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Treating Women as the Second-Class Citizens of Sports: A Response to Richard Sherman's Critique of the NFL's Proposed Ban of the N-word

The harmful impact that sex-based slurs may have upon male players, fans, and coaches has also received insufficient attention in the NFL.
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The NFL's contemplation of an automatic 15-yard penalty for players' use of the N-word on the field has provoked a firestorm of controversy. Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman added fuel to that fire when he called the proposed ban an "atrocious idea" that is "almost racist" to the extent it singles out the N-word. Noticeably, Sherman didn't criticize the ban as being "almost sexist" if it prohibits the N-word but condones sex-based slurs. Yet to penalize use of the N-word while permitting use of sex-based slurs could marginalize female fans by effectively designating them as the second-class citizens of sports. Such disparate treatment of fans based solely on their sex seemingly contravenes the very spirit of the proposed rule -- to promote tolerance, equality, and sensitivity. To be truly effective, the proposed ban, if adopted, should encourage respect for all players and all fans, including the oft-forgotten female fan base.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the imbalanced racial dynamics of the NFL leadership considering the ban have received significant attention, while the sex-based disparity has largely gone unmentioned. Commentators emphasize that there is something troublesome about an all-white group of owners and a white NFL Commissioner imposing the penalty on a group of predominantly African American players. Yet little or nothing has been said about the fact that a male commissioner and an all-male committee in a sport where only 4.6% of team owners are female is contemplating imposition of the rule on a group of all-male players.

The harmful impact that sex-based slurs may have upon male players, fans, and coaches has also received insufficient attention. Significantly, however, the Wells Report reveals that teammates allegedly accused former Miami Dolphin Jonathan Martin of "acting like a p****" and frequently called him a c***, b****, and p****. They also persistently taunted him with sexually explicit remarks about his mother and sister. Indeed, according to the Wells Report, Martin found the graphic remarks about his sister most troubling.

To be clear, I do not aim to suggest that gender equality is more important than racial equality. To the contrary, the shameful historical legacy of the N-word highlights the extent to which persons of any race could reasonably find players' use of it on the field to be offensive and underscores the importance of the NFL's efforts to promote racial tolerance. However, the noble goals of racial equality and gender equality are not mutually exclusive. The NFL's measures to advance racial equality do not warrant neglect of efforts to promote gender equality, especially when American women have also historically suffered discrimination. Throughout much of our nation's history, women were considered the property of their husbands. They could not vote, practice law or medicine, or serve on juries. The long-term effects of this historical sex discrimination persist. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012, women, on average, still only earned 77¢ for every dollar that men earned. Women are still underrepresented in Congress and in many state legislatures.

Historical efforts to achieve racial equality have often preceded similar measures aimed to ensure the equal treatment of women. For example, African American men received the vote roughly fifty years before women of any race. Concerns over racial, not gender, equality prompted enactment of important civil rights legislation, like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"). Indeed, sex was added to Title VII as a protected category at the last minute in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to sink the bill. The Equal Rights Amendment, which specifically aimed to ensure equality of the sexes, has still never been ratified by enough states to become part of the Constitution. Despite the best efforts of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other women's rights advocates, classifications based on sex are still only subject to intermediate scrutiny, not the more rigorous strict scrutiny standard that applies to racial classifications. The NFL should learn from, but not repeat, this historical pattern by treating its female fans as equals and imposing the same penalty for sex-based slurs as for racially derogatory remarks.

Cultivating a culture of respect for all fans, including women, is not just the right thing to do; it's also good for business. According to Forbes, nearly half of the NFL's fan base is female. Marie Claire reports that more than 45% of American women watched football every weekend last year. According to CNN, women composed 46% of the viewing audience for the Super Bowl.

Recognizing the increasing importance of female fans, the NFL has recently upped its game. It has introduced espnW, which is tailored to female fans, and has partnered with A Crucial Catch to raise awareness of breast cancer. The NFL has also launched Fit for You -- a special women's clothing line -- and in 2012, the Dallas Cowboys Stadium opened a Victoria's Secret PINK outlet selling sporty chic attire. The NFL is wisely marketing itself to women -- a growing consumer demographic -- to attract new fans and preempt declines in viewership that some other sports have suffered.

So in conclusion, while it's probably infeasible to regulate every possible slur, singling out use of the N-word for punishment while condoning use of sex-based slurs arguably perpetuates the very stereotypes and discrimination the proposed penalty aims to prohibit. By imposing the same penalty for the most prevalent and offensive race- and sex-based slurs, the NFL may not only alleviate some of Sherman's concerns but may also make forward progress with female fans.

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