Not only is football coded “male” and considered a man’s sport; it is considered one of America’s national pastimes, and therefore an emblem of American nationalism. This cultural truth coupled with the statistical fact that women’s sports receive drastically less media coverage than men’s sports, can be woven together in order to explain why Nassar’s case seemed to fly under the radar for so long —even despite these most recent watershed months of #MeToo. It was only after Olympic champions like McKayla Maroney, Simone Biles and Aly Raisman spoke up about their own abuse — and the judge handing Nassar’s trial made the choice to allow every single victim to directly face Nassar — that the cable shows and national newspapers took notice.
McCaul was blunt in her assessment of the media discrepancy: “I think it plays into the importance that we put on male athletics versus female athletics,” McCaul said to the Huffington Post. “This is a case of gymnasts and dancers and figure skaters, not football players or basketball players. I think it’s sexism, to be honest. There’s no other explanation for why this many women have come forward and it’s not big news.”
But the type of sexism that female athletes face in the form of systemic oppression is arguably unique to their role in society as athletes — people trained to be more than human, to become machine-like, and to vicariously bring pleasure and glory to the masses on behalf of their “tribe,” or nation.
The type of sexism that female athletes face in the form of systemic oppression is unique to their role in society.
The historical objectification of female athletes encompasses both their glorification and their victimization. Monuments, after all, are mute. And female athletes, especially those who come to represent the nation as its Olympians, are most beloved when they embody the ideal woman who serves her nation: quiet, perfect and subservient.
The female athlete, in this regard, is identified as the perfect victim for abusers like Nassar. “I was a textbook victim, brainwashed to believe I was fine,” Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman said in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show.
The female athlete can endure. She defers to the presumed mastery of the coach/doctor/mentor who, as a sort of godlike figure, can make her a champion. “I worshiped my coach,” swimming legend Diana Nyad wrote in her stunning New York Times op-ed about her swim coach who repeatedly assaulted her. “His word was The Word. I built a pedestal for him and gazed up at the center of my universe.”
Pain, for the athlete, is natural. Coupled with the societal acceptance and normalization of sexual violence against women, the use and abuse of female athletes is still considered part of the game. The relative dearth of media attention, then, is no surprise when it reflects a culture that expects the female athlete’s objectification and dehumanization.
It is only when monuments speak — in this case, the dozens upon dozens of female survivors who faced Nassar in court and gave voice to their horrifying stories — that the spell breaks, breaking the culture of sexual assault along with it.
Marcie Bianco is a writer and the Editorial and Communications Manager of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.