The Socially Constructed Playing Field

Time magazine recently published an article about the online harassment of actor Ashley Judd (Alter). The article explains that Judd was watching March Madness basketball when she tweeted that the opposing team was “playing dirty & can kiss my team’s free throw making a**” (Pitts). Despite being antagonistic, Judd’s message is one we can imagine being yelled by an unruly fan during the heat of a game, and met with little other than booing from the opposing team’s bleachers. However, her tweet prompted a wave of vitriolic messages calling her “a c***, a b****”, some even threatened rape, or ”anal anal anal” (White).

Judd subsequently deleted her tweet and wrote an op-ed about her experience with online hate and real life sexual violence. Her article draws parallels between the criminals who violated her as a child and the anonymous delinquents who sent her hate messages over the Internet. Judd’s horrible experience with online persecution is not unique. When women, or members of other marginalized groups, express their opinions on the Internet, harassment is virtually inevitable. Judd’s situation allows us to examine sports and athleticism through the lens of social construction. Sports is one of the domains in society that is still unapologetically racialized and gendered. Judd’s scenario raises important questions about arbitrary signs we associate with sports and their effects on marginalized groups.

The extreme responses to Judd’s tweet raises the question of what precipitated their ferocity. Judd’s sole crime seems to be “being a woman and having an opinion about sports ”(Judd). Instead of attacking the content of Judd’s tweet, anonymous online commentators attacked Judd in an undeniably gendered way including threats of sexual violence. It is hard to imagine that a man would receive such backlash had he posted an identical tweet. In fact, researchers at the University of Maryland studied the influence of gender on on-line behaviour by creating online personas and dispatching them to chat rooms. Accounts with feminine usernames incurred, on average, over 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages daily whereas masculine usernames received less than 5 (Hess). Unfortunately, these results are not shocking. And, as Judd states in her op-ed, “themes embedded in this particular incident reflect the universal ways we talk about girls and women”.

Social construction dictates that sports are for men. From childhood, people are indoctrinated with socially constructed beliefs about masculinity and femininity. Throwing a ball ‘like a girl’ is considered insulting because of the implications it carries about women’s incompetence in athletics. Children are taught how to behave along gendered lines. Boys are taught they should be interested in sports, while girls are supposed to be excited by dolls. Adults continue to hold intrinsic beliefs reflecting gender socialization, including notions that women are bad at sports and men are bad at parenting. Intrinsic gendered beliefs can lead a person to judge women with opinions on traditionally masculine subjects. ‘Mansplaining’ is a newly coined word defined as “explain[ing] something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing” (Steinmetz). Mansplaining does not arise from hatred of women, or even the conscious belief that females are inept. Instead, intrinsic beliefs can lead people to judge women holding opinions on subjects like sports, because gendered socialization inculcates an underlying conviction that women’s opinions on such subjects are uniformed.

It is important to note that sports are also fraught with racial overtones. March Madness is a month-long competition among National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s basketball teams. While 60% of players are black, nearly 80% of the NCAA coaches are white (Lapchick et al.) The NCAA is very profitable; coaches are highly paid, TV and arena contracts rake in billions for the NCAA, but players do not receive any remuneration for playing (Moorehead). This circumstance is reminiscent of slavery. The labour of black people is used for white profit. Harry Edwards points out that “[w]hat really is being said in a kind of underhanded way is that blacks are closer to beasts and animals… than they are to the rest of humanity” (qtd in Entine). When we examine the situation objectively, it is bizarre that many sports are comprised of predominantly black athletes and predominantly white fans. It is a trope repeated time and time again that black people are forced to perform for white people without compensation.

The sports domain is awash with socially constructed beliefs. Social construction serves to exclude women from the domain of althetics and causes women to be attacked when they attempt to join the conversation on sports. Intrinsic socially constructed beliefs also affect our perceptions about race and sports, resulting in inequitable racialized hierarchies in athletics. Intrinsic gendered and racialized beliefs can have grim consequences. Gandhi once said that “[y]our beliefs become your thoughts, [y]our thoughts become your words, [y]our words become your actions” (qtd in Sahadeo). When we consider women’s opinions less valid than opinions of men, it normalizes harassment and condescension of women who make their opinions known. When we turn a blind eye to inequalities and racial prejudices prevalent in sports, it normalizes unfair treatment of people of colour. When we normalize hateful speech, we normalize violent and discriminatory actions against women and people of colour. Intrinsic socially constructed beliefs are contributing factors to a culture of misogyny and racism.


Works Cited

Alter, Charlotte. “Ashley Judd Speaks Out About Twitter Abuse and Rape.” Time. N.p., 19 Mar. 2015. Web. <>.

Entine, Jon. “Chapter 1: Taboo.” Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk about It. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000. N. pag. Print.

Hess, Amanda. “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet.” Pacific Standard., 6 Jan. 2014. Web. 04 Apr. 2015. <;.

Judd, Ashley. “Forget Your Team: Your Online Violence Toward Girls and Women Is What Can Kiss My Ass.” Mic. Identities.mic, 19 Mar. 2015. Web. 04 Apr. 2015. <;.

Lapchick, Richard, John Fox, Angelica Guiao, and Maclin Simpson. “The 2014 Racial and Gender Report Card: College Sport” The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (n.d.): n. pag. 3 Mar. 2015. Web. 4 Apr. 2015. <;.

