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Current Sociological Issues Affecting Sport Media

This is an excerpt from Strategic Sport Communication 4th Edition With HKPropel Access by Paul M. Pedersen,Pamela C. Laucella,Edward (Ted) M. Kian & Andrea Nicole Geurin.

The mass media are intertwined with numerous sociological aspects of sport and often reinforce cultural values and public perceptions of sport. Even so, the media can also catalyze change in sport and in society at large, sometimes even prompting new legislation. In addition to the sociological issues covered thus far in the chapter, other relevant current issues include violence, head trauma, sex abuse, mental health, and homophobia in sport. Often, sport brings to light pressing societal issues. One example happened at the University of Virginia in 2022 when three football players—D’Sean Perry, Devin Chandler, and Lavel Davis, Jr.—were shot and killed by a former football player on a bus after a class field trip. Tributes poured in from around the country, and the media covered the story extensively. The players were honored with posthumous degrees from UVA, and the NFL recognized them as honorary first-round picks at the 2023 draft. In addition to gun violence, there are many other types and examples of sociological issues that affect sport media.

Violence

In the United States, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 26 men have experienced a completed or attempted rape during their life, and 1 in 9 men was made to penetrate someone (completed or attempted) during his life, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (“Fast Facts: Preventing Sexual Violence,” 2022). The disproportionately high rate among women has received considerable scholarly attention and is framed within the greater context of hegemonic masculinity and its relationship with sexual and physical aggression.

One institution that has been observed to perpetuate traditional masculine values is sport. As explained by David Rowe (1998), “Sport is a crucial site for the reproduction of patriarchal structures and values, a male-dominated secular religion that has celebrated the physically aggressive and often violent deeds of men. Sport has been an integral element of self-sustaining forms of exclusivist male culture, lubricating a closed system of male bonding and female denigration” (p. 246).

Domestic violence has been the number one crime perpetrated by athletes for decades (Benedict & Yaeger, 1998). Cultural spillover theory is one perspective that has been used to explain how on-field violent behavior could lead to off-field violent behavior (Bloom & Smith, 1996). When violence and aggression in one environment are accepted, they might carry over into other areas of life. Researchers have studied violence, abuse, and aggression at all levels of sport—high school, college, and the professional ranks—and found an overrepresentation of male athletes in reports of violence against women (Young, 2019).

The following cases are just a small sample of many troubling incidents of violence and aggression. The Los Angeles Dodgers released former Cy Young pitcher Trevor Bauer in 2023 shortly after he was reinstated after a two-year suspension for sexual assault. While Bauer’s suspension had been MLB’s longest since adopting a domestic violence policy, an arbitrator shortened the original 324-game suspension to 194 games. Bauer went on to play baseball in Japan (Haring, 2023).

There was an ongoing investigation of sexual assault that occurred in a hotel room by five members of the 2018 Canada World Juniors hockey team after a fundraising gala. The accuser filed a lawsuit against Hockey Canada, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), and eight unnamed CHL players, stating she was sexually assaulted in the hotel room. Hockey Canada settled the following month, but Canada’s minister of sport froze funding until there was proof nothing like this would reoccur. Sponsors Scotiabank, Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire, and others paused sponsorships. The investigation was closed in 2019 and then reopened in 2022. Hockey Canada has implemented changes, including a confidential complaint mechanism, mandatory sexual violence and consent training, and full governance review. Hockey Canada has also stated that no player from the 2018 World Juniors team can play on the national team (Murphy, 2023).

