Blame Patriarchy: Notes on Steubenville and "Jock Culture"

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In a recent polemic Dave Zirin asks if "jock culture" is to be blamed for the Steubenville case.

Responding to evidence that adults around these football players conspired to cover up the shame and the crime of it all, Zirin tackles the social structure framing the story. "Steubenville," The Nation's headline announced, "shows the bonds between jock culture and rape culture."

Football Locker Room (c) shutterstock

To summarize the Steubenville story: a group of football players raped a young woman and then went on to laugh and joke about it, and to broadcast the fun they had within their circle. Mass media outlets recently harmonized their headlines as they moved toward concluding the story cycle, presenting the case as a personal tragedy - for the men on trial. Cue a collective groan from JezebelGawkerFeministing. I join the chorus here, but instead of thinking from CNN et al, I want to think from Dave Zirin's writing, which has been among the most heart-felt and intense from a sports writer.

The problem (as I'm sure Zirin knows) isn't football or jock culture. The problem is patriarchy. But "Steubenville shows the bonds between patriarchy and rape culture" doesn't make for a catchy headline.

That is part of the problem: sexism isn't news.

Patriarchy is such an old-fashioned word. It's so unsexy. Such a drag. And I feel like a throwback, an old feminist from another time for naming it.

I throw it out here, however, as the word for naming what the Penn State scandal has to do with Steubenville (for example) or with the ubiquity of sexual violence within the military and with the latter's inability to confront the problem. For naming what football has to do with the media's inability to tell as story about rape without recuperating men as tragic heroes of a sort. Of course people are sympathetic to these guys. They are teenagers; their lives are a mess. They are going to jail. Who wants to relate to the person who was too drunk - or drugged - to remember anything? Who was, in fact, unable to know or feel what was happening to her body? Who identifies with the person who was made into an abject thing used for collective entertainment?

Scenes of Instruction

I want to turn to an anecdote that Zirin recounted in another column, also about Steubenville. Earlier this month he shared a memory of being on a team as a high school student, of being in the locker room when a teammate made a rape-joke. The coach, whom Zirin recalled as a very left leaning and sensitive man, hauled off and slapped the offending player.

Zirin writes:

In a flash, Coach Dan backhanded Tim across the face. Seeing a coach or adult authority figure hit a 14-year-old, even a huge one like Tim, was shocking enough. Seeing Hippie Dan do it was akin to watching the Dalai Lama stomp someone with his sandals. We all stood there breathless and I’m not sure if Tim or Dan was shaking more. Coach Dan finally spoke and said, “I’m sorry but there are some things you don’t joke about.” He then walked out of the locker room and practice was done. The incident was never mentioned, but Dan was never quite so positive, Tim stopped making jokes and that was the first and last locker-room rape joke of the season. (Steubenville and Challenging Rape Culture in Sports)

That is a complicated moment - it is seared into Zirin's memory for good reason. But I don't read that slap as a feminist intervention. It is a classically patriarchal moment: the good father disciplining the bad boy; a figure of masculine authority intervening in order to protect women. A fair amount of discourse on the Steubenville case has this shape.

There's no conversation in Zirin's story. Just the "understood" of realizing there are some things that one doesn't joke about - and that these are the same things that one doesn't talk about. Learning that seems to make them men.

It's helpful to look more closely at the story. It's a locker room - it's all men and boys. It's a scene of instruction and intimacy. The joke is made when the boys are told that a female member of the coaching staff at the school is coming in to talk to them. It happens at the threshold of a gendered and a desegregated social space. The joke arises at the idea that a woman might enter their (masculine) space. The imagined introduction of her body changes the imagined nature of the space. It is at that juncture that we find violence and shame, swirling around each other. A joke, a slap.

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