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Damon Bruce and the (supposed) feminization of sports

First, a story.

A few years ago, I arrived in a press box for an important baseball game. I arrived two hours before the first pitch, and yet every seat was already taken. Which left me with the prospect of sitting in a room without a view during the game, or standing up throughout and not writing a lick; that is, not doing what I'd come to do.

Then, a savior. A local radio personality introduced himself -- by the way, during my three games in that press box, he was the only one of dozens to so much as nod in my direction -- and offered me his chair. Yes, he would need it for a spell during the game ... but even then, he would squeeze in another chair for me, next to his assigned spot. And so I was able to both enjoy the important baseball game and perform my professional duties. I've not been extended many such kindnesses in press boxes over the years, which made this one all the more memorable.

Last week, that same radio personality said some things on the air that really bothered some people, including some people whose work I respect and whom I like (or liked), personally.

Sports has lost its way, and part of the reason is that we've got women giving us directions. For some of you, this is going to come across as ... very misogynistic. I don't care because I'm very right. I'm very, very right.

I'm willing to share my sandbox, as long as you remember: You're in my box. I didn't get into yours. I didn't all of a sudden slip into your world. You came into mine.

There is a serious group of you fellas out there, that have just been so feminized by the sensitive types out there who continue to now interject their ultra-sensitive opinions into the world of sports.

Trust me: It doesn't get any better from there. Damon Bruce, who works for San Francisco radio station KNBR, ties all this feminization into the Miami Dolphins hazing/harassment fiasco, and essentially blames Jonathan Martin, but saves some blame for anyone who thinks hazing isn't cool. That is, women and the men who they have so cannily feminized.

But Bruce might have hit his low point a moment later. After tossing a few compliments Wendy Thurm's way, Bruce said this: "I enjoy MANY of the women's contributions to the sports wor-Well, that's a lie. I can't even pretend that that's true. There are very few, small handful of women who are any good at this, at all. That's the truth. The amount of women talking in sports, to the amount of women who actually have something to say, is one of the more disproportionate ratios I've ever seen in my frickin' life."

He went on to say that sports, and especially football, has a setting: MEN. And (I'm paraphrasing here) if you're a woman and you want to write or talk about sports for a living, you need to start writing and talking (and presumably thinking) like men.

Essentially, Bruce managed to say more things that I find disagreeable in the space of six minutes since ... well, maybe since forever. Or at least in my memory, since I can't remember the last time I was able to tolerate Rush Limbaugh for six minutes.

For one thing, I don't see any evidence that our increased sensitivity to injuries has anything to do with women, whether those who cover sports or those who merely follow sports. For another, just in case sports really have been somehow feminized, my response is, "Great. More please." The acceptance of brutality does not enhance sports; it diminishes it. There's more than enough violence in this world; we certainly don't need extra violence in our pastimes. And finally, the notion that "women talking in sports" have less to say, relatively speaking, than men talking in sports is impossible to disprove but -- based on what I hear men talking about, and writing about -- highly unlikely.

I mean, even leaving aside the fact that, frankly speaking, sports coverage is still a profession heavily dominated by men, and so it's hard to even figure out which women Bruce is talking about. Has he really sampled more than a few women covering sports seriously? Are there women in the broadcast booth for NFL games? Are there many beat writers covering NFL teams? Are there a great number of women sports columnists?

I'm pretty sure the answer to all of those questions is no. In my experience, the relative dearth of women covering sports is due not to a lack of opportunity, and not to prejudice -- which isn't to say those things don't exist, because of course they do -- but rather because a relatively small number of women grow up wanting to be sportswriters. That said, I also believe that the more women are covering sports, the better sports coverage will be. Which I believe is true of virtually everything.

Essentially, I believe that Damon Bruce was wrong about almost everything.

Which, for me, is a far piece from calling Bruce names. And a farther piece from saying he should lose his job.

One of the big movies out right now is Ender's Game, based on a novel written by Orson Scott Card, who's written some truly hateful things about gays and marriage equality (Rany Jazayerli wrote a fine essay about reconciling Card's best work with his vile prejudices). There were calls for a boycott of Ender's Game. In response Jonathan Rauch wrote this in The Atlantic:

So I understand why some equality advocates want to make a statement against Card. What I would like them to understand is why I hope they fail. In a roundabout but important way, bigoted ideas and hateful speech play an essential part in advancing minority rights. Even if we have every right to boycott Ender's Game, gays are better served by answering people like Card than by trying to squelch or punish them.


Above all, the boycott should fizzle, and I expect it will fizzle, because gay people know we owe our progress to freedom of speech and freedom of thought. The best society for minorities is not the society that protects minorities from speech but the one that protects speech from minorities (and from majorities, too). Gay Americans can do the cause of equality more good by rejecting this boycott than by supporting it. I'll see the movie-if the reviews are good.

There's a great deal of truth in there, I think. Then again, if we take that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion ... don't we wind up hoping that the airwaves are dominated by anti-Semites and homophobes and racists? Just so we have that many more chances to argue that they're wrong?

Most of us don't want that. I don't. We've all got our limits. But some people would prefer to wipe hate speech from the public consciousness completely, and I'm pretty sure that's the wrong answer. The optimal level of hate speech? I don't think anyone can say. It does serve a purpose, though. Because those thoughts won't disappear just because their advocates disappear from the airwaves. To counter the thoughts, to change minds, the people doing God's work need foils. Here's Rauch again:

In 2004, when I was making the talk-show rounds for my new book on gay marriage, I found myself on a Seattle radio station, debating a prominent gay-marriage opponent. After she made her case and I made mine, a caller rang in to complain to the host. "Your guest," he said, meaning me, "is the most dangerous man in America." Why? "Because ," said the caller, "he sounds so REASONABLE."

... Hannah Arendt once wrote, "Truth carries within itself an element of coercion." The caller felt that he was in some sense being forced to see merit in what I was saying.

I'm not characterizing Bruce's comments as hate speech. But there are certainly people who heard hatred in his words. What I heard wasn't hatred, but rather ignorance and fear. Either way, though, what's the more constructive response? To label him a misogynist, and call for his head on a pike? Or to engage, as logically and forcefully as possible, with his arguments?

It's been suggested that there's no reason to engage with Bruce. Because this is what he thinks, this is what he's going to think, and it's a hell of a lot easier to get him fired than to change his mind.

Perhaps. But that's beside the point, isn't it? The point isn't to change Damon Bruce's mind, but rather to change the minds of the thousands or the millions of sports fans who agree with him. Still, you might counter that Bruce's words will create more prejudice than the rest of us, with all our counter-arguments, might possibly balance.

Perhaps. But I prefer to believe something else, because I believe that shouting down Bruce's ideas doesn't just end that particular discussion; it also helps foster an environment in which the majority is too easily able to stifle and demonize any speech it deems somehow offensive or inappropriate.

And to all my friends in the writing game who lobbed your self-righteous, knee-jerk grenades at me last week ... If you've got any real convictions, any real bravery at all, at some point in your career you'll be accused of writing something offensive, something inappropriate that doesn't conform to the societal norms of the moment.

I hope you don't get fired. I might have blocked you on Twitter last week. But I really truly hope you don't get fired.

Addendum: I know, I know ... heavy stuff for a sports site geared toward young men! Here's my alternate, demo-friendly take on Damon Bruce's take on women covering sports: the first 35 seconds of this really-NSFW clip from Stepbrothers.