While cases of violence against women are much more numerous, there are incidents against men and boys, too. One recent example involves a toxic athletic culture at Northwestern University. In 2023, allegations involving the football team first came out and then widened to include other sports. Student athletes documented a culture of hazing that “fostered systemic discrimination, harassment and sexual abuse” (Jones, 2023, para. 1). Former players admitted that they went along with it to survive. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald was suspended and then fired after Northwestern investigated a whistleblower’s November 2022 complaint. The school’s newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, documented players’ experiences of degrading and abusive acts forced upon them by coaches and others. As of July 2023, the scandal included former athletes (men and women) from the football, baseball, softball, and volleyball teams, and civil rights attorney Ben Crump and fellow attorney Steve Levin represented at least 50 allegations, investigating all statutes that were potentially violated. It could be a landmark case for college athletics and hazing cases, with a profound impact on sport and beyond (Jones, 2023).

Coverage of violence in sport improves through diversity, investment, and education, according to journalist Jessica Luther (2022) in a Global Sports Matters article. The media increasingly cover cases of violence involving athletes and coaches and should accurately and consistently cover these stories. The NFL dominates such coverage, and all these players are listed on USA Today’s NFL Player Arrests Database (2023). According to Todd Crosset (1999), media discourse has shaped public opinions of athletes’ violence. The “brutal truth” of the TMZ video of former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay Palmer (now his wife, Janay Rice) in an Atlantic City hotel elevator forced NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to acknowledge moral responsibility and accountability in handling players’ incidents of violence (Taylor, 2014). After an initial two-game ban, Goodell admitted later that he “got it wrong” (Taylor, 2014). The Ravens ultimately cut Rice, and he never returned to the field.

Although the media covered this and other NFL cases extensively, problems have existed for decades, as is evident in Benedict and Yaeger’s Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL (1998). Until a new NFL personal conduct policy was unveiled in December 2014, the league as a whole, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, had a blind spot when it came to domestic violence cases. As disclosed by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, the league issued no suspensions after domestic violence convictions until 2000; furthermore, of 48 players considered guilty under the policy between 2000 and 2014, the NFL suspended players for one game or none in 88 percent of the cases (Fainaru-Wada & Fainaru, 2014). Even after the policy was modified, questions remain about various components and language, including “sexual assault involving physical force.” For instance, quarterback Jameis Winston escaped a six-game suspension after touching an Uber driver in a sexual and inappropriate way without consent. He was suspended for three games and was sued by the Uber driver (Smith, 2018). More recently, quarterback Deshaun Watson was suspended for 11 games and was fined $5 million (after an initial six-game suspension) after women accused him of coercing them or having lewd conduct during massages. There were no criminal charges, but he reached civil settlements with more than 20 of the accusers (Jackson et al., 2022).

If offenders are not punished, sport and its athletes and coaches will lose credibility, and more importantly, victims will continue to suffer and endure violence and abuse. To improve its reputation and image, the NFL has implemented an annual Social Responsibility Curriculum, which includes videos and interactive discussion, for members of all the teams and league offices. The league also supports local and national organizations committed to domestic violence and sexual assault prevention, such as One Love, It’s on Us, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and NO MORE (“NFL Addressing and Preventing,” n.d.).

There have been incidents in college sport, too, as is evident in Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s sexual assault case. The case captured national attention after the victim, known as Emily Doe, read an emotional letter to Turner at his sentencing on three counts of sexual assault. In 2015, two Stanford graduate students saw Turner raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster at a campus party. Prosecutors asked for a six-year sentence for Turner, but Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to only six months in a county jail. He served only three months and had three years’ probation (Park, 2018).

In 2019, Chanel Miller put a face and name to “Emily Doe” during a 60 Minutes interview. “Know my name,” her victim impact statement, captured global attention, and Stanford’s campus now has two plaques with quotes from the statement in the same location where she was sexually assaulted. Time included Miller on its 2019 “Time 100 Next List” celebrating tomorrow’s leaders (Mansoor, 2019).

