When I was a kid, maybe eight or nine years old, my parents took me to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. I didn’t understand much of what I was seeing; it was a big black wall covered in the names of people I didn’t know and hadn’t read about in my books. My clearest memory of that day, though, is the atmosphere around the wall. The air was different, more solemn, laden with things I didn’t have a name for. Even on a rainy November afternoon the Memorial still drew visitors; yet it was quiet there, surrounded by the silence of deepest loss.
If we engraved the names of every sexual assault victim onto a wall, how far would it stretch? Would the air be breathable, or would it be too heavy in our lungs?
The alleged perpetrators’ names, not just in football, but throughout all major sports, will not be spoken here, because this piece is not about them or for them. The world knows their names already, celebrates them, chants them high into the heavens in blissful syllables of ignorant euphoria.
Here they will be silenced, if only for a moment.
The beginning of my relationship with sports can be summed up as a series of happy accidents. Neither my parents nor my brother watched sports while I was growing up, and although we were physically active we weren’t athletic. A happenstance name mention in 2012 and some subsequent Googling introduced me to Sidney Crosby. Once the most recent NHL lockout ended and play resumed in 2013 I started watching men’s hockey, and developed a love for the game that lasts to this day.
Like football, the game of ice hockey is in itself a beautiful thing. The parallels between the only two sports to ever truly capture my interest do not escape me: beautiful goals, a handful of transcendent players, goaltenders taking the whole team’s weight on their shoulders, speed, unpredictability, anticipation.
Also, like football, the culture is rife with a toxic masculinity that treats women as collateral damage.
Here’s a storyline fans of both sports will recognize: a superstar, a so-called “face of the game” fresh off another championship season and beloved by sponsors and fans, is accused of rape. No charges are filed and his career continues.
It happened with the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s unfolding now with Juventus.
The club’s Twitter statement on October 4 relegated the allegations against their star forward to the distant past and wrapped them in code words like ‘professionalism’ and ‘dedication.’ It never fails to amaze me how far people will stretch to alter a situation’s language and the narrative along with it. A rape becomes ‘an event.’ An accused sexual abuser becomes ‘a great champion.’
This is not an accident. Sports clubs aren’t stupid: they wouldn’t spend good money on publicists and social media managers if they didn’t understand just what kind of influence they wield.
Nowhere in their allotted 560 characters did Juventus deny the player committed sexual assault. That’s not an accident, either.
The summer of 2015 changed my relationship with men’s sports forever. There’s a difference between not expecting a business to do the right thing and actually watching them do not only the wrong thing, but do it in the most tone-deaf way possible.
Following Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony via Twitter and the helpless acidic rage it left roiling inside me called back a very specific memory of that summer. I followed real-time updates from a Blackhawks press conference right before training camp opened for the upcoming season. The team trotted out the accused, instructed the media to stick to sports, and sent a clear message. They were behind their money maker and not at all interested in having a conversation about sexual assault.
Neither were the Nashville Predators, the team I once supported wholeheartedly and now view from a furtive distance. That same summer they re-signed a player just days after a civil suit accusing him of sexually assaulting a teenage girl was filed. It’s unknown if the Predators’ general manager was aware of the accusations, but it’s one hell of a stretch to think he wasn’t.
That same general manager was certainly aware this summer, when a different player was arrested for domestic violence. Aware, and equally tone-deaf, musing after the accused pleaded no-contest that “maybe this is a blessing, that maybe this is what was meant to be for a lot of reasons.”
Message received, loud and clear: women’s statistics as butts in seats and status as potential sources of revenue matters. Our safety, our autonomy, our right to exist safely does not.
How one can feel numb and nauseous at the same time I don’t know, but that’s how it landed. The rest—sorrow for Kathryn Mayorga’s suffering, disgust and rage at the act and individual who caused it—set in later. It’s tangled somewhere in my gut, in a too-familiar knot. I may be new to football, but this is an old feeling that slithers across the consciousness and leaves rot in its wake.
Odds are most female-identifying sports fans have been here before at one point or another over the course of their fandom. Love a game and embrace it with open arms, only to be shown again and again that numbers on a scoreboard are valued more than human decency. It doesn’t matter that club pockets are soaked in blood: they’re lined with money brought in by the players they protect. What’s a woman’s voice and story of her assault compared to hundreds of millions of dollars?
Maybe it was naïve of me, but I guess I wasn’t expecting to witness it again quite so soon.
I’ve spent the past few years trying to reconcile my love for sport with the knowledge that I am considered less by both the powers that be and significant portions of the fanbase. I’ve seen sport create incredible community, particularly among women and non-men. I’ve also seen it bring out the dregs of humanity, and yet here I am, still paying attention.
Is it cognitive dissonance to separate a sport from its culture? I don’t know.
Is it an act of feminist defiance to keep staking my claim where I’m so clearly not wanted? I don’t know. I really don’t.
What I do know, though, is this: fame, money, and athletic achievement must cease being placed on pedestals higher than the truth.
Her name is Kathryn Mayorga. I see her. I believe her.
I never learned the names of the women from 2015. One was a teenager and the other, as I understand it, wished to remain anonymous. Although her identity did become public in certain circles, out of respect for her privacy I’ve never looked for it. Nevertheless, I see them. I believe them.
They spoke their truth to power. I owe it to their courage to not look away.