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Stop blaming player slumps on significant others

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It has been customary for female significant others to assume the blame for players’ poor performances, and this sexist practice needs to end.

Division Series - Detroit Tigers v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

On Sunday, New York Daily News writer Nicholas Parco published an article succinctly titled, “Aaron Judge spotted in stands at third round of U.S. Open with blonde,” wherein he asserts that he has discovered the “cause for the Yankee rookie’s horrific slump in the second half of the season.” Essentially, Judge has been slumping due to his relationship with this woman. This article joins a long list of other sexist instances of players’ female significant others being blamed for their slumps, a practice that must be eradicated from sports.

In most instances, it is women who begin dating players shortly before they start slumping who are blamed for the poor performances. During the 2010 season, Matt Kemp’s June slump was considered the direct result of him dating Rihanna, despite the pair having been together for several months by that point. This accusation was spread far and wide, reported by sports websites, as well as People Magazine. Following the Giants’ 2010 World Series victory, star pitcher Madison Bumgarner got married. When he slumped in 2011, fans assigned his new wife the blame. In 2014, Kate Upton was saddled with the blame for her boyfriend Justin Verlander’s slump (and previously the poor performances of past boyfriends Mark Sanchez and Blake Griffin). The New York Post asserted that Verlander pitched well when the pair temporarily broke up late in the 2013 season, but performed poorly the entire time they were together to that point.

Other times, girlfriends are blamed for breaking up with their boyfriends, thereby sending them into slumps. In 2016, Eric Hosmer broke up with his girlfriend, Kacie McDonnell, and hit poorly the rest of the season, a phenomenon dubbed by some as “the Kacie McDonnell effect.” Both A-Rod and Jeter have had their slumps blamed on their famous partners, most notably in 2011, when both had broken up with their girlfriends, Cameron Diaz and Minka Kelly respectively. The Daily News wrote that the Yankees “might need Diaz to slot back into her ‘Bad Teacher’ role with A-Rod” for the upcoming playoffs, and one fan stated that the two women should “do their part to help the boys.” In May of this year, Newsweek published a piece discussing the tense relationship between the two players, at one point chocking it up to A-Rod’s jealousy over Jeter’s “string of high-profile girlfriends.” Every element of the rockiness in their playing careers is related to their relationships (or lack thereof) with women.

More often than not, these attacks are levied on famous women, women with power and particularly ones who maintain a “sexy” persona. In many cases, fans become jealous that these women will never date them, which manifests itself in the need to tear them down in order to recover self-esteem and self-worth. That these women are far more famous than their significant-other athletes adds another layer. Since society is structured to largely prevent women from achieving power, those who do so face intense scrutiny as a means of diminishing this power. Because women are often told their looks are the only way to become famous, it is imperative to reinforce the idea that they are nothing more than their appearance, that they are products designed for male scrutiny and consumption.

However, players’ wives and girlfriends who are non-famous undergo even more of an erasure than do these famous women. They receive similar levels of objectification courtesy of numerous “hottest WAGs” rankings, but they are often more injured by these things because their lives are more able to be reduced to being “X player’s wife.” There is no autonomy, and the vast majority of their lives revolves around their husbands’ careers. They are either defined in public by who their husband is or how they look, and so they become their husbands’ careers, but only assume blame for their failures, largely hiding in the shadows during their successes.

On the other side of things is the “slumpbuster,” a term eloquently described by Mark Grace as such:

A slumpbuster is if a team's in a slump, or if you personally are in a slump, you gotta find the fattest, gnarliest, grossest chick and you just gotta lay the wood to her. And when you do that, you're just gonna have instant success. And it could also be called jumping on a grenade for the team.

This disgusting practice (and the notion that having sex with “ugly” women is an act of “charity”) has been part of baseball since at least the middle of Jose Canseco’s career, in the early ‘90s (and likely is far older than this). It has seeped into the non-baseball world. It featured in an episode of Anger Management titled “Charlie and the Slumpbuster” in which Sheen’s character feels sorry enough for a woman he used as a slumpbuster that he begins to date her until he discovers that she is crazy. Though viewership of this series was never particularly strong, those who watched it are likely the ones in whose hands the concept of the “slumpbuster” is most dangerous. It has become a term about which fans joke, and something men can bond over at the expense of women, and it, again, reduces women to their appearance and what they can do for men.

