Media Timeout: Louisville Recruiting Scandal Sparks Unchecked Wave of Sexism

Posted by Will Tucker on January 6th, 2016

College basketball places huge emphasis on individual games — showdowns between top-ranked teams, annual rivalry clashes, single-elimination tournaments — but it’s important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture from time to time. The Media Timeout considers how fans and journalists watch, follow, and talk about the sport.

Controversy placed several college basketball programs squarely in the national spotlight last offseason. The most lurid and sensational of these headlines came from the Bluegrass State, where allegations surfaced in October that Louisville men’s basketball personnel had systematically used sex to lure high school recruits to the school over a period of several years. The outrageousness of the accusations thrust them far beyond the college hoops orbit, into and onto the TV screens, Twitter timelines, and email inboxes of news consumers everywhere.

Katina Powell sexist youtube screen cap

One video, widely circulated on Twitter, used Powell’s example to attack black women, black coaches, and other groups (TnnRawNews / YouTube)

As it typically does, the intense scrutiny heightened the defensive response from Louisville fans who, under siege, predictably circled the wagons. That came as no surprise, especially considering the confusion and uncertainty that surrounded the allegations of misconduct primarily levied at former assistant Andre McGee. What should be surprising is how quickly the tenor of that response took an ugly turn, as an alarming number of fans appeared more preoccupied with discrediting the accuser on the basis of her gender and sexuality than on any perceived lack of truthfulness.

A Cultural Lightning Rod

As far as we have come as a society on the discussion of gender, that progress has been slow to trickle into the realm of sports talk, whether through social media, online comment sections or talk radio. That space, regrettably, is still the preserve of retrograde thinking about the proper place of women in sports commentary and beyond. Sadly, it is no coincidence that most of the vitriol directed at female sports journalists, especially those who weigh in on cases of alleged sexual misconduct by athletes, follows the same tried-and-true formula: dismiss her viewpoint; call her a degrading name; threaten her with sexual violence.

The recent Louisville scandal was a perfect storm because it presented a villain – in this case, alleger Katina Powell (whose newly published book Breaking Cardinal Rules documents the transgressions) – who was not only a woman, but also, unapologetically, a sex worker. Toss in a fan base that still bristles at the mention of a previous sex scandal involving its head basketball coach, add a bevy of non-Louisville fans who gleefully seized upon the lowest hanging trash-talk fruit imaginable, and a true “time to log off the Internet” moment was suddenly upon us.

That much was clear in the hours and days after McGee’s attorney responded to Powell’s claims by dismissing her as a “whore” in a statement — a move which, astonishingly, drew no condemnation from anyone else supporting McGee, as far as could be seen.

One guy picked up on it right away:

Ultimately, it seemed that the local media did a good job of covering the story in a respectful and neutral manner, although that doesn’t mean there wasn’t the occasional instance of insensitivity. Many of their local readers, however, weren’t quite as charitable. True to form, they let the world know how they felt through social media, with tweets spanning the spectrum between generally tasteless and unequivocally misogynistic. The total sum of the intolerance is difficult to quantify, and it may even be unfair to label Louisville fans as the worst offenders (plenty of folks without a dog in the fight added their hateful two cents). Still, an advanced search on Twitter turns up a sizable sample of their cringe-worthy thoughts.

I was surprised that the above tweet sparked a heated discussion among a few Louisville fans: specifically, between several women and a man, all of whom I like and respect. The man insisted that “whore” was a gender-neutral and accurate term to apply to Powell, rather than a loaded and pejorative term intended to dehumanize its subject. The women’s perspectives were insightful, but the debate ended without any real resolution.

What role did the national media play?

Nuance often gets lost in translation when big news or entertainment outlets try to distill and repackage a story for a general audience. That wasn’t exactly the case here – maybe because the question centered on the veracity of the allegations and not whether they constituted major NCAA violations (that answer was a plainly obvious “yes”). CNNMaxim and even TMZ acquitted themselves admirably in covering an unfamiliar niche.

The same couldn’t be said of Sports Illustrated when, a week after the story broke, it published a piece with the not so subtle title, “Louisville nurtures a dangerous culture for women.” The phrasing felt insubstantial and read a lot like clickbait, and a few people on Twitter made the salient observation that the message rang hollow in coming from a publisher whose business model is largely predicated on turning women into sex objects. But it also may have aggravated the Powell-bashing by pouring gas on the underlying notion of “Louisville versus women.”

An Uncomfortable Conversation

Louisville fans are no more at fault than any of their peers; they’re just the latest group to encounter a crisis that exposes cultural and political fault lines that don’t often surface when debating the finer points of a zone defense or an endgame offensive set. Beyond college basketball, the broader community of sports fans has long been a safe harbor for primitive attitudes toward gender and sexuality, and we’ve seen similar backlashes play out at the amateur and professional level across different ecosystems and geographies. The challenge now is the same as it’s ever been: Acknowledge and confront those attitudes rather than let them fester beneath the surface, lurking in comment sections and Twitter timelines.

Though attention tapered off as new developments became infrequent, the Louisville story continues to resurface, most recently last week when Rick Pitino speculated that there wouldn’t be any resolution to his program’s ongoing NCAA investigation until at least July. Speaking prior to the team’s ACC opener against Wake Forest, Pitino set a good example by picking apart the substance of Powell’s account rather than seeking to discredit her with personal attacks. In particular, he alluded to the six women named in Powell’s book who are suing her for defamation and have disputed her story. (However, Pitino lost points when he suggested that ESPN and the NCAA should never have “given a forum” to Powell because she had engaged in illegal activities — a questionable endorsement of censorship.)

We’ll have to wait and see how things shake out for all parties involved, but regardless of the final outcome, let’s hope that it gives rise to an open dialogue about how sports fans discuss women at the center of controversy. It’s an uncomfortable discussion, certainly, but one that needs to happen at the media level. As we’ve quite clearly seen, isolated conversations won’t fix the problem.

Will Tucker (124 Posts)

Kentucky native living and working in Washington, D.C. Fan of tacos, maps, and the 30-second shot clock. Not a fan of comments sections, bad sportswriting.

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