Journalists ask 'Is there a culture of violence in sports?' at 'Sports Matters' symposium

By Sara Eckhardt

March 2, 2015

The Newhouse Sports Media Center at Syracuse University recently hosted a daylong symposium called "Sports Matters," examining current issues in sports and sports media. The second panel “Covering Domestic Violence Issues: Have Sports Media Done Enough?” included the following speakers (pictured above, from left to right):

  • Keri Potts ’98, G’99, senior director of PR, ESPN (via video)
  • Don McPherson ’87, activist and sportscaster
  • Jon Frankel ’86, correspondent for HBO Real Sports
  • CJ Silas ’90, host, ESPN Radio San Luis Obispo and author, “No Girls Allowed: The Jock and Jill Mentality of Sports Broadcasting”

The experienced panel of SU alumni began with a provocative question from Newhouse associate professor and panel moderator Anne Osborne: Is there a culture of violence in sports?

The panel agreed that a culture of violence does exist, but not just in sports.

“Men’s violence against women is a global issue,” McPherson says.

McPherson went on to dissect what he calls the “three distinct cultures” of the sports industry: corporate culture, athlete culture and consumer culture, all of which McPherson argues have a patriarchal structure that promotes aggressive masculinity.

Silas, of ESPN, also added that the gender roles separating what is deemed feminine and masculine starts long before children start playing sports, and is expressed in the sports culture.

In 2014, five NFL players were arrested for sexual assault, including Ray Rice, whose story probably received the most publicity. In February of last year, website TMZ released a video of Rice punching his now wife, Jenay, in the head in a hotel elevator. Rice knocked her unconscious in the assault and then dragged her body out of the elevator. Images of the interaction were played repeatedly on television and the Internet.

Despite the extensive media coverage of the Rice case, did the media do enough?

The panel agreed that while the media paid close attention to the case, there’s always room for improvement.

Frankel says media coverage of the Rice assault was effective in causing change, arguing that if the video wasn’t so widely seen by sports fans, the NFL may not have taken action.

Potts, of ESPN, agreed with Frankel that most sports media tried to cover the case accurately, but she found issue with some of the language used to report and describe domestic violence.  The word, “accuser” for instance, has a negative connotation for the victim and “victimizes the perpetrator,” Potts says.

To fix the issue, Potts says reporters need to do their homework on objective terminology, especially when it comes to sensitive stories like domestic violence.

McPherson and Silas agreed that the “talking heads” on sports shows such as former players and coaches should leave serious cases like domestic violence to journalists.

“We need these talking heads when we’re talking about the game,” Silas says. “But when a story is no longer a sports story, but a news story, it should be covered by journalists.”

While athletes are not the only ones who commit violence against women, Frankel says American culture’s obsession with sports brings bigger issues like domestic violence to the forefront. And while coverage of the Rice case and others wasn’t perfect, it did allow many to “have conversations that we may not have had otherwise,” Silas says.

McPherson closed out the discussion by saying that domestic violence in sports is just one small piece of a much larger problem.

“If Rice had hit his teammate or his coach in the elevator,” he says, “it would be completely different.”

Sara Eckhardt is junior broadcast and digital journalism major at the Newhouse School.

Photos by Chase Guttman, a freshman photography major at the Newhouse School.