One of Ohio State’s scandals involved assistant football coach Zach Smith. Smith’s ex-wife, Courtney Smith, filed a temporary restraining order and a trespassing charge against him, which was later dropped when he pled guilty to disorderly conduct. While then–head football coach Urban Meyer downplayed his knowledge of Smith’s domestic violence incidents, he said he was familiar with a 2009 incident when Smith battered his then-pregnant wife. Ohio State’s investigation led to a three-game suspension of Meyer and athletics director Gene Smith. The investigation revealed that Meyer did not notify the athletics director of Smith’s past incidents when Smith was hired in 2012. The university’s sexual misconduct policy and Meyer’s contract had specifications about handling such matters, and Meyer failed to follow proper protocol. In December 2018, Meyer stepped down as head coach, citing health issues. There was documentation that other football staff members and Meyer’s wife, Shelley, had raised concerns about Smith in writing or texts (McCann, 2019).

While there are many issues at play, a survey conducted by the nonprofit organization Lauren’s Kids found that one in four current or former student athletes reported being sexually assaulted or harassed by someone in a position of power and authority on campuses, compared to 1 in 10 people in the general population. Athletes were 2.5 times more likely to disclose abuse, and coaches were the most identified abusers. Florida state senator Lauren Book, a survivor of sexual assault herself, founded the nonprofit to educate parents and children about sexual violence. Only one in four athletes reported their abuse to college administrators. Close to half said they were afraid the perpetrator would retaliate against them, and nearly 40 percent feared losing their athletics scholarship or questioned whether the abuse was serious enough to report. One example was Alonzo Shavers, who did not initially disclose that he had been abused by a former Ohio State University athletics doctor, the late Richard Strauss, who sexually abused hundreds of men during medical exams and treatments. At the time, Shavers said he did not fully understand what had happened and admitted later that he had too much to lose as a walk-on football player (Yancey-Bragg, 2021). Another case involved San Jose State University’s former sports medicine doctor, Scott Shaw, charged in 2022 with violating civil rights of four female athletes by sexually assaulting them during physical therapy sessions from 2017 to 2020 (Jacoby, 2023). More than two dozen others over the span of 10-plus years said Shaw had assaulted them. As a third example, in July 2023, three women soccer players at Butler University filed lawsuits against the university, saying they were sexually abused by former athletics trainer Michael Howell (Glaspie & Burris, 2023). As with Penn State’s former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, perpetrators are often in trusted positions of authority and groom their victims through repeated contact and manipulation.

Media coverage and crisis communication strategies are vital in informing the public accurately; promoting fairness; and, ultimately, inducing social justice and change. As Lapchick (2015) stated in a Sports Business Journal column, sport has the power to heal communities and influence decisions and social change through sport media and sport communication practitioners. In a 24-7 media environment dominated by technology and social media, words still matter, both privately and publicly. This reality was brought home to Donald Sterling, then-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, when social media exposed his racist statements recorded by a former employee. The response by NBA commissioner Adam Silver was decisive and swift, reinforcing the need for accountability. He banned Sterling from the league for life; forced him to sell his part of the team; and levied a $2.5 million fine, which was donated to antidiscrimination organizations. The Clippers were bought by Steve Ballmer, former chief executive officer (CEO) of Microsoft, for a record $2 billion (Martinez & Hall, 2014).

Another workplace example included Dan Snyder, former owner of the Washington Commanders, who was accused of overseeing and enabling a toxic workplace. According to the final report by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, Snyder obstructed a 14-month Congressional inquiry when he dodged a subpoena, tried to intimidate witnesses, and continuously said that he failed to remember basic information in response to questions. The report criticized the league, too, in being complicit by also not cooperating and by never releasing attorney Beth Wilkinson’s investigation on the workplace in 2020-2021 (Thompson, 2022). The NFL fined Snyder $60 million following the independent investigation led by attorney Mary Jo White, concluding that he sexually harassed a team employee and withheld team revenue from the league. This news broke simultaneously with the announcement that NFL owners unanimously approved the $6.05 billion sale of the Commanders to a group led by Josh Harris, with Magic Johnson becoming the team’s first Black co-owner (Keim, 2023).

