During my first year covering the 76ers for The Philadelphia Inquirer, I walked into the locker room after an early-season game. One of the team's best players had already made a habit of conducting his postgame interview immediately after exiting the shower. Sometimes he spoke with just a towel wrapped around his waist, another one draped over his shoulders.
On this particular night, I made eye contact with him as he sat on his chair, still wet from the shower. Thinking he wanted to get his media obligation out of the way, I walked toward him. His words stopped me. "You like walking up on half-naked men?" A sly smile crossed his lips.
I stammered a few words -- I think I was actually trying to apologize -- as my heart began hammering. I turned and left the locker room, leaning against the wall a few steps from the door. Arena staff and team personnel streamed past. I kept my head down and tried to regain my composure. I remember looking at my notepad, opened to an empty page that I still needed to fill, wondering if I could do this job.
A minute later, I walked back into the locker room. The player was talking to the other beat writers, all of them men.
He was still wearing only a towel.
I've been thinking about that interaction a lot lately, my memory triggered by a slew of recent events that expose, to varying degrees, the unrelenting sexism that exists in our sports culture. Sometimes it's blatant; more often than not it's subtle, a never-ending reassertion of power intended to keep men in control and women on guard.
Consider the words of Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, who was ejected from a game on Feb. 5 for telling a referee to stop "acting like a f---ing female."
It's hard to say what's more disconcerting: the casual contempt in Cousins' words or the fact that most writers chose to ignore it, focusing instead on his use of the F-bomb (that is, his cursing) and his reputation for questionable on-court behavior, which has led to 11 technical fouls this season.
Yahoo's Dan Devine, to his credit, acknowledged that calling someone a female "shouldn't be an insult." And Cousins himself said afterward, "I shouldn't have said that." But the fact remains that the quickest way to cut a man down in sports is to call him a woman.
My three seasons covering the Sixers were filled almost entirely with respectful, professional interactions. And I'm happy to say that Philly's notoriously hard-to-please fans were great. Even so, there were some eye-opening moments (more on those later), little jabs here and there, the kind that add up over time.
Most women in this profession have stories like mine, some of them a lot worse than mine.
During the recent NFL playoffs, a female colleague wrote a column that sent thousands of fans over the digital edge because she said, rather matter-of-factly, that their team had little chance of winning. She was quickly bombarded with threatening, degrading, misogynistic messages, the sort of stuff that made "Go back to the kitchen" (one of the taunts) seem tame in comparison.
This kind of "dialogue" has become commonplace across Internet message boards, where comments about female athletes and writers -- posted by anonymous readers using objectifying terms or spitting vitriol to their hearts' delight -- amount to a form of uninterrupted sexual harassment. (Here at espnW.com, our comments are under a Facebook plug-in, ensuring that people have to put their real names, presumably, on what they post.)
Some people might shrug and say this type of gender-bashing is bound to happen in a male-dominated environment. But, of course, we know there's more to it than that: It's a microcosm of how women are too often disregarded across society.
And the repercussions are all around us at the moment, as women and men try to make sense of the recent hailstorm of "sports" stories that have nothing to do with what happens on the field: the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide tragedy in Kansas City; the alleged sexual assault of a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio; the suspension of Tufts lacrosse players for sexist taunts.
Belcher murdered his girlfriend, killed himself and left their infant daughter orphaned -- yet the ensuing media coverage mainly focused on a young, hardworking football player gone too soon, a storyline apparently easier to tackle than a national epidemic of violence against women. Two high school football players in Ohio allegedly assaulted a young woman, then others reveled in it on social media -- yet little came of the incident, or the initial New York Times report of it, until an online vigilante group helped balance the scales of power and led the call for justice in Steubenville.
A few weeks ago, 27 Tufts lacrosse players were suspended for shouting sexist and racist comments during an on-campus women's volleyball match in September. The men, some of them drunk, directed most of their heckling at the players and coaches from Smith College, an all-women's school.
Tufts student Rose Barrett was in the stands that day, and she published an opinion piece in the student newspaper detailing the harassment. "We need to think about why no one stood up to them at that time," she wrote, "and what sort of culture we create that makes this sort of behavior acceptable."
