It was striking this past week to read Athletic Director Bob Scalise’s statement that the objective of the men’s cross country team’s spreadsheets was “not to denigrate or objectify particular women.” Striking, because I know first hand the ways in which my teammates and I were undeniably denigrated and objectified. I was shown the 2014 spreadsheet by a male teammate two years ago over lunch in Annenberg. Though the specific content of the comments about me was—and remains—shocking, the existence of the spreadsheet itself was not on that day; the women’s team knew of the existence and nature of the annual document. “Leaks” like the one I experienced had happened before.
But it is not the content of the spreadsheet that has bothered me most since it emerged last month into the campus consciousness and reemerged into my own. Instead, I’ve been bothered by how unbothered I was upon encountering that content my freshman fall.
I am a PAF now, and I can’t help but now to think about what my response would be if one of the freshmen I work with came to me reporting the same comments that I had received. It’s an easy and obvious answer: I would wait in the sitting area of the Title IX office until their conversation with a coordinator was complete; I would continue to follow through with him or her to address the circumstances that so disrespected them.
And yet, when I was the one disrespected, I had no response. It’s not just that I read the comments and did not take meaningful action to improve the facts of their existence (though that is true), but more—I read them, and did not object, vocally or internally, to the fact of my own objectification. Quite the contrary: As a first semester freshman, I was happy that the comments about me were “positive.” I did not question the overall existence of the comments, and certainly did not think them wrong.
How do I feel about the document as a junior? Sorry, mostly, to myself and to my teammates and friends. Sorry that it took the revelation of the men’s soccer team’s sexually denigrating scouting reports to bring to light the practices of objectification on the men’s cross country team. Sorry that I didn’t speak up, when I knew about those practices two years ago. Sorry that during my time in our locker room, I did not initiate or contribute to talk about how screwed up this all was—both the spreadsheets themselves and our acceptance of them. Sorry that some guys thought this was acceptable to do to us, and that I did too.
I am glad to see and hear about the directed and explicit efforts being made to shift the culture of the men’s cross country team. I will caution though that the men’s and women’s cross country teams are quite integrated. They practice at the same time, travel together for the same competitions. It is unlikely that an aspect of culture is isolated to only one of the teams.
And so I wonder what efforts have been made to change the culture of the women’s team, away from one where it is normal—and maybe even expected—to accept the objectification and denigration of its members. The women’s cross country team should be an organization that strengthens not just the legs and lungs of its members, but also their senses of self respect and entitlement to fair treatment. But in my experience, this was not the case. I and a few other women saw what was written about us; other members of the women’s team knew that commentary was being made about them and immortalized in a document. Perhaps there are men or women who spoke out without my knowledge, but, generally, the view of this literal locker room talk as acceptable was shared between both teams. I certainly did not say anything, nor did the other women who were shown the document at the same time as me. I hope that, if confronted with the same circumstances as I was, the women currently on the team would respond dramatically differently, and speak up, loudly. I hope that substantive cultural changes have occurred since my departure from the team and that, if not, this conversation can help catalyze them.
I was amongst those quite distressed by last month’s election result, in no small part because the implicit referendum of citing locker room talk as a legitimate excuse for mistreatment of women seemed to pass. The consensus I heard around me, and the coping strategy I myself came to, is to counter disillusionment in widespread aspects of culture by focusing on what you can do, to improve the beliefs around you, and in you.
I cannot turn back the clock two years and burst through the doors of Annenberg to accost my teammates and me, all huddled over our male teammate’s phone looking through the spreadsheet. I cannot plead with the group, eyes locked on my freshman self, to tell a captain or a coach or an Athletic Department official, to do something; to feel anything besides being glad that the comments were “positive”; to at least just get pissed off.
But I can help to describe this particular problem more completely. I can ask that it be acknowledged and addressed as a problem more complex than something isolated to the men’s soccer or cross-country teams, or even to other men’s sports teams, organizations, or clubs. I can challenge teams and groups of women to re-appropriate “locker room talk” to mean discussion amongst themselves about how to change the circumstances that disrespect or belittle or impede them.
Should ever I find myself allegorically back in that seat in Annenberg, I can and will ask myself to not run from it, and to face it head on.
Lizzy Y. Thomas ’18 is a Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology concentrator living in Currier House. She was a member of the Harvard women’s cross-country and track and field teams from 2014 to 2016.
THIRD FORUM WEDNESDAYThe third University Forum will be held in the Dining Room of the Union on Wednesday evening at 8.45 o'clock
Dean Bender and Mr. MullinsTo the Editors of the CRIMSON: I should like, without committing myself on the Cherrington-Mullins controversy, to express my opinion
I’m Sorry, But...For the longest time, I didn’t understand what I was apologizing for. But now I know. We have been socialized in a society that encourages women to feel ashamed for taking up space and speaking their minds.
Where Your UC Student Activities Fee Goes
Harvard Athletics Director Asks General Counsel to Review Men’s Cross Country Team