The NBA has also dealt with controversies. The Dallas Mavericks’ toxic workplace environment was first disclosed by Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim and journalist Jessica Luther (2018), who interviewed more than 12 current and former employees about the sexual harassment, domestic violence, threats, and misogynistic and predatory behavior. After the disclosure, owner Mark Cuban was proactive and did not make excuses.

An independent investigation cleared Cuban of being personally involved, and he donated $10 million to women’s organizations as suggested by NBA commissioner Adam Silver (MacMahon, 2018). Cuban was quick to fire and suspend perpetrators, launched his own investigation, and hired AT&T executive Cynthia Marshall as the team’s new CEO, who is still there as of 2023. The NBA constitution and bylaws enable Silver to fine owners up to $2.5 million. Silver recommended $10 million to Cuban, who willingly paid the fine by another name, helping women in the sport industry and promoting education about domestic violence and other social issues (Zillgitt, 2018).

Another example of controversy in the NBA includes the league’s independent investigation of Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury owner Robert Sarver, which was made public and finalized in 2022. Sarver was found guilty of workplace misconduct and organizational deficiencies during his years as owner of the two teams. The league issued a one-year suspension, during which Sarver could not be at a league facility or attend events, and fined him $10 million, with proceeds going to race- and gender-based organizations.

Commissioner Silver has been praised for his commitment to diversity, as mentioned earlier, and also for his handling of scandals within the league. This trickles down to team owners and coaches as well. The Boston Celtics suspended coach Ime Udoka for the entire 2022-2023 season for an inappropriate relationship he had with a Celtics staffer. In other NBA examples, the San Antonio Spurs released star player Josh Primo after multiple alleged incidents in which he exposed himself to women came to light. Kyrie Irving received backlash for spreading antisemitic propaganda on social media and was suspended and released by the Brooklyn Nets (Sykes, 2022). The NBA suspended another star player, Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant, in 2023 for posting an Instagram live video from a strip club in Colorado, where he held up a handgun in his left hand. He temporarily deactivated his Instagram and X accounts and entered a counseling program. Two months later, he posed with a firearm in a car and posted it on social media. After several incidents, the Grizzlies suspended Morant from team activities, and the league followed suit after its investigation, with a 25-game suspension to start the 2023-2024 season (“Everything You Need to Know,” 2023).

As all these examples show, the decisions, actions, and consequences made and experienced by athletes, coaches, and sport administrators are important, and it is the media’s responsibility to inform the public with accurate and substantive information. This need can clearly be seen in the work of investigative reporters such as Mark Fainaru-Wada, profiled in chapter 8, whose work on steroids and concussions has brought about changes in the NFL and MLB.

USA Gymnastics, under the leadership of president and CEO Li Li Leung, has sought to restore the organization’s and sport’s image. In 2020, USAG introduced its Athlete Bill of Rights to unite the gymnastic community around expected behavior and give members a voice through its protest policy for national team members. This is a collaborative effort between USAG and its elected Athletes’ Council and lays out an inclusivity standard and athlete expectations about safety, wellness, and health. Additionally, it includes coaching standards and protocols and organizational transparency, and it encourages athletes to use their voices and share their opinions (“USA Gymnastics,” 2020). While the organization still fights backlash from the Nassar scandal, Leung said this is one of many steps USAG has taken to help its athletes. In December 2021, an Indianapolis federal bankruptcy court confirmed a $380 million settlement between USAG and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the victims of the scandal. These survivors are also stakeholders at USAG and have seats on the Safe Sport Committee, the Athlete Health and Wellness Council, and the board of directors. Additionally, local clubs now must put up posters detailing how to report sexual abuse, acknowledge they will report suspected abuse, and require anyone in contact with minors to complete Safe Sport training. The settlement ended the survivors’ legal settlement against USAG, yet there are still ongoing legal cases and issues surrounding the case (Armour, 2021)

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