A plague of do­mes­tic as­sault, lies and bro­ken trust: why be­ing a sports fan doesn’t feel fun any­more.

ELLE (Canada) - - Contents - By Vakis Bout­salis

Can a sports lover also be a fem­i­nist?

I’ve been watch­ing the Toronto Rap­tors since they played their first game almost 20 years ago. I was watch­ing when Alvin Robert­son scored the first bas­ket. I was watch­ing when the roster con­sisted of NBA Z-listers like Tony Massen­burg and Zan Tabak. I was watch­ing the night the un­her­alded Acie Earl scored 40 points, which even Earl’s mother wouldn’t have pre­dicted. I watched Vince Carter’s me­te­oric rise in the late ’90s and his sub­se­quent fall­out with fans and man­age­ment. Now, I’m watch­ing with glee as the team strings to­gether its great­est reg­u­lar-sea­son run in two decades.

The Rap­tors’ re­cent suc­cess is es­pe­cially grat­i­fy­ing be­cause I’ve been cheer­ing with my in­fant daugh­ter in my lap. Some­times it seems as if she’s watch­ing too; mostly she just wants to eat the re­mote. We all have our pri­or­i­ties. Ei­ther way, I get to hold her and dream of the day she be­comes a cog­nizant fa­natic, like her dad. If my early at­tempts at #WetheNorth in­doc­tri­na­tion work, she’ll love this team as I do and I’ll be able to use sports to im­part life lessons: I can tell her how Rap­tors star point guard Kyle Lowry over­came his rep­u­ta­tion as a coach’s headache and be­came the un­ques­tioned leader of the team; I can show her the im­por­tance of team­work, ded­i­ca­tion to your craft and the value of hard work.

Yet de­spite my en­thu­si­asm, in the back of my mind, I can’t help but won­der: What if I weren’t a Rap­tors fan? What if, in­stead, I were a life­long devo­tee of the NFL’s Bal­ti­more Ravens? While I want to pass on my love of sports to my daugh­ter, some­times that world is appalling.

One month be­fore my daugh­ter was born, Ravens run­ning back Ray Rice knocked out Janay Palmer, his then fi­ancée, now wife, in an At­lantic City casino el­e­va­tor. It cer­tainly wasn’t the first time a prom­i­nent ath­lete had at­tacked a woman, but per­haps be­cause my own daugh­ter was due in a mat­ter of weeks, I fol­lowed the story with par­tic­u­lar con­tempt and in­credulity. I mean, Kobe h

Bryant was among my favourite play­ers when he was charged with sex­ual as­sault in 2003. When he was never pros­e­cuted, the in­ci­dent slipped from my mind.

I have yet to for­get about Ray Rice and Janay Palmer. They were both ar­rested the night Rice struck Palmer, but the story didn’t tip into pub­lic con­scious­ness un­til TMZ re­leased a video four days later. The se­cu­rity-cam­era footage showed Rice cal­lously drag­ging Palmer’s limp body out of the el­e­va­tor and into the casino lobby. Five months after the ar­rest, the NFL sus­pended Rice. For two games. It’s hard to over­state how like­able the core of the Rap­tors has been for the past year and a half. This sea­son started with an un­prece­dented 13-2 run, on the heels of win­ning a fran­chise-record 48 games the pre­vi­ous year. But it’s more than just vic­to­ries and losses. After a suc­ces­sion of stars (Damon Stoudamire, Mar­cus Camby, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Chris Bosh) found suc­cess in Toronto only to slip away to other fran­chises, the team now has a group of play­ers com­mit­ted to the city. On the court, the play­ers know their roles. They share the ball. They de­fer to their team­mates. They trust one another. Off the court, the group seems more like a cast of Dis­ney char­ac­ters than a pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball team. There’s an in­or­di­nate amount of young fa­thers on the roster: Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Amir John­son, Greivis Vasquez and even the coach and gen­eral man­ager have young chil­dren. There are end­less so­cial-me­dia posts of team­mates and their fam­i­lies spend­ing hol­i­days to­gether, hold­ing one another’s kids and be­ing oth­er­wise adorable. CBS Sports bas­ket­ball re­porter James Her­bert calls the Rap­tors the “awwwwiest team in the NBA.”

