Address the dress: Casual sexism in sports
This week was a banner one for our favorite sports media game: Professional Sports Man Says Something Dumb About Women. And I’m not just talking about NFL reporter Adam Schefter becoming a sexual assault apologist because the player in question was “adamant” that despite photographic and testimonial evidence to the contrary, he didn’t throw his girlfriend onto a bed covered with guns, strangle her and threaten to kill her.
No, that player was “a changed kind of guy” who “realized he did make some mistakes,” Schefter said on Dan Patrick’s radio show earlier this week. Personally, I’d be happy if I never saw the name “Greg Hardy” appear on the ESPN ticker again, but while Schefter’s comments might have been the most viscerally nauseating, he wasn’t alone in exercising the apparent male right to belittle women in the name of athletics.
The latest came on Tuesday night, when the Toronto Blue Jays lost a game in controversial fashion thanks to a new rule designed to prevent dangerous slides at second base. General grousing ensued, and Toronto manager John Gibbons provided the quote of the night with the sarcastic riposte, “Maybe we’ll come out wearing dresses tomorrow. Maybe that’s what everybody’s looking for.”
Now, in Gibbons’ defense, the Blue Jays had just played the second game of the season and only have 160 more between now and October to make up for the loss, so it makes perfect sense that he’d use the opportunity to vent his displeasure and attack women in the process. Um, sure, I guess.
The problem isn’t that Gibbons voiced the snide “dress” comment; I’m sure a non-apology apology is coming in which Gibbons will say he didn’t mean to cause offense and affirms his and Major League Baseball’s commitment to female fans, and that’ll be satisfactory enough, and this whole episode will blow over by the weekend.
(Update: I was right! After I wrote the above paragraph, Gibbons said on Wednesday that he meant “no malicious intent” and that he didn’t understand why critics took a humorous comment “out of whack.”)
Rather, the problem is that Gibbons’ comment embodies the same reflexive thinking that leads to the casual dismissal of the University of Connecticut’s magnificent basketball achievements as the products of inferior competition, to the cringeworthy misogyny of officials in the tennis community and to the state of women’s soccer in this country being so unequal that the women’s players had to resort to filing a wage-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Everyone, repeat after me: In 2016!
Returning to Gibbons and dresses in baseball for a second, the line made me think of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, arguably the greatest athlete of the 20th century. Didrikson was a two-time Olympic gold medalist in track and field, an All-American basketball champion and an ace athlete in at least five other sports.
Her greatest claim to fame came in golf, where she won 10 major titles—including one just a month after undergoing surgery for colon cancer (beat that, Tiger Woods)—and would have become the first woman to qualify for the men’s U.S. Open, only to have her application rejected by the sport’s all-male governing board at the time.
To address Gibbons’ remarks, she even won a state sewing competition and personally crafted many of the athletic outfits she wore while competing. I’d like to see the Blue Jays attempt that set of feats.
To be honest, when I first heard the manager’s remarks, my mind immediately swung not to Didrikson but to “A League of Their Own,” which features high-caliber, competitive, tough-spirited baseball players wearing feminine clothing. Note to Gibbons: Marla Hooch has a bat that belongs in the middle of the Blue Jays’ potent lineup, and she hits home runs while wearing a dress.
But wait, you might say. Marla and her teammates oppose playing in a dress in that movie; they say it’s sexist and reductive. Maybe John Gibbons was just mocking the idea of playing baseball in a physical dress. Admit it: it would be pretty bizarre to see Jose Bautista chase fly balls while tripping over the hem of his prom getup.
But it’s not hard to imagine that Gibbons’ “dresses” was a synecdochical stand-in for the women who wear them; his line was the G-rated equivalent of Internet commenters who use another female-adjacent derogative to speak about the “p—isifcation” of sports.
Language matters, and whatever the intent behind the rhetoric, using female descriptors to represent the inverse of competition—using female descriptors as a means to say, “This thing here is the opposite of what sports should be”—has trickle-down repercussions.
Another note for John Gibbons: A girl wearing a dress—or a boy wearing a dress, for that matter, because the pro sports world has certainly proven itself insufficiently equipped to be universally inclusive to transgender individuals—can also play baseball.
A girl wearing a dress can also watch baseball and buy jerseys and cheer on her favorite team and draft a solid fantasy roster, too, as well as buy overpriced beer at games and wait in traffic for hours trying to leave a stadium parking lot and pay attention to silly bat-flipping kerfuffles—all the perks of being a fan of the sport are hers to enjoy, whether she’s wearing a dress or not.