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“Locker room talk” can’t exclude female athletes

By Emilie Medland-Marchen, October 18 2016 —

Republican candidate Donald Trump made headlines again for his lewd comments — but this time, his remarks affected the world of sports.

The release of a 2005 video in which Donald Trump refers to sexually harassing and groping women without their consent has warranted responses from sexual assault survivors and feminist activists — most notably Michelle Obama who called the comments “intolerable.” In the video, Trump asserts his dominance over his female victims.

“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” he says and admits to harassing women with sexual slurs. Trump has since dismissed the comments he made in the video, simply calling it “locker room talk.”

Trump’s refusal to admit to his mistakes in a video from 2005 isn’t surprising. But his reference to the comments as “locker room talk” hit close to home for athletes like LeBron James who referenced his experiences in the locker rooms of the NBA.

“We don’t disrespect women in no shape or fashion in our locker room,” James said. “That never comes up.”

Yet the responses from athletes regarding what “locker room talk” really means underlies a pervasive sexism that still dominates the narrative of sport culture. The complete omission of the voices of female athletes from the locker room creates a gendered argument that firmly places women outside of the sporting realm — as onlookers, feminist activists and non-athletes.

When I see discussions like this take place, I think back to my time as an athlete and the many hours I spent in a locker room with other women. As a speed skater in the Olympic Oval’s high-performance training program, I was constantly surrounded by dedicated female athletes who spent the majority of their time skating, weightlifting and eating lunch or conversing in the locker room after practice.

The Olympic Oval speed skating program also shares this space with the Dinos athletics department. I have fond memories of walking through the hallways of the Oval and passing five-time Olympic gold medalist Hayley Wickenheiser on her way out of the women’s hockey team dressing room next door, decked out in full gear and ready to hit the ice for an early 7:00 a.m. practice.

Yet prominent sports media platforms continue to perpetuate an ill-informed, misguided narrative that women exist in a realm outside of the precious male locker room. An article from Bleacher Report titled “An Open Mic on Life” responded to Trump’s comments by interviewing those who they claim to “spend more time in locker rooms than virtually anyone else.” This consisted of more than a dozen former and current NFL football players and coaches, questioned by an all-male reporting team.

Besides being a report whose evidence is based on an insufficient sample size, Bleacher Report’s choice to exclude the voices of female athletes — save but one, Jen Welter, used in this instance as a catch-all for the female voice — shows a narrow-minded view of what constitutes elite athleticism.

There are thousands of women who spend hours every day training as elite athletes. As a result, plenty of female athletes spend their time in locker rooms. And their voices — the voices of athletes like those who train twice a day through the Olympic Oval and the Dinos athletics department — have been irresponsibly removed from this conversation.

The responses to Donald Trump’s commentary on sexually harassing women has been placed into two gendered categories — prominent male athletes like LeBron James and women on the outside. Even Welter, a former assistant coaching intern for the Arizona Cardinals and a former running back for the Texas Revolution, doesn’t talk about her own experiences in the locker room. She refers to the experience of NFL players.

“These are great guys, incredible men who took pride in introducing me to their daughters and their moms,” Welter said.

By referencing the men around her rather than her own experiences, she highlights the kind of narrative that women exist simply as wives, daughter, moms and support staff in high-level sport.

The commentary on “locker room talk” ignited by the video of Trump is symptomatic of the underlying sexism that already exists in sport culture. His comments have been denounced in the political sphere by the likes of Michelle Obama and in sports by male athletes and male-dominated organizations. But the refusal to extend this commentary to high-level female athletes shows big problems in the way female athleticism is included and valued in society.

When I think back to my time in sport, the conversations I’ve had in the locker room are some of my most prominent memories. They consisted mostly of topics like sport technique, performance or how tired my teammates and I felt that day. But more than anything, they helped to solidify the deep connection we all felt to sport — how it had permanently changed and improved our lives for the better.

That’s a powerful sentiment that must be spoken for by female athletes, rather than just Trump and the male athletes he addresses.

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