The Elephant in the Room: Sports and Sexism

The panelists, from left: Jessica Gelman, Daniel Peterson, and Shira Springer. Photograph by Tony RinaldoThe panelists, from left: Jessica Gelman, Daniel Peterson, and Shira Springer. Photograph by Tony Rinaldo
Harvard Magazine
November 8, 2016
By Lydialyle Gibson

Late Friday afternoon in Radcliffe Yard, an alumni panel discussion on women in sports—long-planned, and yet suddenly of the moment—opened with what moderator Janet Rich-Edwards ’84 called “the elephant in the room”: the recent revelations that the Harvard men’s soccer team had been producing documents assessing Harvard’s female soccer players in sexually explicit terms, and, further, that these “scouting reports” were a yearly tradition that had continued through 2016. As audience members began trickling into the Knafel Center, more news had broken: Harvard’s athletic director had canceled the rest of the men’s season. (The team would later formally apologize; meanwhile, The Harvard Crimson would reveal that the men’s cross-country team had been writing similarly crude comments about Harvard’s female cross-country runners.)

In her welcoming remarks for “Hits and Misses: Sports Marketing, Gender, and Society,” a breakout session of the Harvard Alumni Association’s Women’s Weekend, Radcliffe Institute dean Lizabeth Cohen told listeners that the room where they sat was once the Radcliffe gymnasium. In 1895, students had formed a women’s basketball team there, “long before they had access to the leagues, uniforms, and other resources that Harvard men took for granted.” Pointedly, Cohen added: “Certainly much has changed. But damaging social attitudes persist, and not just among the men of the Harvard soccer team.”

Rich-Edwards took it from there. “I want to take a second to talk about the elephant in the room,” she said before introducing the three panelists who would discuss how sports are marketed to female fans and how female athletes are covered in the media. A Harvard epidemiologist, associate professor of medicine, and co-director of Radcliffe Institute’s science program, Rich-Edwards criticized the men’s soccer team’s “witless cruelty” and read an excerpt from the response letter that six former women’s soccer players had published in the Crimson: “We are hopeful,” the women wrote, “that the release of this report will lead to productive conversation and action on Harvard’s campus, within collegiate athletic teams across the country, and into the locker room that is our world.”

 “That’s what we’re here to do today,” Rich-Edwards said.

Read the complete article in Harvard Magazine

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