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Column: How do we improve the power dynamic in sports?

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At least we’ve got Ryan Day.

Iowa State v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

As we’ve seen from numerous athletes in the last couple weeks, systemic racism has permeated sports just as much as it has every other aspect of American society. The situation in Iowa with the Hawkeyes’ strength and conditioning coach, Chris Doyle, is one manifestation of how systemic racism has become insidious and intertwined with what was thought to be one of the premiere programs of its type in the nation. And it took former players, like James Daniels, making what felt like an off-hand comment, for the truth to even get out.

To me, there seems to be an obvious connection in the sports world (and other areas) between lopsided power dynamics and systemic abuses. Let’s quickly run through some examples:

You might be wondering why “abuse of trainees during basic military training” is on the list. This is a sports column, after all. But the fact remains that many noted coaches, including strength and conditioning coaches, have adopted military-style mantras in their programs, which, when left unchecked, can translate to abuses like those we have seen at Iowa. Plus, as I said, this connection isn’t left to sports alone.

What do the items on this list have in common? In short, a culture of a power dynamic which favors those in charge and rewards acceptance and silence from those subject to systemic abuses - going so far as to force victims to believe what they’re experiencing is not, in fact, abuse, but just the way it is. This inability to speak up covers a multitude of sins ranging from systemic racism to sexism which allows those in power to stay in place with what feels like no recourse for victims of abuse.

If you played sports even at the high school level, there’s a good chance you were exposed to a similar power dynamic. If not, we’ve all seen the scene in Remember the Titans where players were forced to continue to do reps even after expressing a need for water to the point where one threw up. This scenario played out tragically in real life when Jordan McNair died during training camp at Maryland in 2018.

Players don’t go from being perfectly healthy to working out to the point their lives are at risk - there’s a spectrum that coaches, players and those affiliated with the program have to be conditioned to in order to allow these abuses to become commonplace.

As we have learned with what’s come out from the situation with Chris Doyle, any player risks humiliation by speaking up - a fear which becomes even greater for black players. Imagine being McNair, an underclassmen and a black athlete with a white head coach and risking loss of a scholarship by speaking up.

I’m not living under a rock (though I have been living and not leaving for the most part a two-bedroom apartment for the last three months), and I hope at this point we as a society can recognize that systemic issues do exist and that some of the language we have used for years perpetuates this discrimination. And part of the issue is that speaking up about these verbal abuses is frowned upon for those perpetuating this language - which makes it even easier for other forms of abuse to become commonplace and without repercussions. How can coaches “cross the line” when the line keeps moving away from them?

I’m certainly not qualified to speak to personal experience on many of the terms used to perpetuate systemic racism, so I’ll just share a few of the sexist terms common in training environments that immediately bring me to a rage whenever I hear them (which is frequently):

  • Don’t be a p****
  • Grow a pair
  • You’ve got balls

These were terms I heard a lot while in the military and which you see perpetuated by the less-respectable athletes on the circuit and others in society who think they’re so, so cool. ALWAYS, the first term is used as bait to “not be weak.” Do I need to state the implication is that women are weak? Or that by saying “you’ve got balls” the implication is that men are tough and strong? Do I need to point out that women birth actual humans out of their “p******” and that when men get kicked in the “balls” they are immediately incapacitated? WHO’S THE TOUGH ONE NOW?

I’ve been told “you’ve got balls” more times than I can count. I’d like to wish that I’d had a witty comment back when I was in the military to correct the not-so-subtle sexist jab, but in cultures where “white” and “male” are valued, it’s easier to just accept that you’ve been “granted” male traits and try to backdoor your way into taking it as a complement.

*steps down from soap box*

The point here is that people like Chris Doyle have thrived in a system which advocates tearing others down, they say, to be able to build them back up as a single unit. It’s common practice in the military, where proponents of the system of screaming and yelling and endless pushups in basic training claim to be building up recruits on a common set of “values.” But it’s so easy to go one step too far. I remember a cadre of mine when I was in basic training calling me “retarded” because I spilled some cereal at breakfast one morning. Are those “values” we want to emulate?

But what if coaches were more like, gee, I don’t know, Ryan Day? What if the message wasn’t “you better perform or you’ll lose your scholarship” and was instead “here’s an opportunity to be great”? In other words, what if the coach-player relationship was more balanced in terms of power, and functioned more as a mutually-agreed upon partnership?

It was successful in Day’s first year, and Tia Johnston and I have spoken about it pretty extensively on the Play Like a Girl podcast. It’s a new culture of coaches who find more value in treating players like humans who can grow, humans who can rise to achieve, humans who want to be part of the team because they feel good as a part of the team and, most importantly, humans who are humans who deserve to be treated with humanity.

You’ll constantly hear the mantra of the “back when it was hard” people who perpetuate these practices because they themselves had to put up with it “back in the day.” And that extends beyond sports - how many investment bankers or doctors or lawyers had to “pay their dues” by working unhealthy hours to the point regulations have been passed because people literally died? Some like to use the argument that “it was hard but it made us better.” Did it? I’m all about needing to function in a high-stress environment but please be serious. Some practices, especially those which only serve to marginalize certain groups, should be left in the past. The end.

The main point I’m trying to make here is that this type of power imbalance has no place in our culture. Not only are there better ways to do things (like treating others with dignity and respect), but this type of culture, as we’ve seen at Iowa, dissuades dissonance while perpetuating racist and sexist stereotypes - and does it for decades at a time.

Anyway, I guess the takeaway here is that you just shouldn’t say things that are racist or sexist. And before you jump all over me for claiming a limitation on your First Amendment rights, keep in mind that you could say them, but that others have the right to think you’re a dullard.

Bye for now.