Sports, Politics, and the #MeToo Movement

Curator's Note

The sentencing of former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University team doctor Larry Nassar for sexually abusing multiple athletes became one of the most important sports stories of 2018. Nassar’s trial unfolded as the #MeToo movement focused national attention on the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment across powerful American institutions, from Hollywood to the U.S. Senate. By the end of a year filled with high profile allegations, resignations, and trials, CNN dubbed 2018 "the year of #MeToo."

In December 2018, Sports Illustrated, the largest sports magazine in the United States, spotlighted the Nassar case in the context of the broader  #MeToo movement. The magazine chose Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual assault, to receive its Inspiration of the Year Award. Moreover, in a recorded video, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford presented the award.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford had accused then Supreme Court nominee, now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, of sexually assaulting her when she was in high school. By choosing Dr. Blasey Ford to present an award to Rachael Denhollander, Sports Illustrated highlighted the connections between sexual assault allegations in both sports and politics. Addressing Denhollander, Dr. Ford stated, "in stepping forward, you took a huge risk, and you galvanized future generations to come forward even when the odds are seemingly stacked against them." Her words drew a direct link between her own experience and Denhollander’s, and implicitly challenged a popular belief that sports and politics should not mix.

Sports Illustrated's choice to honor Denhollander and to have Dr. Blasey Ford present the award prompted mixed responses. Some commentators celebrated both Denhollander's and Blasey Ford's courage, while others decried the magazine’s decision. John Engler, then-interim president of Michigan State University, suggested that survivors were “enjoying that moment” and “the awards and recognition.” By juxtaposing Denhollander and Dr. Blasey Ford's stories, the award video revealed profound divisions in how Americans perceived the credibility of those making allegations of sexual assault. Sports Illustrated's 2018 Inspiration of the Year Award exemplifies how sports media can spotlight the broader political context of sports stories, as well as the tensions such framings of sports stories can bring to light. 

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