‘You Can’t Get In Someone’s Head’

That was Jorge Sedano’s remark this morning about whether Chris Paul meant anything sexist in his post game comments last night about rookie referee Lauren Holtkamp. In the game, Paul’s Clippers got blown out by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Paul and his teammates – a technical-foul prone crew – received five last night. CP3 was especially miffed about the one he got:

“The tech that I get right there was ridiculous. I don’t care what nobody says, I don’t care what she says; that’s terrible,” Paul said after the game. “There’s no way that can be a tech. We try to get the ball out fast every time down the court, and when we did that, she said, ‘Uh-uh.’ I said, ‘Why, uh-uh?’ And she gave me a tech. That’s ridiculous. If that’s the case, this might not be for her.”

That last comment touched off a blizzard of commentary, much of it an impressive-exercise in point-missing. Typical was an exchange this morning on Mike and Mike with NBA analyst Tom Penn. The three men (Adnan Verk was subbing for Greenie today) all dismissed the controversy by noting that the mere use of the pronoun “she” was not cause for alarm. After all, as Penn noted, what was Paul supposed to do, refer to Holtkamp as “he?”

On Cowherd’s show, guest host Jorge Sedano also didn’t think the comments were a big deal, again focusing on the use of “she.” Among his guests this morning was another ESPN host, Sarah Spain (incidentally, the conversation began with Spain complaining that she hadn’t yet had a chance to get her hair and make-up done and Sedano responding that she looked great). Spain said she didn’t think there was anything to this other than a player razzing a rookie ref and asserting that “there’s no reason to assume any intent” by CP3. Spain further argued that there was a tendency on to weigh in “without context,” and that was the case here.

In conclusion, Spain said, there is no reason not to give Paul the benefit of the doubt.  Paul, she rightly noted, has a generally sterling reputation. Among the very positive marks on his side is that, as president of the NBA player’s association, Paul was involved in the decision to hire Michele Roberts as the first ever executive director of a sports union in a major male league.

And, Spain noted, you have to use male and female pronouns to refer to men and women respectively (and no, we’re not going to get into *that* one now).

Spain did, after three minutes of this, offer a “but:”

“My only thing I will say is the last line of what he said, which is ‘maybe this isn’t for her,’ was the only thing that stuck out to me a little. And I’m not sure he would say about a male ref after a bad call or two, ‘maybe this isn’t for him.’

Not to put too fine a point on this but, “no shit, Sherlock.”

I’ve complained many times before that we struggle mightily to have serious, introspective and therefore potentially productive conversations about race because of the reductive and binary way we talk about it. Either you are beyond reproach, or you are a RACIST. Not only in sports discourse is there difficulty in recognizing that well-meaning people could nevertheless have stereotypical ideas or that language can perpetuate racialized notions and stereotypes even if the speaker doesn’t *consciously* intend to perpetuate such notions or that people might say one thing in unguarded moments that they might otherwise avoid saying. Either you’re Donald Sterling or – in much mainstream sports discourse – it’s unfair and an example of PC run amok to suggest that an utterance be construed as racial.

To be sure, we all have our ideas of what constitutes a reaction to a comment that is too sensitive. Furthermore, even if Paul were to acknowledge that he questioned Holtkamp’s fitness to be a ref because he just has trouble getting used to the idea of women officiating a men’s game (it is a new phenomenon), in an entirely male-dominated world (the NBA), it would not follow that he’s a terrible human being. I, for one, will continue to root for him as a player.

It’s just that, as is true of race, we don’t really know how to talk about sexism or gender bias without reducing the conversation to caricatures of viewpoints.

There are enormous barriers to full recognition of women’s humanity, evident in the ongoing epidemic of violence against women, or persistent gaps in educational opportunity (especially in many poorer countries) and professional recognition, among many other problems. And with that context in mind, one could dismiss the controversy over Paul’s comments as very much a tempest in a teapot.

But it would behoove us all to remind ourselves, over and over again if necessary, that biases and prejudices aren’t only a product of our conscious minds. They are deeply ingrained personal and cultural habits. And they pop up in all sorts of ways that escape easy understanding.

Before I wrote this post, I took one of the Implicit Association Tests that you can find online. I took one for race a few years ago. Today, I did the gender test. I have, I should note, a seventeen year old daughter. There are few things I think about more than how she will be able to realize her goals and dreams, to be treated with respect in her life and to be fulfilled and happy. It is anathema to me, for personal and political reasons, that she be viewed as anything but fully human in her quest for a fully realized and contented life.

 According to my IAT results: “Your data suggest a slight association of Male with CAREER and Female with FAMILY compared to Female with CAREER and Male with FAMILY.”

Sedano is right – we don’t know what’s in someone’s head. Including, as it often turns out, our own. This is important to keep in mind when debates about words and intent with respect to gender (and race) pop up.

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