The Ray and Janay Rice story has transcended sports media into the mainstream, featured everywhere from “Good Morning America” to “Fox and Friends.” But no matter the outlet, one thing has remained consistent: The conversation has been dominated by men.
I’m not naive — men dominate the airwaves, especially in news and talk shows. The picture is even more stark in sports journalism, which remains roughly 90 percent male and 90 percent white. Back in July, The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote that while pundits drive the sports talk industry, women’s voices are glaringly absent. “Don’t women have opinions, too?” he asked.
Yes, we do, and they matter now more than ever. Farhi’s column was in response to the suspension of ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith after his twisted comment that a woman should not “provoke” a man into beating her. Well, Smith is at it again — you didn’t think the Worldwide Leader would muzzle their buzz machine for too long, did you?
On Wednesday morning’s “First Take,” news broke that the National Organization for Women had called for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s resignation — a completely legitimate stance that many, many others have previously taken. (While I don’t think that’s particularly realistic — even given the Associated Press bombshell that the league did apparently have video of Rice striking his fiancee in the elevator — I did call for a woman-led independent advisory body to police the NFL, which NOW president Terry O’Neill seemed to advocate in her statement.)
Smith had what can only be described as a meltdown. “I’m sorry, I think this woman is off her rocker. I think she’s lost her mind,” Smith said. “This is the most ridiculous nonsense I’ve ever heard in my life. Roger Goodell deserves to lose his job? Why are you acting like he’s Ray Rice? Roger Goodell didn’t hit Janay Palmer Rice. He hasn’t hit any women. And by the way … why are we talking about the NFL as if it’s some cesspool for domestic violence? There’s a few cases. It’s being dealt with.”
The worst part of the clip isn’t Smith’s complete indignation over a reasonable opinion also held by many people who don’t happen to lead a women’s advocacy group. It’s not even his complete ignorance, willful or otherwise, of the facts concerning the NFL’s rampant problem with domestic violence. It’s Cari Champion, the show’s host, being relegated to the position of asking questions of commentators Smith and Skip Bayless without the opportunity to tell us what she thinks.
On Tuesday, Fox Sports’ Katie Nolan addressed the dilemma she, too, faces as a both a female football fan and member of the sports media. She dismissed the idea of boycotting the league as unrealistic, and instead proposed giving women, particularly women in the press, a more prominent role in the discussion.
“It’s time for the conversation to change, or at least those participating in the conversation,” Nolan said. “It’s time for women to have a seat at the big boy table, and not where their presence is a gimmick or a concept, just a person, who happens to have breasts, offering their opinion on the sports they love and the topics they know. Because the truth is the NFL will never respect women and their opinions as long as the media it answers to doesn’t.”
I’ve been critical about the roles to which female sports journalists have been relegated. By and large, we’re either sideline reporters or segment side pieces, meant to facilitate conversation between men while remaining on the fringe of the discussion. But as a Change.org petition notes, NFL Network, ESPN, Fox Sports and other prominent national news outlets have plenty of intelligent women whose perspective has never been more valuable than it is now.
That doesn’t mean the male perspective isn’t valuable. Male commentators have had some of the most heartfelt and intelligent reactions to this incident. And men are often overlooked when it comes to domestic violence, both as children of abused women and as victims themselves.
But women still carry most of the burden of intimate-partner and sexual violence, and their perspectives should be present. It’s even worse with victims who are from minority groups, who are not only disproportionately affected by domestic violence, but also face unique institutional barriers to recovery, such as lack of health care. We need to hear what the likes of Cari Champion and Pam Oliver and Erin Andrews and Jemele Hill think, too.
Just as the league would benefit from having more female executives, so, too, would the national conversation benefit from a diversity of voices. As many as 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence at some point in their lives; a panel featuring women is likely to have a survivor among them. That could go a long way to helping sports fans understand a complicated crime, so we stop asking the wrong questions and move the discussion forward.
Kavitha A. Davidson writes for Bloomberg News.