This tradition of viewing women as objects of sexual relief or agony has long been a part of all sports, including baseball. Though the practice has died down in recent years, it used to be common for managers to ban their players from having sex during crucial moments of the season and from bringing women back to their hotel rooms. As George Gmelch puts it in Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball:

A ban against players’ having women in their hotel rooms is... universal. It bridges both performance and professionalism. Managers say that players who escort women through the lobby or hotel corridors to their rooms sully the clubs’ image, and, in small towns, players sleeping with local girls may create resentment. It also creates the risk of sexual assault charges and lawsuits. And there is the concern that womanizers and their roommates will not get to sleep at a reasonable hour. A few managers still believe that sex... saps a player’s energy. I overheard one manager... blame his first baseman’s slump on his having too much sex with his girlfriend.[1]

As with many aspects of society, women here are defined by their relationship to men. Managers are not concerned about their players committing sexual assault, only that women might charge them with it. Men shouldn’t sleep with local women because it might make other women jealous. There is no understanding women as human beings, just as to how they might help or harm these athletes; they are objects who serve or harm men. In regarding women this way, men are taught to think of themselves as people without self-control, people who are driven solely by their passions and therefore cannot treat women in any other way but this. It reinforces the objectification of and violence toward women.

Of course, men placing the blame on women is nothing new, particularly when it comes to sex. For hundreds of years, men blamed their impotence on their wives, who were supposed to assume all responsibility for their inability to conceive. Other blame was placed on witches or ex-partners who had supposedly hexed these men due to jealousy. When men are unable to fulfil the traditional elements associated with being male, it is the fault of women.[2]

This pattern of blaming women for men’s inability or failure to perform the basic tasks they are given has continued to the present day, occasionally reinventing itself to fit into newer aspects of society, but also remaining the same. Recently, the GOP blamed women for their inability to pass the health care bill, and Marvel’s VP blamed women for the recent sales slump. But still at the heart of the matter is blaming women for their sexual nature. Women are frequently charged with leading men on to the point where men cannot help but rape them. This tendency to victim blame has not escaped baseball, where athletes — who daily exhibit massive amounts of self-control — are at the mercy of these women because they suddenly cannot control their actions. The higher on a pedestal these athletes are placed, the easier it becomes for women to take the fall for male violence. It becomes expected that women will try to ruin their careers, and the deeper into society this notion spreads, the worse it is for women.

The notion that women are to blame for players’ slumps is so widespread it featured as a plot in Fuller House. In episode 10, “A Giant Leap,” Stephanie Tanner begins dating Hunter Pence, who immediately enters a slump for which she is blamed. Even her family blames her for it once they figure out she’s the “mystery blonde” who is “all over the internet.” During the game that day, Stephanie is slated to sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” but the crowd boos her so voraciously that she barely gets through two lines before breaking up with Pence to huge applause and leaving the field in a crying, frantic mess. Pence then goes on to hit the game-winning home run, effectively breaking his slump. At no point in the episode is it made evident that this treatment of Stephanie is wrong. Rather, it is played off as normal, reinforcing the practice for the audience members familiar with it and introducing it to those unfamiliar.

Blaming women for player slumps when so many readily available advanced statistics exists is ridiculous. But it’s meant to be. If men can get enough of the public to believe in the face of so much contrary evidence that female sexuality can ruin these players, they can perpetuate the idea that women are bad simply for being women. They can reinforce the idea that female sexuality is too powerful to resist, that men are not responsible for sexual violence, and that womanhood extends no farther than its ability to pleasure men. Blaming women for player’ slumps is stupid, but it’s stupid in a nefarious way, and the sooner it is eliminated from baseball, the better it will be for wives, girlfriends, and female fans.

Notes:

[1] George Gmelch, “Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball,” (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2006), 49.

[2] Marianne Hester, “Lewd Women and Wicked Witches: A Study of the Dynamics of Male Domination,” (London: Routledge, 1992).


Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.