Be­ing a fan means get­ting wrapped up in the nar­ra­tive of your sport, so it’s easy for me to hold my daugh­ter and ap­plaud th­ese like­able, hard-work­ing young men. But what about when the story turns dark?

This past year was rife with ath­letes get­ting charged with do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. For­mer NBA cen­tre Greg Oden was ar­rested for beat­ing his girl­friend in Au­gust and is await­ing trial after plead­ing not guilty. L.A. Kings de­fence­man Slava Voynov is fac­ing felony do­mes­tic-vi­o­lence charges and a pos­si­ble nine-year max­i­mum-se­cu­rity prison sen­tence. Char­lotte Hor­nets for­ward Jeff Tay­lor pleaded guilty to mis­de­meanour do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and ma­li­cious de­struc­tion of ho­tel prop­erty after shov­ing a woman he was dat­ing in a ho­tel hall­way and served a 24-game sus­pen­sion be­cause of it. Then, last June, power for­ward James John­son was ar­rested for do­mes­tic as­sault. His case was dis­missed when his wife did not show up in court. John­son later signed with the Toronto Rap­tors, the awwwwiest team in the NBA.

The list of ath­letes ac­cused of heinously mis­treat­ing women seems de­press­ingly end­less, even if those ac­cu­sa­tions don’t al­ways end in con­vic­tions. And while th­ese vi­o­lent crimes are cer­tainly not rel­e­gated to the world of pro sports (well-heeled en­ter­tain­ers like Jian Ghome­shi, Bill Cosby and Woody Allen all came un­der fire for al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual as­sault in 2014), the tragedy is that male ath­letes are bred by a hy­per-com­pet­i­tive cul­ture to be the strong­est, fastest and most ca­pa­ble of caus­ing harm. Rice and Palmer got mar­ried in March 2014. Ini­tially, the Bal­ti­more Ravens showed over­whelm­ing support for Rice, de­fend­ing his character and call­ing him a leader. Dur­ing a press con­fer­ence in May, Palmer said, “I deeply re­gret the role that I played in the in­ci­dent that night.” Her state­ment was later sent out from the team’s of­fi­cial Twit­ter ac­count.

The laugh­able two-game sus­pen­sion was an­nounced in July, and NFL com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell spent the rest of the sum­mer de­fend­ing his le­niency. Good­ell said he was con­vinced that a shorter pun­ish­ment was ap­pro­pri­ate after meet­ing with both Rice and Palmer. In con­trast, Good­ell sus­pended Cleve­land Browns wide re­ceiver Josh Gor­don for the sea­son after he was caught smoking mar­i­juana— a drug that is le­gal in four Amer­i­can states. (He was re­in­stated after 10 games but sus­pended again five games later for violating a team rule.)

A past-his-prime star still ca­pa­ble of run­ning with ex­tra­or­di­nary speed and power, Rice was given the ben­e­fit of the doubt. In Au­gust, he played a pre-sea­son game in Bal­ti­more and re­ceived a rous­ing stand­ing ova­tion. One month later, TMZ re­leased a sec­ond video re­veal­ing the ab­hor­rent scene inside that At­lantic City el­e­va­tor. It showed Rice cock­ing back and swing­ing. It showed Palmer’s head smash­ing into the el­e­va­tor rail­ing be­fore she fell to the floor. It showed Rice strug­gling with the slack weight of Palmer’s body as he dragged her from the el­e­va­tor. A few hours after this video was re­leased, the Ravens ter­mi­nated Rice’s con­tract and the NFL sus­pended him in­def­i­nitely. Sports make up a sig­nif­i­cant part of my life. Ev­ery day, I pore over the lat­est news. In the win­ter, bas­ket­ball is all h

The list of ath­letes ac­cused of heinously mis­treat­ing women seems de­press­ingly end­less, even if those ac­cu­sa­tions don’t al­ways end in con­vic­tions.