Yes, we do. Because the social construct of what it means to be a man too frequently comes at the expense of women.
"It's all a front," says Don McPherson, a former NFL quarterback who now runs social outreach programs aimed at breaking down gender roles. "Masculinity is an act. It's about being strong, tough, not crying, and, above all, never betraying the code of masculinity. Part of the conversation that still has not happened is around the construct of gender. Men inflict violence on others. Men are the ones doing this. Are we ready to have a conversation about that common link? I don't think we are. What gets us there? Quite frankly, I don't know. The vast majority of men are not abusers; the vast majority are good guys. But the vast majority of men are silent."
And that's the problem here: the silence of the good guys. In those blurry pictures taken that terrible night in Steubenville, we see two young men dragging a young woman who was reportedly unconscious. But we don't see the other young men (and women) standing in the background -- likely silent, immobilized, afraid of "betraying the code."
Too often, the silence becomes white noise, as everyone fixates on some smaller issue rather than the thing itself. They hotly debate why the Kansas City Chiefs would go ahead and play a game just one day after Belcher shot Kasandra Perkins nine times before taking his own life, but they pay only lip service to domestic violence and its root causes. They wonder whether Steubenville's obsession with high school football, and the team's success, blinded the locals to what's right and wrong -- as if Steubenville is somehow different, the sad exception, when in reality there are a thousand towns just like it across the country.
It's so much easier to wash our hands of an unsavory event if we convince ourselves that the behavior in question was created by an unusual set of circumstances. Blaming football, as McPherson points out, is an easy way to let everyone else off the hook, instead of grappling with a much larger, far more complex set of issues. Because sports don't exist in a vacuum.
Covering the Sixers wasn't my first time dealing with big-time male athletes. I had played on a basketball scholarship at the University of Colorado, followed by three seasons of pro ball, so I was hardly a naive newcomer when I arrived in Philly -- at least not when it came to athletes' egos.
During my second year on the job, a player pulled me aside and told me I would be blacklisted for a week or so because I had called out one of the guys in a column. The team, he explained, would be forced to uphold the "bonds of brotherhood." All beat writers are stonewalled by The Brotherhood at some point during their career, and some aren't fortunate enough to receive advance warning. To this day, though, I remain skeptical of most brotherhoods, including those in sports journalism -- which you can see in full force every day in social media -- because they serve only to deliver power to power.
Toward the end of my tenure covering the Sixers, someone higher up in the organization took particular offense to something I had written and sent me the following text: "You are a conniving/deceitful woman! Sleep well, Kate."
I didn't sleep well that night, nor for a few nights afterward. But I've kept that text in my phone and look at it occasionally to remind myself of the uphill battle all women face. For the record, I would have been perfectly fine being called an old-fashioned a--hole for what I'd written. I was a beat writer, after all; criticism comes with the territory. But I didn't go around introducing myself as a "female beat writer," and I certainly didn't appreciate the suggestion that my gender -- my "conniving/deceitful" gender -- had somehow clouded my assessment of a struggling team.
Yes, male athletes and writers have all sorts of insults slung at them, too. The difference is their gender rarely enters the equation. And while it's easy to dismiss the online trolls -- whose comments rely upon other people breathing life into them -- the truth is that the hostility on message boards is a virtual representation of the hostility a lot of women face every day.
Houston Rockets rookie Royce White recently offered a thoughtful take on the increasingly frightening nature of message boards and social media.
"As much as we want to think that these are just people behind computer screens, those people are living next door to you," White said. "They are people behind computer screens in schools. In hospitals. Working in Washington, D.C. These are real people. How many times does this stuff have to happen before we admit something really disturbing is going on here? I think one person tweeting 'F--- you, go kill yourself' is disturbing. But when you get into the hundreds of those tweets? The thousands of those tweets?"
The most surprising thing is not that incidents like Steubenville happen; it's that not enough people seem willing to stand up and address the underlying issues.
The warning signs are all around us.
And they are not subtle.