Enough with the apologies; let’s start dealing with this misogyny problem

Earlier this week, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed Alexandra Wrage, a former member of FIFA’s Independent Governance Committee, about a range of FIFA-related issues. One of those issues was FIFA’s sexism problem. It’s an issue Wrage unfortunately and surprisingly witnessed first-hand as a non-man roaming around FIFA’s halls of injustice.

It wasn’t the first time Wrage has spoken out. From the BBC, last year:

Wrage considered resigning last summer, but ultimately decided against it, when confronted with “blatant” sexism by leading Fifa figures. Recalling an incident first reported last July, Wrage described how two senior individuals approached her and warned that two candidates suggested for Fifa’s reformatted ethics structure were unacceptable because they were women. “They were the best names we could think of and we were very enthusiastic about them. “The two executives came over and said: ‘You’re going to have to give us more male candidates because a female candidate is not acceptable.’ I said: ‘Did you really just say that to me?’ It was startling. It stopped in most settings three or four decades ago.

Elaborating on the comments made by those FIFA executives, Wrage told Amanpour:

“That statement was made to us, that we should stop putting forward female candidates for that position. And it wasn’t said in the secrecy of the conference room. It was said in the dining hall at the Budapest Congress.

“It was said in such a way that indicated they feel complete impunity around this issue, that they could say to me, among others, the only woman, on the IGC that female candidates would not be acceptable, really does demonstrate a level of sexism at FIFA that in this day and age is pretty breathtaking.”

None of this should surprise anyone familiar with an organization led by a man who fully supports “the ladies.” Last year, FIFA president Sepp Blatter, while announcing the appointment of Burundi’s Lydia Nsekera as the first female member of FIFA’s Executive Committee, uttered these words:

“Are there any ladies in the room? Say something ladies! You are always speaking at home. Now you can speak here.”

It’s unclear whether he high-fived a bro after his comments.

Earlier that week, Blatter described Moya Dodd, an Australian candidate for the new woman’s place on the FIFA executive, as “good-looking.” Describing Dodd, a successful attorney and long-time Australian national team player, as “good and good-looking” was hardly relevant to her candidacy for FIFA’s Executive Committee. I was almost shocked.

Then again, this is the same man who, when discussing how to raise the profile of the women’s game almost a decade earlier, proclaimed, “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball … They could, for example, have tighter shorts.” He continued:

“Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men — such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?”

But it’s almost too easy to vilify FIFA and Blatter. Let’s look at another institution. You’ll remember this one; they’ve also proved pretty easy to vilify.

Ray Rice Press Conference

On February 19, TMZ released a video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator at a Atlantic City casino. After a seemingly suspect investigation concluded, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed Rice a two-game suspension.

Rice’s coach, John Harbaugh, said that there are consequences when you make a “mistake” like that – the “mistake” presumably being Rice knocking his wife out cold in an elevator. Harbaugh followed that up by reminding us that Rice is “a heck of a guy” and “has done everything right since.”

Later, on ESPN’s First Take, the chronically opinionated Stephen A. Smith informed viewers that, all his life, he’s told the female members of his family to “make sure [they] don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions.” After an uproar, Smith tried to clarify his point and basically reiterated what he initially said, this time suggesting that women take “preventative measures” to avoid violence. He ultimately apologized on air, but even after a few days to contemplate, Smith never articulated why his words were wrong or why the assertion that women need to alter their behavior to avoid being beaten is problematic. He was just really, really, really, really, really sorry that you misunderstood his intent as he was given the week off.

If there’s a consistent thread that runs through the punishments, apologies, and HGTV-styled image restoration, it’s this: So often, men in positions of power seem to prioritize their assets — their games, their players, their careers — over everything else. “Everything” includes women, listening, understanding, sympathy, and an urgent need to modernize. And often it seems that they’re not even aware of what they’re doing, even as they try to apologize for their actions.

And that’s the real scary part. Their actions cumulatively tell a story different from the words coming out of their mouths. While these men, in crisis mode, speak of nebulous things like “outrage,” “mistakes,” and “processes in place to handle these incidents,” their silence on specificity and focus on asset management makes a larger point: “We [the powerful men] are highly questionable and ultimately ineffective allies, despite what we say, despite our intent.” That’s how a domestic violence episode quickly became another superficial episode of Dude Rehab.

Collectively, these are the voices echoing from positions of power within our sporting institutions.

[Insert exasperated sigh here.]

AFC Congress 2013

If there’s a lesson in these anecdotes from the NFL and FIFA, it’s that there are red flags everywhere signaling a widespread culture that consistently dismisses women. That disregard happens despite platitudes about money raised for X, numbers of clinics put on for Y, the latest pink thing worn while walking for breast cancer, or loudly claiming to have daughters, wives, mothers, grandmothers, female neighbors, and female colleagues who you claim to “respect just like men.” This sickness is bigger than one domestic violence sanction or one dismissive remark or one sporting organization. It’s systemic, and it’s everywhere.

If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have to constantly hear …

“I’m sorry if I hurt others.”
“No one has done more for X than Y.”
“My intent was X not Y.”
“He let down X but more importantly himself.”
“His actions don’t reflect our values as an organization.”

… another time before concluding that the sorrys, whether well-intentioned or not, are meaningless; or, that you can do good and still condone deplorable behavior; or, that intent often doesn’t matter when layered on top of a history of relentless discrimination; or, that saying people “let themselves and teammates down” does little to raise others up; or, that your constant inability or unwillingness to address issues that have been present for decades actually does reflect the values of an organization.

Every time we uncover one of these episodes is an opportunity for a sincere, thoughtful teaching moment, but it’s hard to find time to reflect when your primary concern is asset management. It’s hard to imagine this coming from one of these institutions:

Words and actions don’t live in a vacuum; they live on top of other words and actions. They can ensure the continuity of a patronizing culture that makes it easier and easier to undermine historically disenfranchised people. Blaming a victim for being abused or searching for ways for the victimized to be responsible for their victimization, beyond being obviously ridiculous, continues the notion that men aren’t responsible for their actions – that the key to safety is for women to be better educated in the art of defensive living and less sensitive to the banter.

Institutions thoughtfully articulating sentiments trumps institutions apologizing. That may not just be true in a feel-good sense but in a business sense as well. Unfortunately, this is where so many institutions fail and lose public trust.

Change happens not when institutions can discern right from wrong but when they decide another group’s indignity is worth their time and effort; or, perhaps more cynically, when that indignity creates an obstacle too big to ignore. Until then, it’s no surprise people who don’t experience systemic indignities first-hand continue to focus on their protected assets.

On July 28, Ray Rice returned to the practice field. He was given a standing ovation by fans. The Ravens were a beautiful family again, until a second video surfaced. When the world was disillusioned of the always misguided notion of his fiancée’s role, Rice became an obstacle too big to ignore.

And Sepp Blatter? He’s been FIFA president since 1998 and will be running for his fifth term in 2015. And his organization is in the midst of another corruption crisis.

But don’t worry, things are going to change. Just give it a few more decades, buy pink shit that, laughably, is about awareness, and remember that Blatter is already sincerely sorry about the next awful thing he’s inevitably going to say when he’s reelected president.

Photo credits, top to bottom: Ray Rice of the addresses a news conference with his wife Janay on May 23, 2014 (Rob Carr/Getty Images) ; Moya Dodd, Yousuf Yaqoob Yousuf Al Serkal, HRH Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein and Sepp Blatter attend the 2013 AFC Congress on May 2, 2013 (Stanley Chou/Getty Images).