By Dr Joanne Mayoh, Senior Lecturer in Sport, Physical Activity & Health.
Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend. Sorry to tell you that mate.
This utterly appalling statement murmured by Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios was directed at Stanislas Wawrinka during their Rogers Cup match on Wednesday. On-court microphones recorded Kyrgios making the lewd and disparaging comment with reference to Stan Wawrinka’s girlfriend Donna Vekic, the Croatian tennis player and women’s world No. 129.
The media has been swift to identify these comments as a critical example of sledging, an extremely topical psychological strategy made famous within the sport of cricket, which can help a player gain an advantage by verbally launching an attack on an opposing athlete. This form of psychological combat, an equally ugly relation to “trash talk” in basketball and “chirping” in ice hockey, has recently become the centre of fervent debate surrounding the ethics of psychological sporting strategies.
While public discussions surrounding the morality of sledging, and broader considerations of athlete welfare are an extremely worthwhile pursuit, the endless stream of articles questioning the legitimacy of the claims fail to address the glaringly obvious issue with the statement made by Kyrgios: the fact that his slur is a blatant example of the pervasive misogyny which is rampant within the culture of men’s sport.
Sexism, not sledging
The fundamental issue here is one of sexism, not sledging. While Thanasi Kokkinakis and Vekic are both victims in this recent attack, the nature of the statements specifically highlight oppressive attitudes towards women which exist within sport.
Vekic: the real victim in this sorry saga. Reuters/Vincent Kessler
The overt reference to Vekic’s sexual exploits include her as an innocuous victim in the messy game of psychological manipulation which is prevalent within modern competitive sport. Of greater concern, the choice of language demonstrates an example of violent and aggressive attitudes towards heterosexual sex, which are closely tied with the discourse of sexual violence and abuse.
Not only does this statement relegate Vekic to the status of a mere vessel for sex, it highlights the damaging attitude that women are conquests, the spoils of men, or sexual possessions. The nature of Kyrgios’s statement also advocates the misogynistic notion that by allegedly “banging” someone, Vekic is somehow cheapened for her next male possessor. The lack of focus on the sexist core of this issue is an explicit example of the failure for social commentators to question the widespread sexist discourse that exists within sport.
Fuel to the fire
Not only does the initial slur reek of “slut shaming”, using a women’s sexuality as an insult, the chauvinistic tone of the debate was worsened by the proceeding statements made by Kyrgios’s family. Nick’s brother Cristos further fuelled the inappropriate display by insulting Vekic in a radio interview. His remarks were reportedly deemed so offensive that they were prevented from being broadcast.
It is somewhat reassuring that despite the widespread neglect of the media to recognise the broader social issue lurking under the surface of Kyrgios’s verbal attack, the producers of this radio programme deemed Cristos Kyrgios’s attitude as extremely disturbing, and made a stand not to air his statements. This provides an example of the kind of active resistance needed in order to promote social justice within sport.
Unfortunately Cristos was not the only member of the Kyrgios family to wade into the debate. Nick’s on-court behavior was further endorsed by his mother who in a statement showing no critical awareness of the oppressive practices at play proclaimed “it’s not a nice thing to say, it’s not, but you can’t always cop it on the chin from other people without retaliating”.
Her response focusing on the tit-for-tat nature of sledging demonstrates a disturbing lack of empathy for Vekic, and a complete failure to recognise the gendered context of her son’s statement. Such neglect demonstrates how women as well as men play a role in policing damaging negative attitudes about gender.
Vekic remains the invisible victim of an attack that symbolises the abuse experienced by female athletes on a daily basis. Reader comments to blind-sighted articles and social media responses to the event predictably demonstrate a backlash against Vekic, questioning her morals and character for supposedly being sexually active. Kyrgios has since apologised to Wawrinka for his sledge, however no reference in this apology was made to Vekic. We must not forget the real victim of this unprincipled attack.