The Soapbox: Professional Sports Doesn’t Care About Women

On Tuesday, the New York Liberty—resident WNBA team at Madison Square Garden—announced that Isiah Thomas would be coming on board as president and part-owner of the team.If that name sounds familiar, it should: Thomas has a long history in basketball, albeit not a glorious once since he transitioned from playing on teams to coaching and managing them. A history of mediocre-to-abysmal records, and something else: an alleged 2007 sexual harassment incident against a female New York Knicks executive that led to the woman’s dismissal. Despite a later lawsuit that ruled the termination unlawful and awarded the former executive nearly $12 million in damages, James L. Dolan, the principal owner of both the Liberty and Knicks, has invited Thomas into a team and league with a largely female fan base.

Last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers named Jameis Winston as the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. While playing quarterback for Florida State Winston was accused of sexual assault in December 2012, and despite an ongoing investigation, started FSU’s first game of the season and became a Heisman frontrunner. Winston, who was never suspended by his college team following the incident, now stands to make $23.35 million over the next four years—and that’s not counting the inevitable endorsements.

Thomas and Winston were far from the only sports figure with a less-than-stellar history toward women to grab headlines this month. Perhaps you read something about this weekend’s “Fight of the Century,” featuring two of the more problematic men in sports? Although Manny Pacquiao’s anti-choice and anti-gay marriage views make him a controversial figure with regards to the best interests of the sport’s female fans, his beliefs pale in comparison to fight winner Floyd Mayweather’s actual actions. Mayweather been arrested or cited seven times for assaults committed against five different women; other incidents were reported to the police but no charges were filed. These included a 2010 assault against Josie Harris, the mother of three of Mayweather’s children, at least one of whom was witness to the attack.

As a woman, I find the actions of men like Thomas, Winston, and Mayweather reprehensible.

As a woman who is also a sports fan, I find the sports industry’s tacit acceptance of his behavior almost more so. Through a combination of silence regarding athletes’ history of abuse in light of their physical accomplishments and inaction when that abuse might threaten their potential to perform, the sports industry as a whole has shown that it does not care about women.

As proof, look at some of the sports celebrities in attendance at Saturday’s fight: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, along with his team’s owner, Robert Kraft. Tennis stars Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi. Charles Barkley. Former Brooklyn Nets co-owner and part-time sports agent Jay Z. All endorsing Mayweather’s behavior by the grace of their presence.

Others in the sports world were more direct with their praise. Stephen A. Smith, the host of ESPN’s First Take who last year drew ire—and a network suspension—for suggesting that battered women provoke their abusers, has been a long-time and vocal supporter of Mayweather’s, on the network and social media. On Twitter, praise came from Smith’s ESPN colleague, the legendary Dick Vitale; MMA fighter Ian McCall, who at least confessed to disliking Mayweather after lauding his victory; beloved WWE star Triple H; fellow boxer Amir Khan and boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard; and running backs LeGarrette Blount of the Patriots Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers.

Click those tweets. Read the replies. You’ll see that anytime a follower mentioned Mayweather’s history of domestic violence, the tweet went unanswered.

Closer to home, Maurice Edu, midfielder and team captain for the Philadelphia Union—the team for which my husband and I have been season ticketholders since the franchise’s inaugural season in 2010 tweeted:


Edu’s post above shows six retweets, but when I first saw it, there was a seventh: The Philadelphia Union.


The MLS might be small potatoes compared to the big four of American sports, but regardless: it is a professional sports team, and through its retweet, it provided an endorsement not just of Floyd Mayweather, but of Mayweather’s behavior.

I replied to Edu and the Union a few times via Twitter, where my posts about Mayweather’s history also went unanswered (except for a puzzling “smh” from Edu), until I told the Union I was writing this article.

The Union’s Press Officer, Chris Winkler, explained that the team’s “endorsement was strictly about Maurice’s enthusiasm for the upcoming match vs. Toronto”—meaning that their intent was to support the first half of his tweet only. The retweet “was an oversight on all levels and we have since undone the RT. We hope our track record speaks for itself regarding these types of matters.”

As a Union supporter, I appreciate the team’s retraction. But fans should not have to remind teams and players of the precedent they set when they implicitly endorse their colleagues’ dangerous behavior toward women.

Women make up a significant portion of the sports fan base. I can’t think of a single professional or university-level team whose merchandise story doesn’t feature at least a few female-centric offerings. Baseball teams frequently offer Mother’s Day specials or giveaways, and the NFL has prominently (if problematically) supported breast cancer awareness every fall.

But what the professional (and collegiate) sports community has shown is that while women are good enough to be fans, and to spend money on tickets and merchandise, their opinions and feelings do not matter when it comes to the men who play the game. If it did, swifter and stricter action would be taken against those athletes who are arrested or cited for, or charged with, domestic or sexual assault. Instead, we have countless examples showing the opposite:

Last year, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh defended Ray Rice’s character after the news first broke that he had assaulted his then-fiancée. Despite a public outcry led largely by women, including some prominent female sports journalists, the team did not cut Rice from its roster until seven months later.

In 2008, Pittsburgh Steeler Ben Roethlisberger was accused of raping a Harrah’s Lake Tahoe employee. Similar charges were levied against Roethlisberger in 2010, this time by a college student in Georgia. The quarterback was suspended for six games for the second incident (reinstated after sitting out only four), and never faced criminal charges for either episode.

In October 2013, Colorado Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov was arrested for felony kidnapping and assault against his ex-girlfriend; the team had him back on the ice after spending one night in jail (charges were later dropped).

In 2008, the year the Phillies won the World Series and the year after I met my husband at a Phillies game, I sat in the stands at Citizens Bank Park a few rows behind a teenage girl wearing a women’s jersey with Brett Myers’ name and number on the back. More remarkable than the fact that the girl chose to wear it was the fact that the Phillies had sold any women’s merchandise—or any merchandise at all—associated with Myers. Two years earlier, Myers had been charged with assaulting his wife. A day and a half following his arrest, Myers was back on the mound. The following February, the Phillies extended his contract.

By continuing to treat domestic violence like it doesn’t matter, by continuing to put abusers back in the game, and yes, by endorsing those same abusers on social media, teams and players are offering nothing more than a giant kiss-off to their female fans. It seems they care enough about women to make t-shirts for them, but not enough to protect them.

Jillian Ashley Blair Ivey is a writer, editor, and communications strategist based in Philadelphia.