Friday 21 October 2016

Eamonn Sweeney: Sportsmen man-up to counter Trump

Presidential candidate's attempt to defend his idiotic comments by dragging athletes into it backfires spectacularly

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 16/10/2016 | 17:00

Donald Trump attempted to defend himself after his lewd comments, calling it ‘locker-room talk’, but American athletes have hit back at his suggestion. Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters
Donald Trump attempted to defend himself after his lewd comments, calling it ‘locker-room talk’, but American athletes have hit back at his suggestion. Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters

Last week Donald Trump tried to hide behind sport. In describing his revolting comments about women as "locker-room talk", Trump was essentially saying that the one group who would understand where he was coming from were sportsmen.

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The rest of the population might kick up when a man boasted about how he could get away with groping women, but male sports stars and fans would recognise that this was just the manly talk of manly men engaged in manly pursuits. Right?

Wrong. Because that invocation of the 'locker room' has prompted a furious reaction from some American sportsmen who don't fancy being used to get Trump off the hook. "As an athlete I've been in locker rooms my entire adult life - and that's not locker-room talk," said Sean Doolittle (inset below) of baseball's Oakland As.

Basketball star Udonis Haslem, of the Miami Heat, said: "Don't throw us in there - we have nothing to do with it. That ain't our locker-room talk. I don't know what locker room he's been in."

It was a sentiment echoed by Kansas City Chiefs' wide receiver, Chris Conley, who said: "I work in a locker room every day - that is not locker-room talk. Just so you know. The guys I know and respect don't talk like that."

This is not to idealise the locker room - or dressing room, as we'd call it here. Several of those who commented were in general agreement with former Superbowl winner Brendon Ayanbadejo, who said: "The language might even be disgusting, but everyone's having a good time talking about it. No one is talking about assaulting anyone. That's criminal talk."

Others seemed especially offended by the stereotype of the sportsman as sexist moron, with Golden Tate of the NFL's Detroit Lions commenting: "I've heard some distasteful things over the years, but I've also heard some incredible things and some incredible outputs on life, character, religion and faith."

The players who reacted in this fashion have, to a certain degree, saved sport's honour. This isn't just an American issue. The legend of the dressing room as a place where, free from the scrutiny of women, men can disparage them to their heart's content isn't something Donald Trump made up out of whole cloth.

There's an idea out there that sport serves as a kind of repository for unreconstructed macho bullshit and offers what you might call a safe space for sexism. The notion is also bruited that sport is somewhere men can go to be stupid and that behaviour which would be frowned on elsewhere in society is OK if there are some balls nearby.

So you get stuff like the salivating over ring girls in boxing, the objectification of female tennis players, the NFL's formerly laissez-faire attitude to domestic violence, the exclusion of women from golf clubs, the harassment of female sports journalists, the insistence that female referees just can't cut it and a general attitude from some men that sport is essentially 'our thing'. Cosa nostra, as they used to say in Sicily.

For most people this stuff is an unfortunate by-product of sporting culture. But there are others who regard the sexism as one of sport's Unique Selling Points. Think of the wretched Richard Keys and the comments which got him the road from Sky. The striking thing about Keys' "did you smash it?" exchange with Jamie Redknapp is that the non-footballer is trying to impress the footballer by talking like he thinks a footballer talks, and the footballer is having none of it.

Before his fall, Keys was much beloved of the kind of guys who had become interested in football because it was part of the Lad Culture which spread like wildfire in the '90s. They might not have played football themselves, but it was something they got as part of the package - along with Loaded magazine, the Britpop and the porn. The apologists for Mike Newell when he mouthed off about female referees, or Ron Atkinson when he went into racist mode, tended to come from the ranks of these Lads. They'll have spent the last week defending Trump on the grounds that he's the victim of 'political correctness'.

Here's a story. Around a decade ago I got a phone call from the editor of a newspaper I was working for. The editor, not the sports editor. He'd had an idea.

"You should write something about women in sport."

"Yeah, what kind of thing?"

"About how stupid it is, women thinking they can play football and the like."

"Um . . .

"Look, women are great, they're kind and good at lots of other things, but they shouldn't think they can play football. It just makes them look daft. Someone has to tell them."

And so on for a bit. I said it didn't seem like that great an idea. He wasn't happy at all and we parted on bad terms. I'm not sure his attitude was entirely uncommon among men of his generation. Which also happens to be Donald Trump's generation.

Quite a few women and men dislike sport precisely because they think it really does stand for the kind of 'locker room' values invoked by Trump. That seems a bit reductive to me.

These days sport is a broad church and it's only the most stubborn troglodytes who persist in regarding it as a male preserve. But there's no room for complacency. For one thing, 'mansplaining' - a man explaining in a condescending fashion to a woman something she already knows - is particularly common when sport is the subject of conversation.

That's why it was good to see so many American sportsmen disowning Trump's comments. The 'locker room' he's talking about is obviously an oak-panelled one in some 50-grand-a-year club where sweaty old boys wander around naked with cigars in their mouths, slapping each other's wrinkly arses with towels and wishing they could return to a time when women, and everyone else, knew their place.

A couple of years ago, American athletes might not have been so keen to speak out. But there's been a sea change. LeBron James has been vocal about racism in basketball, Serena Williams is just one of the stars to speak up about the shootings of black men by police. Boston's baseball legend David Ortiz has decried Trump's attacks on immigrants.

Then there's Colin Kaepernick. The San Francisco 49ers player's decision to kneel rather than stand when the US National Anthem is played before NFL games is probably the most divisive gesture since Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the black power salute on the podium at the Mexico Olympics. Like that salute, and Muhammad Ali's refusal to serve in the Vietnam War, Kaepernick's kneeling is a powerful protest against the treatment of African-Americans in the US.

Kaepernick has received an enormous amount of abuse, but players on high school football teams all over America have emulated his actions. In the republican, Trump-voting heartland of Nebraska, a white and black player knelt together; in New Jersey, a team and their coach knelt and have been threatened with suspension; in New Orleans, a team who knelt have been told local policemen won't provide security at their games; in Fayetteville, North Carolina, ESPN's radio station refused to broadcast East Carolina University's match against South Florida because members of the college's band had joined the protest.

Up to now Kaepernick's gesture could be marginalised to a certain extent, as he wasn't actually starting for the 49ers - but this evening the big man takes over at quarterback as San Francisco travel to face the Buffalo Bills. Barring a miracle, the struggling 49ers will get beaten - but seldom will so much attention have been focused on a player in a relatively routine game. I wish him well. History has lent respectability to the gestures of Carlos and Smith and Ali, but they were hugely controversial at the time and the abuse showered on Kaepernick and his imitators shows how much courage was required to make them.

Both Kaepernick and the players who derided the 'locker room' comment are united in speaking out against the grim worldview of Donald Trump and his ilk. Sport is not a man's world. And it's not an expression of white complacency. If it was either of those things, why bother with it?

If you believe you would have been on Muhammad Ali's side back then, be on Colin Kaepernick's side now.

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