May 20, 2014

Drafts and Objectification

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

“With the first pick of the 2014 draft, Nick selects Ashley from AP Physics…”

Like many of my fellow beleaguered Buffalo Bills fans, I spent last weekend tracking the 79th annual NFL Player Selection Meeting—the draft—hoping that my team will finally find the pieces needed to string together its first playoff season in 14 years. There was another draft, however, making a lot of news in California.

In Orange County a different kind of selection meeting was happening. Senior boys from Corona del Mar High School gathered at an undisclosed location and in ceremonial garb for an annual ritual. The boys were “drafting” girls to be their prom dates. Although many of the boys claim there is no money involved others say that boys exchange cash to “trade up” to a better position in the draft to select the girl they want to go to prom with. One year a kid paid $140 to draft the girl he wanted to bring to the prom.

Most news articles about the prom draft focused on the feelings of concerned parents and the school principal. Many of the articles include justifications for the event such as the observation many of the young women see nothing wrong with it. “A lot of the girls respect the draft and stick with those dates,” according to one student. Another told the Orange County Register, “I am part of the draft and am friends with many girls in the draft and yes, in some instances girls can be picked by appearance,” and “It is all just a fun way to decide who you will be going to prom with. It is not meant to harm those who are picked and I do not believe that it does. It is not, was never, and will never ever be used to objectify the girls at our school.” It doesn’t sound fun to me.

Furthermore, The Los Angeles Times discusses gender roles, but still focuses on a rather old tradition of American competition. Such naturalization of social dynamics should set off alarm bells in the sociological mind. We’re often confronted with such rationalizations—particularly in regards to hegemonic gender roles—to rationalize unequal gender outcomes as quasi-natural inevitabilities.

Is it surprising at all when you read that a study of 11-14 year olds found that “51% of the boys and 41% of the girls said forced sex was acceptable if the boy ‘spent a lot of money’ on the girl?” Would $140 be enough for one of those Corona del Mar boys to feel like she owed him sex?  Let us think more broadly. To render this as a story that denies young women agency and choice is to think about a world wherein this is not a mere popularity contest but is also a part of the larger process of the objectification of women, denying them agency in their own decision-making.

This is no small issue. From the other side of the world comes news of over 270 Nigerian girls being kidnapped for going to school by an armed militant Islamic group called Boko Haram. The location of the girls is unknown, but the leader claims< he sold them on the underground slave market, which could conscribe the girls to prostitution or labor. 

Whether this is true or not, slavery is about dehumanization. Nigeria is one of the worst countries by this measure, with over 700,000 slaves in a population of 168 million. Estimates are that there are almost 30 million slaves today, including 60,000 in the U.S. To learn more see the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index, and to read about sociologist Kevin Bales’s work against modern slavery, read here.

To bring this back to the NFL and to be really provocative,  Matt Taibbi recently wrote that the NFL draft has a “creepy slave-auction vibe and armies of drooling, flesh-peddling scouts,” and sociologist Orlando Patterson criticizes how NFL team owners “sell and buy athletes against their will.” Critics note that NFL teams have such a scientific approach to looking at potential selections, almost as if they are horses or slaves.

Whether it is about prom or football, drafts might seem innocuous fun so long as you do not think about the larger context of power, gender and race.

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