The second I heard Donald Trump refer to grabbing a woman by the genitals as meaningless ‘locker room talk’, I knew I needed to comment. After all, from Michelle Obama and Howard Stern to Family Guy, hasn’t everyone commented on it? Not quite. Correct me if I’m wrong (I really do welcome it), but it seems to me that the professional hockey community has been rather quiet on the locker room talk subject as of late, particularly the NHL.
Here is what I did find: Adam Proteau, a NHL columnist for The Hockey News, wrote on HockeyBuzz about the subject. According to Proteau’s article, “The hockey world has taken so many tremendous steps forward regarding the eradication of homophobia, we’re at a point where no one would dare suggest ‘locker room talk’ makes acceptable anti-gay actions or words. It would be equally heartening to see fans, media, and the game’s gatekeepers attack anti-female behaviour with the same verve and vigour” (para. 9). He makes suggestions for effecting change, outlining the following:
That means honest discussions between hockey coaches and players at all levels
about untoward remarks that objectify or demean women. That means listening
to women when they tell you a particular action of yours leaves them feeling
“other”-ized. That means no more “Cindy Crosbys” and “Sedin Sisters” wisecracks
(they might be cracks, but they damn sure aren’t wise) that make one fan base feel
good at an entire gender’s expense. That means significant punishments for
domestic violence incidents. And that means taking responsibility for your own
contributions to a culture that makes certain male public figures feel not only safe,
but proud – proud – to be so vulgar and subhuman. (Para. 5)
Where is hockey at with locker room talk and why has the community been so tight-lipped? Based on Proteau’s approach to the subject, it sounds like hockey might have some work to do where misogynistic locker room talk is concerned but not homophobic locker room talk. If you hold up my academic experience with the locker room setting against the statements of athletes, you’ll notice some opposition. I’ll map out that opposition now.
Professional Athlete Reactions to Trump’s Comments
Athletes have made public statements disagreeing with Trump about the nature of locker room talk, arguing that it’s not as offensive as he would have us believe. In a Huffington Post article, the NBA’s LeBron James is quoted as saying that he and the Cleveland Cavaliers “don’t disrespect women in no shape or no fashion in our locker room. That never comes up. Obviously, I got a mother-in-law, wife, a mom and a daughter and those conversations just don’t go on in our locker room” (Para. 1). Current author and former NFL player Chris Kluwe wrote an open letter to Donald Trump unapologetically tearing him down for his actions. Kluwe minced no words, referring to Trump as cancerous and a disgrace, but only after having written this paragraph:
I was in an NFL locker room for eight years, the very definition of the macho,
alpha male environment you’re so feebly trying to evoke to protect yourself,
and not once did anyone approach your breathtaking depths of arrogant
imbecility. Oh, sure, we had some dumb guys, and some guys I wouldn’t want
to hang out with on any sort of regular basis, but we never had anyone say
anything as foul and demeaning as you did on that tape, and, hell, I played a
couple years with a guy who later turned out to be a serial rapist. Even he never
talked like that. (Para. 3).
Unlike James, Kluwe is indicating that the locker room may be a site for misogyny, but not to the extent that Trump portrays it. As a final example of other athletes commenting on Trump’s dismissal of his words as meaningless ‘locker room talk,’ I located a list of tweets from current and former professional athletes who also disagreed that Trump’s rhetoric would have no place in a locker room. These include Jason Collins and Blake Griffin (NBA), Chris Conley (NFL), Sean Doolittle (MLB), and Robbie Rogers (MLS).
Scholarly Perspectives on Locker Room Talk
If you look to academia for answers regarding the definition and nature of locker room talk, it becomes apparent that scholars don’t always agree with James and, to a lesser extent, with Kluwe. American sociologist CJ Pascoe, who is renowned for her work on homophobic and misogynistic language used among male youth (she calls it ‘fag discourse’), was quick to respond to Trump. She penned an article in which she expressed that when it came to discussing girls and sex, the youth she studied spoke very much like Trump. She noted that the setting has little to do with the overarching social problem of homophobic and misogynistic speech because such discourse extends well beyond the locker room—it’s everywhere. For Pascoe, “Trump’s ‘locker room talk’ is more than locker room talk; it’s an international ritual in which boys and men participate. They do it to establish status amongst one another” (Para. 13). So she’s saying that it happens everywhere, locker rooms included, and it’s not okay.
