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Sports and violence against women: What can be done?

The Regina Leader-Post with Melissa Coomber-Bendtsen 05 December 2018

Although I write about sports for a living, the subject matter is not always restricted to games people play.

Consider the reports of football players committing violent acts against women — the most recent example being that of running back Kareem Hunt.

Hunt was quickly released by the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs after TMZ circulated a video of him shoving and kicking a woman during a February confrontation at a luxury hotel in Cleveland. (Hunt has not been charged with a criminal offence.)

There is also the example of former Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive back Justin Cox, who is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to assaulting his ex-girlfriend.

Why, I wondered, have situations such as the aforementioned become so common in the pro football world?

“I’m sure there are many factors, including the traditional ‘macho’ attitude and behaviour that is known to be part of football and other sports at all levels,” replied Regina Transition House executive director Stephanie Taylor, who also cited “the belief of some pro athletes that they are above the law and would not face the same criticism from the public or their employers as a ‘regular’ person would.

“I’m not sure it’s just prevalent in football, but it seems to be making the news more and becoming more common knowledge in pro football. Its occurrence among football players and other pro athletes has likely been non-reported or under-reported until more recently due to increased public awareness and acceptance of its occurrence for women at all levels of society.”

What can be done? Via email, Taylor offered some suggestions:

• “The employers of pro athletes do need to take charges of intimate-partner violence or violence of any sort against women and men seriously. An investigation by the employer should take place immediately while the player is suspended, perhaps. A conviction should result in loss of contract and employment in the league.” (Hunt and Cox were released after their situations came to light.)

• “Acknowledge that these men are often regarded as idols and role models to young people. Their behaviour should be reflective of that, understanding that the personal lives of people are also no longer private, particularly if you are a celebrity.”

• “Employers/owners should offer domestic violence education to football and other pro athletes and their sports organizations — management included.”

• “Teach young men and boys about modern gender roles, and a more flexible idea of masculinity to drive overall social change on male behaviour and ideas of themselves.”

Regina Transition House is one of four local women’s shelters that is supported in part by the Regina Leader-Post’s Christmas Cheer Fund. The fund also benefits SOFIA House, the WISH House and the YWCA Regina’s Isabel Johnson Shelter.

YWCA CEO Melissa Coomber-Bendtsen echoed Taylor’s sentiments about the “macho” attitude that can contribute to violence.

“Any conversation around domestic violence has to include a critical look at how to present ‘masculinity’ to young people and the pressures we place on them to demonstrate what it looks like ‘to be a man,’ ” Coomber-Bendtsen wrote in an email.

“I think that hyper-masculinity is often concentrated, encouraged and expected in professional sports. I think we need to start talking about gender as a social construct and encouraging healthy masculinity via education.

“YWCA Regina has recently started a program called Our Space, which focuses on healthy masculinity, promoting gender equity, and empowering boys in the movement towards ending violence against women and girls.

“Through group discussion, interactive exercises, and activities, OurSpace encourages mentor-participant relationship building, and gives the students tools on how to tackle toxic masculinity, but also on how to replace it with healthy masculinity.

“Boys will leave the group with knowledge on how to engage in healthy relationships, to challenge stereotypes about masculinity, and to lead by example in building allyship amongst their peers and within the community.”

And with that, hopefully they will be part of a generation that is universally committed to the eradication of violence against women — not only within the realm of professional sports, but within our community.