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The ownership curve
Why women still shoulder the responsibility of speaking up about intimate partner violence in sports.
I knew we shouldn’t be arguing at the table. It was a nice restaurant, there were people snug around the banquette with us I’d only been introduced to 20 minutes before, I was a guest, I didn’t want to be rude. The host, a generous and respectfully curious person, politely listened as I pressed my friend on why it mattered what he did when an athlete in the NBA physically assaulted a woman.
The discussion had started about a specific instance, a specific athlete, but already in the moment I knew that the specifics were interchangeable. That there would be new names and identical to brutally close recurrences, that the specifics of who the person was had little actual bearing on what we were arguing about.
What we were arguing about was my friend’s own power, his own influence. He worked for a major sports media outlet, he appeared on and had say over the podcasts that outlet produced. I had asked him whether he would say anything about Miles Bridges, who at the time was in the news for felony domestic violence, on any of those shows. He demurred. Their shows, mostly, dealt in analytics, and his position was that it would be a departure in subject matter. Like a weather reporter delivering news about the stock market. Moreover, he thought his position like everyone’s position at the outlet, was clear. He hated what Bridges had done. He found it reprehensible. I knew him and I knew he meant it, but it still wasn’t what I was trying to talk to him about.
My position was it didn’t matter if he knew, or that he thought his body of work would speak to his position on Bridges without him needing to explicitly say anything. He had the platform and in having it, he had a responsibility. It didn’t need to be a rehashing of the assault’s details or speculation on the unfolding charges, it need only be him saying in whatever language he was compelled to use, that it was abhorrent. Unacceptable. Fucked up. It could last all of 10 seconds but the point was to say something because by not, he was presenting an island, a separate intellectual territory, where the assault didn’t impact or overlap with the NBA news of the day. A refuge where it was fine not to think about instances of assault by athletes in the NBA, that reinforced that these things had no real bearing on the everyday churn of the sport or what “actually mattered” about basketball. A refuge that wasn’t available to the women who worked alongside him. Couldn’t be accessed by the women and people who read about the Bridges allegations and felt the tremors of it in their own bodies, for their own reasons.
I was thinking about that exchange again in light of the news that Kevin Porter Jr. was arrested and charged with assault and strangulation resulting in a fractured neck vertebrae of former WNBA athlete, Kysre Gondrezick. The assault happened in the early morning hours of September 11th when Porter Jr. returned to the hotel room they were sharing, where Gondrezick had been sleeping.
Even before I started to see the expected mix of responses to the news across social media, ranging from incredulity that Porter Jr. could assault someone “so beautiful” to people lamenting what it meant for the banner season they hoped for him to have, I felt myself bracing. This bracing, I’ve found, can be anything from a psychic steadying to noticing physical changes in my body, like my jaw clenching or pulse speeding up. I’ve never read or heard about allegations of violence in the NBA and not begun to brace.
That sensation, I realize, is rooted in ownership. Even when I don’t feel compelled to, or actively fight against the urge to respond to these instances with yet another piece of writing calling them out, I physically process the news. It isn’t empathy, isn’t projecting, it’s something I know is not unique to me based on the private DMs and public replies I got when I said reading responses to the Porter Jr. news — and the pattern of these responses — makes me want to step away from covering the NBA. Some of those messages mean well, I think, when they say don’t pay attention to the particularly bad replies. Don’t think about this thing that’s happened, which taken both in and outside of the context of basketball, is still happening between two strangers who have no bearing on me.
And I think that’s the line. That’s what I was trying to explain to my friend in that argument at dinner. It’s more complicated than just pain, the different ways women have experienced and inhabited it.
There’s an awareness for women that I can only relate to as a sense of ownership in these instances; less proprietary, more responsible. Compelled. It’s obvious if you’re a woman who takes some part of your livelihood from sports — we can’t sidestep these instances any more than we can the exhausting responses to them. Both have to do with the people we cover and the environments we work in, the physical spaces (arenas, locker rooms, sidelines, studios, etc) and the nonmaterial reflections of that work and how it’s consumed (writing, broadcasts, radio, podcasts, social media, etc). Of course, we ignore the really ignorant, the trolls, but the awareness still weighs. Not of the specific people who’ve made the comments, but of the dominant modes of overarching and persistent thought they display through what they say. Of ugly and dangerous social norms given a holdover home within sports culture and its consumption. And it isn’t only reserved for women working in sports. It’s as obvious to women who are fans. Because to be a fan, or to engage with basketball and sports, is to receive a kind of livelihood, even if it’s leisure.
It’s a difficult thing to describe, this almost sixth sense, this weighing feeling of ownership over this kind of news, but I know it’s there. I know it’s there because of the time I’ll have to take away when news of another IPV incident breaks, when it gets picked up and picked apart, gains momentum, when new details emerge. That time away first feels like a small, individualized mourning. I find the sadness I feel first and the anger that follows to not always align with the more public metabolism of the news, so I step away to process it and, usually, turn to other women to talk about it with. It’s a fallow period where I need space and time to decide how and when I’ll reengage with the NBA again. On a professional level, it can be a problem. It doesn’t always prove possible and it always proves tricky. There’s a sense of the spin of the NBA picking up and going on without you, and with it, opportunities. I haven’t known men to need to take the same time.
I know this kind of ownership exists because I know the shorthands of it in those conversations with women who are friends and colleagues. The way we can describe its physical pull on us and how it compels us to act and respond to another story of assault, like I recognize its absence on the faces of male friends and colleagues. How it’s wearing and shitty but never difficult for women who inhabit this world to speak up, even if it’s just to say how wearing and shitty it is. And how the responses from men in the same roles, if they come, are predominantly stilted, blanket statements that feel like they’ve been pressured to make. I’ll extend that to the athletes themselves, the tiny community of the NBA that nevertheless have voices capable of reshaping reflexive public response. How much could change if they opted to use their voices beyond where was currently comfortable, to stretch, a little, on this curve of what we can be responsible for in sports.
I wonder if this, the ownership curve, can be instilled. Like a learning curve. If proficiency can improve with experience. That is, use and not just individualized reference. Empathy as a learning exercise — because I’ll be clear, I don’t want this beat, am not territorial over it — versus insisting no one can understand pain or fear they haven’t personally borne, or that a position is so self-evident it doesn’t need to be plainly stated. With violence against women, specifically intimate partner violence and sexual violence in the insular and reliably repetitive world of sports, I promise, you can always say more.
I think he understood, but watching his face — as I’ve watched many of my male colleagues faces, seen their features take on the requisite expressions of sympathy, consideration, pity — I couldn’t see anything sink beyond the surface, nor can I say I really saw it viscerally stick.
I sat back, aware the wall we’d hit was a fundamental difference not of perspective, but instinct. I watched him turn to someone else at the table and ask a light question about the season that instantly returned more depth of discussion than what I’d been straining at for the entirety of our conversation. The reason being nothing more than habit. Here was what he, and the majority of the group, was used to talking about.
He never said anything on any show that followed that dinner. The awful consolation is that if he wants to speak up, start talking, he’s not going to run out of opportunities any time soon.
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