When reports emerged that Harvard University’s men’s soccer team had an annual tradition of ranking players from the women’s team by attractiveness, using sexually explicit and lewd terms to comment on their appearance, the standard punishment was expected: a gentle slap on the wrist, if that.
But thankfully it wound up being much more.
As someone who grew up being a woman who follows sports – two worlds that, sadly, too often conflict – anticipating anything other than that is unreasonable. With plenty of past examples to illustrate, we are consistently shown that fighting sexism is not a priority, or at least not as important as the success of a college player or team.
Not only does this type of action – or lack of it – serve as validation to behaviors often excused by the magic words “locker room talk,” but it also fosters the belief that such degrading attacks are not valid issues. Brush it off, take it lightly and let the boys have their fun.
Giving in to peer pressure, an increasing amount of men are led to normalize misogyny and accept it as part of the process to fit in. And in an environment where repulsive behaviors are not called out as such, they start being incorporated into the team culture. Those who disagree are discouraged to speak up and those who “say it as it is” are praised.
For all of that, Harvard’s decision to cancel their men’s soccer team’s season can be considered a tournament title in a competition where you hardly ever win.
It is not only uncommon, but also sends a very clear message to other players, teams and universities that the behavior and rhetoric which has been largely accepted as part of male sports teams will no longer be tolerated. That if you do not have decency as a human being, you should not have opportunities as a student-athlete. That if you believe sexism has any place in the locker room, then you do not. Most importantly, that if you do not possess the basic understanding of respect, you will not receive a free pass because of your athletic skills.
No matter how good you are, no matter how successful the program is, nothing else matters. As it shouldn’t. The fact that Harvard was first in the league, with two games left in the season, did not stop the university from holding its players accountable, as it often happens when the importance of athletic success waters down reprehensible conduct.
While I’m skeptical that this type of punishment could become a norm, a part of me wants to believe the sports world could actually experience a culture shift for the better.
Slowly but surely this step taken by Harvard could make room for other institutions to follow.
The issue of sexism in sports is bigger than this group of players, bigger than the men’s soccer team and bigger than Harvard. The solution must be too. By taking a firm stand, especially after all the controversy with reports of misconducting rape accusations, Harvard uses its prestige to fuel the fight and lead the way.
Using a position of prominence to set the standards higher, they showed it is not only possible but also imperative to take more action in relation to sexism in college sports. In addition, the situation also illustrates a university’s role in mentoring and guiding students on a human level, not only academic and athletic.
Despite everything soccer has taught me through the years, it still owes me and millions of female fans around the world proof that it does not stand for what stands against us. That it is not complicit with a culture that insists on offending and excluding, and that its locker rooms are not morals-free bubbles where no rules apply.
As the women from Harvard’s soccer team, who proceeded to win the Ivy League title, said in a powerful open letter, “We are frustrated that this is a reality that all women have faced in the past and will continue to face throughout their lives.”
The struggle is too familiar. It did not start now and will not be over soon.
There is still a long way to go. Harvard paved some of the way, and I am eager to see who has the courage to follow. Because based on this new form of punishment, I hope that the boys who continue to be just boys will not continue to play soccer.