Moorehead, Monica. “Racism, Exploitation & Profits: The REAL ‘March Madness'” Workers World. Workers World, 25 Mar. 2013. Web. 04 Apr. 2015. <;.

Pitts, Leonard, Jr. “I’ve Got Your Back, Ashley Judd!” Leonard Pitts, Jr. Tribune Content Agency, 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 04 Apr. 2015. <;.

Sahadeo, Ramnarine. Mohandas K. Gandhi: Thoughts, Words, Deeds: His Inspiration: Bhagavad-Gita. N.p.: Ramnarine Sahadeo, 2012. Print.

Steinmetz, Katy. “Oxford’s Runners-Up for Words of the Year.” Time. Time, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 04 Apr. 2015. <;.


3 thoughts on “The Socially Constructed Playing Field

  1. Hi Emily, this is a great post, full of interesting ideas. I really like how you related this issue to the construction of sports as a male domain. I think you’re right that while there is online sexual harassment in many domains of social media, sports culture can be particularly abusive to women. Women who might be educated sports fans or a athletes themselves are treated differently than men, often having their appearances scrutinized and bodies objectified. I’m not sure if you recall, but a few months ago the tennis player Eugenie Bouchard was asked by the male presenter at the Australian open to “twirl” on the court. Additionally, when I looked up some of the reporting on Ashley Judd’s response to twitter harassment, a lot of the television footage was based on clips from award shows where actresses are filmed panning up and down their dresses, rather than focusing on what they have to say. In this way, even as reporters were attempting to address the issue of Judd’s treatment, they contributed (consciously or not) to a culture where women are looked at, and their opinions are not welcomed.
    I also thought you brought up a great point about the prevalence of racialization in sports, whereby black bodies provide entertainment and are often “owned” by white team managers. This reminded me of a Canadian study I read recently that discussed how a disproportionate number of black male students in Toronto and the Toronto area are encouraged by teachers to pursue athletics as a route to school success, when they are struggling academically. This is concerning because it makes the assumption based on stereotypes that black students are good athletes but not good students, often leading these perceptions to be internalized by the students. These unequal power dynamics can ultimately go on to be reproduced outside of school in businesses like professional athletics. Perhaps the best example of this being Donald Sterling’s suspension from the NBA after making numerous racist remarks about the players on the team he owned.
    Anyways, I think this was a job well done. The last thing I wanted to add is that I think its great Ashley Judd is pressing charges on this issue. The owners of Twitter have also started to respond to complaints such as this one by adding more personnel to respond to these types of concerns. I think this speaks to the fact that in contemporary times when social media is ubiquitous in daily life, online environments must be taken seriously as places where rape culture and misogyny are perpetuated and should also be punished.


  2. Your introductory paragraphs are very well written! I think you provide a great summary of the article and introduce the points that you will discuss very well. You made a great connection discussing social constructivism. The domain of sports is certainly socially constructed as exclusively for males, leading to the notion that women’s opinions on sports are uninformed. However, I think it is also important to recognize how this effects, and even oppresses, men. Sports has become associated with masculinity, implying that men who do not enjoy watching or participating in sports are ‘unmanly’. I’m not sure if you watch the television show ‘Friends’ (if not you should start), but there are many occasions where one of the male characters, Chandler, is teased by his friends for not enjoying sports, questioning the authenticity of his masculinity. This is just one of many examples in popular culture where men are also negatively effected by this social construction. This is not to say that the effects on women are in any way less important, I just wanted to bring this consideration to the discussion!
    Your incorporation of race was very interesting! The analogy of black sports players and white fans to slavery was specifically interesting. I had never thought of the sports domain as being racialized in that way.
    Meera’s point about the article she read that talked about the predominant number of black males being encouraged to pursue sports as a route to school success when they are struggling academically was also particularly interesting. When I first considered this, I was a bit confused. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with a teacher providing other suggestions for success if a student isn’t excelling academically. However, the fact that there was a predominant number of black males in this position is a statistic that needs further explanation. Why is there a predominant number of black males struggling academically in Toronto? I don’t believe that it is because black students are not intelligent, but rather there might be other factors effecting this. Perhaps there are racist biases within the school system. There could also be other factors/ stresses on students of colour due to pressures/disadvantages in society. These are just interesting questions to consider.
    I really enjoyed reading your blog!


  3. I thought this post brought up some interesting points in ways I never would have thought of them! I really enjoyed the way you looked at sports, racialization and masculinity and harassment and how they all tie together. I like the way you brought up the fact that if a man had made the same remark in a tweet, they would not receive the same amount and intensity of backlash as Ashley Judd did. If a man had made this remark the criticize he probably would have received would have been about his comment towards the team, but when Judd made this remark she was automatically scrutinized about her gender and received verbal harassment around her gender. Using Ashley Judd’s experience we can how people will use any excuse to take down another person. This comes back to our social constructs and gender roles in society, that women can be seen objects, and men can treat women however they would like.
    It also very true that growing up we are constantly reminded that sports and rough play are for boys. We are also led to believe that certain sports or activities are for men, that more full contact sports are mens sports, whereas things such as gymnastics or dance are more of a girls activity. We are pigeon holed into these constructs from very ages and so, for many people when these ideas are gone against they have a hard time accepting the idea. I enjoy the use of the term mansplaining. I think that this happens so often in our society, where although it is purposeful people will use their intrinsic gendered beliefs to reason.
    Overall I think this blog touched on very important concepts that all intersected with one another to produce a powerful message!


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