A Reaction to Steubenville; Musings of a former NCAA Athlete and Speak About It Cast Member by Nick Smith
As a cast member of Speak About It in 2010 and 2011 and a former NCAA hockey player at Bowdoin College, I’m someone who has belonged to a range of different cultures regarding talking about sex. I don’t want to react here to any of the specifics about Steubenville; I’m neither a lawyer nor versed in the details of the case. However, I spent my childhood immersed in the hockey locker room environment – and I believe there is much we can do as athletes, parents, and coaches, to create a cultural atmosphere in men’s sports that is less caustic towards women (I’m speaking very specifically to male athletic culture and violence against women; though over 90% of assaults are male perpetrators and women survivors, sexual assault can happen to anyone).
Men’s locker rooms are notorious for their “what is said in a locker room, stays in the locker room” mantra, and for decent reasons. Team loyalty is paramount to success, and one aspect of that is the unity one experiences by being a part of something that only a few have earned. That being said, locker rooms can also be bastions of vile, homophobic, and sexist attitudes. It’s true that in many of the locker rooms that I was a part of, there was always free exchange of sexual escapades. In college I spent three years in a locker room with 3 working shower heads for 36 athletes. The nudity and proximity to one another promote grotesque displays of “heterosexuality” – for reasons that are beyond the scope of this narrative. A byproduct of the environment is a demonstration of “straightness”. This is where I believe most of an athletic “rape culture” comes from. It’s a sad fact in a locker room the only thing scarier than being perceived as a virgin was of being perceived as gay. Athletes exchange stories as proof of concept of their sexuality.
The fact of the matter is this is the way it has been, and the way it is now, but it doesn’t have to be the way it is in the future. Children are not born into these behaviors, they are acquired. And children need role models, coaches, parents, and educators who explain how to behave and speak about women from an early age. As a 12-year-old I can remember being lectured by Matt Darcy at our hockey camp. He was a local star, and went on to play professionally, and he was brought up around an ethos that hockey players were supposed to be, above all things, gentlemanly to women. At the time, I can remember thinking to myself that I really didn’t even like girls that much (I was a late bloomer… puberty was still 2 years away…). But he was stern about his expectations, and every one of us ate it up. Still to this day when I hold a door open for girlfriend or lady friend, I think of him.
That we have these tragic events like what happened in Steubenville are completely preventable. There are many pieces to this puzzle, and again, I’m not claiming to be an expert on any of them, but a little effort from role models and coaches can do a lot in shaping male athletic culture. The sad fact is that hockey does not have a culture of gentlemanly respect, but if there were more Matt Darcy’s in the world and in the locker rooms, this might not be the case. We need to teach our sons, our players, and our students, to be gentleman. We need to reverse the rape culture in sports.
I’ll leave with this thought: Michael Jordan wore a shoe that is still the basis for the design of sneakers, and the replicas are still worn by millions of people to this day. Think about the impact that we could see from an athletic icon like Michael Jordan that maybe didn’t come in the form of footwear, but instead was a way to think, act, behave, and speak about women. It might not be as profitable, but it would be a thousand times more transformative.
Nick Smith is a medical student at Boston University School of Medicine and a former cast member of Speak About It from 2010-2011. He was a varsity hockey player at Bowdoin College from 2005-2009 and was the president of the college’s all-male sexual assault prevention group BMASV (Bowdoin Men Against Sexual Violence). He can be contacted at nikohaus.smith [at] gmail [dot] com