Season-ending “locker room talk” at elite colleges

Last month, Harvard canceled the season of its men’s soccer team because it found that team members were producing documents that rated members of the women’s team on their physical appearance and sex appeal, and that included vulgar comments. This practice had been discovered in 2012, but unbeknownst to college officials had continued up until the present.

Harvard cancelled the season, as opposed to disciplining individual players, because it found that the practice of making demeaning the women athletes was widespread. It also found that players had not been honest when questioned about the matter.

As is often the case, Harvard turned out to be the pacesetter when it comes to cancelling sports seasons due to sexist comments by athletes. Consider:

Washington University (in St. Louis) suspended its men’s soccer team indefinitely for generating an online document with “degrading and sexually explicit comments” about women.

Princeton suspended its men’s swimming and diving team over “misogynistic and racist” comments about the women’s team circulating on an electronic mailing list.

Amherst suspended its men’s cross-country team after members described one female runner as “meatslab” and another as a “walking STD.”

Columbia University suspended its wrestling team for the writing of sexually explicit remarks about women on a blog.

Note that the five institutions in question are considered among the very best colleges and university in America. Note too that the sports in question are all “suburban.” Elite schools probably recruit soccer players, swimmers and divers, long-distance runners, and wrestlers mostly from high schools in relatively well-off neighborhoods, including some tony private academies. The recruits will tend to be white and middle class (along with Hispanics in the case of soccer).

Most of the athletes, I believe, will have been instructed from an early age to respect women. They will have been told about the evils of sexism and sexual harassment. They may have signed statements agreeing to a code of conduct that prohibits the kind of foul insults that they and their teammates ended up spewing.

None of this seems to be working. Apparently, you can’t legislate effectively against “locker room talk.” Indeed, I wonder whether, at a certain point, the attempt becomes counterproductive.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t punish locker talk in extreme cases. Circulating crude sex-related comments about one’s fellow students is reprehensible. A team infected by this practice seems problematic. Should a university really let such a team represent it?

On the other hand, if engaging in vulgar sex talk becomes the basis for extreme disciplinary action, where does one draw the line? Suppose Athlete A tells Athletes B, C, and D in a private conversation that Female Athlete E is a meatslab and Female Athlete F is a “walking STD.” Should Athlete A be kicked off the team if someone overhears this or Athlete D reports it? That seems harsh.

Should Athletes B, C, and D be disciplined if they nod? If they laugh? If they repeat the comment to others on the team? If they put the comment in an email?

When I worked at the EEOC (of all places) nearly 40 years ago, a friend and I would compare views as to who the five most attractive women at headquarters were. We didn’t disparage anyone, nor do I think we ever said anything off-color. But we were “rating” women on the basis of physical appearance.

Should we have been disciplined? Would the answer be different if email had been around and we had used it?

It should be easy enough to draw the line between what my friend and I did at the EEOC and writing the kind of things described here. It seems reasonable for a university to refuse the authors of such statements the right to represent their school.

But in the current environment, do you trust university officials to draw the line reasonably? I don’t.

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