Beyond Reflexive Denial

I’d like to offer a few observations about the recent articles in The Amherst Student about the link between playing team sports and committing acts of sexual violence.

First: let’s keep our eyes on the ball. The problem, which everyone should care about, is how to respond to the strikingly high levels of sexual violence at Amherst. A hypothesis that has been a part of academic studies of sexual violence on American college campuses for over three decades is that there is a correlation between male team-sport cultures and sexual violence. Is it proven? No. Should it be considered? Yes. And the reason why it should be considered is that the problem is so serious. Everyone associated with Amherst should be prioritizing the effort to figure out what might be contributing to it. (Anyone who believes that it is not a serious problem needs to learn more about it.)

Second: it is possible to love sports (as I do) and hate sexual violence, whether physically enacted or verbally projected (as I do). It is not necessarily the case that there is a link between male team-sport participation and sexual violence at Amherst. But maybe there is. And if there is, if male team-sport participation does indeed foster an atmosphere that is a contributing factor in cases of sexual violence at Amherst, then I want to do something about it. So, I imagine, would anyone else who simultaneously values team sports and human dignity. (Maybe there should be a “Team Sports and Human Dignity” campus organization. I would like to believe that it would be large.)

Third: one of the best aspects of team sports is that they can teach you how to subordinate your individual interests to — or meld them with — the aims of the whole. It would be great if some of the male participants in team sports at Amherst would step forward and argue for exactly that kind of decent self-subordination in relation to the college as a whole—if they would say something like, “Because I love playing on a team and hate sexual violence, I want to find out if any aspect of team-sport culture at Amherst is contributing to the likelihood of sexual violence. If it turns out that some aspect of team-sport culture is indeed contributing to that likelihood, I want to do everything I can to eradicate it.”

Fourth: belonging to a team is not the same thing as belonging a social group that has been discriminated against and oppressed. This is so obvious that I hesitate to bring it up, but the many of the attacks on Professor Dumm in The Amherst Student — several of which criticize his analytical powers — fail to make this obvious analytical distinction and give it the weight that it deserves.

Finally, and just to be clear: I don’t hate athletes. I am — or was — an athlete myself. The athletes that I’ve had in my classes have been wonderful students. Team sports really are capable of building character. But I know from playing basketball in high school, traveling with the Stanford football team as a student beat reporter, and being a life-long basketball, baseball, and football fan that certain aspects of male team-sport culture are worth questioning, especially in relation to the way in which they condition behavior towards women. I think a lot of other people who are involved in this debate know this too, and it would be nice if it could be a starting point for our collective discussions, as opposed to being something that is reflexively denied.