American sociologist Danielle Dirks corroborated Pascoe’s claim in a New York Times article on Trump’s audio clip, noting that, “research tells us that only a small percentage of men perpetrate sexual violence, but that they are supported by a much larger group of people who condone their actions. When Billy Bush eggs on Trump’s disgusting behaviour, or Trumps’ supporters argue that he was not describing sexual assault, they help support a culture that permits sexual violence and makes it easier for perpetrators to walk free” (Para. 4). Indeed, when it comes to cultures of sexual violence, male athletes are often the prime suspects for academic research on the subject. While widely-cited scholars such as Eric Anderson and Michael Messner would agree that locker room talk can be both homophobic and misogynistic, I’ll draw attention to my own work as well as Kristi Allain’s since we deal specifically with hockey.
Allain actually found that access to the locker room is quite limited when it comes to young male ice hockey players, especially if you’re a woman. In her article, “What happens in the room stays in the room’: conducting research with young men in the Canadian Hockey League,” she discusses the gatekeepers and opposition she faced while attempting to get a glimpse of the life of a young male ice hockey player. If she couldn’t access them, how are we supposed to determine the nature of their conversations? This in itself is a hindrance to progress.I have been granted a bit more access than Allain, although not enough to brag about. I mostly enter the locker room to speak to players as a group or to conduct surveys or interviews. Sometimes coaches and managers will bring me in to show me around or we will go to the dressing room as a stop off on the way to some other location like the team office or the ice.
My experience shows that while the athletes never spoke in such offensive terms as Trump in my presence, they confirmed that they did so in my absence, sometimes even about me personally. One of my Midget AAA informants during my doctoral studies said that his teammates spoke about me sexually, but wouldn’t share with me what they said. When I asked another key informant about it, he responded that he had heard his teammates speak about me in different ways ranging from very genuinely referring to me as ‘cute’ to outlining ‘horribly explicit dirty things’ of a sexual nature in a joking manner. He assured me that none of it was meant to be mean or hurtful; however, he said that he found it insulting to women, despite participating in it himself and knowing better. My research also concluded that anti-gay language, or ‘fag discourse’ was also common among the players, but they argued that it was meaningless.
So here we have hockey players acknowledging that locker room talk can resemble Trump’s comments and that, unlike Proteau says, still leaves room for improvement where homophobia is concerned. The players try to justify it like Trump did as being meaningless, but it’s not. Regardless of the intended meaning, words can be offensive. But then my informant concedes that he is aware that it is offensive. This trumps (see what I did there?) the fact that Donald Trump used the locker room (which didn’t exist, to be clear, he was on a bus) to justify his comments. Unlike Trump, some of the players recognize that locker room talk can be problematic. I’m with Proteau on this one to some extent—the hockey locker room isn’t perfect, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to the players that this kind of discourse is unacceptable. You would think that a possible leader of the free world would have figured that out before 2005 when the comments were made, but this is the same person who recently called Hillary Clinton a ‘nasty woman’ during a Presidential debate. I digress.
Where do we go from here?
I want to note that I suspect that the Midget AAA locker room environment might differ from a professional male locker room. I’m willing to bet that older men have more to discuss in the way of family and money and feel less of a need to prove themselves as masculine and dominant over women and supposedly lesser men. That doesn’t mean, however, that I believe that homophobic and misogynistic language like Trump’s doesn’t exist. It does. At the end of the day, I’m glad the world heard Trump make these comments because it sparked a fruitful conversation about the treatment of women in male locker rooms everywhere. It opened up a space in which we can compare athletes’ perceptions with academic accounts of what locker room talk is and does. I just hope that the hockey community joins the conversation with greater vigour because, as Proteau said, male ice hockey has made positive strides, but the conversation needs to keep moving and action needs to be taken by the people at the top, not just those of us who write about them.