I watch on TV. It’s how I un­wind. It’s why I’m so in­vested in shar­ing this love with my daugh­ter. So we watch, even though I know that, some­times, fans are cheer­ing for an ath­lete who has as­saulted a woman.

Men have failed women. We have failed so thor­oughly that you can no longer point to an in­sti­tu­tion—sports, the arts, re­li­gion, ed­u­ca­tion, the mil­i­tary, pol­i­tics—that hasn’t, at some point, had its own wretched scan­dal. To give up on all sports be­cause of cer­tain acts of sav­agery would be like giv­ing up ra­dio be­cause of Ghome­shi or com­edy be­cause of Cosby. But it’s hard to stom­ach the knowl­edge that my daugh­ter was born into a world where one video show­ing Rice drag­ging his un­con­scious fi­ancée out of a casino el­e­va­tor and flop­ping her onto the floor wasn’t enough to war­rant more than a two-game sus­pen­sion. We cer­tainly didn’t need the sec­ond video to tell us what hap­pened.

I men­tioned ear­lier that I had watched Alvin Robert­son score the Rap­tors’ first bas­ket. He was re­cruited to join the ex­pan­sion Rap­tors in 1995 after spend­ing the pre­vi­ous year on the Den­ver Nuggets’ side­lines due to an old back in­jury. Robert­son was known for fight­ing with team­mates and coaches, had mul­ti­ple charges of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and as­sault and spent a month in jail in 1990 after beat­ing his then wife. In a Novem­ber 2014 story on him, the Toronto Star re­ported that he’d been ar­rested days be­fore the Rap­tors’ in­au­gu­ral game after al­legedly as­sault­ing his preg­nant ex-girl­friend at the SkyDome Ho­tel. The case was dropped when the woman re­fused to tes­tify, and Robert­son ended up play­ing with the Rap­tors for the en­tire sea­son.

Robert­son, now 52, is fac­ing life in prison for al­legedly sex­u­ally as­sault­ing a 14-year-old girl and con­spir­ing to force her into pros­ti­tu­tion. When the Toronto Star story was pub­lished, Robert­son had been re­leased on bail and was wear­ing a GPS tracker on his an­kle. The next night, the Toronto Rap­tors beat the Or­lando Magic as my daugh­ter and I watched.

What if my daugh­ter and I didn’t have a lov­able Rap­tors team to root for? What if she had been born 20 years ago and the team we rooted for know­ingly signed a con­victed felon who se­ri­ally abused women and would later get mixed up in the worst kind of al­le­ga­tions?

I want to watch sports with my daugh­ter. I want to teach her about hard work and ded­i­ca­tion. I need to rec­on­cile my fan­dom with the fact that the sports world of­ten treats women grotesquely. There have been too many in­stances of me look­ing the other way with fin­gers crossed, hop­ing for an ath­lete’s in­no­cence to be proven. When the Rap­tors signed Robert­son 20 years ago, I was 12 years old. I didn’t know any bet­ter. When they signed John­son last sum­mer, I was 32 years old, a fa­ther and part of the prob­lem. Fans and pun­dits can ar­gue about ath­letes need­ing to change their be­hav­iour, but we are the ones tun­ing in to each game re­gard­less. We’re the en­ablers of a bro­ken sys­tem.

I can of­fer up a to­ken so­lu­tion: If John­son, or any other Rap­tors team mem­ber, gets mixed up in a do­mes­ticvi­o­lence case again, I will stop watch­ing un­til that player is re­moved from the team. But I’m not sure if that’s just another ver­sion of look­ing the other way. So far, it seems I am in­ca­pable of do­ing the one thing that may be de­manded of me: tun­ing out al­to­gether. It’s not enough to speak out only when a se­cu­rity video forces us to ac­knowl­edge a painful truth we’d rather ig­nore.

It shouldn’t have taken the birth of my daugh­ter for me to clue in to my short­com­ings. Be­cause be­fore I was a fa­ther, I was a hus­band, a son, a brother, a friend, a fan—and I wasn’t pay­ing at­ten­tion. n

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