, which the audience has been carefully conditioned to believe is not possible. This idea of sports being a sign of masculinity was tarnished, suggesting it may be a place for femininity and feminine thought. The male audience therefore felt their masculinity, as active viewer jeopardized. Based on their conditioning for sports to be a place of masculinity, which is characterized by dominance, it is unsurprising to see men feel the need to reassert this dominance. The threats of violence against Judd show the need for physical dominance, while the graphic and vulgar sexual assault threats combine this violence with sexual dominance. Their goal was not to perform these acts, but rather to scare Judd back into her rightful place within sport and allow for masculinity to be reinstated.
Alter, Charlotte. “Ashley Judd Speaks Out About Twitter Abuse and Rape.” Time. Time, 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 01 Apr. 2015.
Aulette, Judy Root., and Judith G. Wittner. Gendered Worlds. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.
“Baltimore Ravens Cheerleaders: Photos.” Baltimore Ravens. The National Football League, 7 Apr. 2015. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.
The Dylan Ratigan Show: Are Professional Athletes Paid Too Much? By David Zirin. Perf. David Zirin. NBC News. NBCNews.com, 25 Oct. 2010. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.
Goodell, Roger. “2013 Official Playing Rules of the National Football League.” NFL.com. National Football League, 2013. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.
Judd, Ashley. “Forget Your Team: Your Online Violence Toward Girls and Women Can Kiss My Ass.” Mic. Mic Network Inc., 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 01 Apr. 2015.
MacGregor, Jeff. “Players Fight Because We Let ’em.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 12 Apr. 2013. Web. 4 Apr. 2015.
Morrison, Sara. “Media Is ‘failing Women’-sports Journalism Particularly so.” Poytner. The Poytner Institute, 19 Feb. 2014. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.
National Hockey League. “National Hockey League Official Rules 2014-2015.” NHL.com – The National Hockey League. National Hockey League, 2014. Web. 05 Apr. 2015.