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Rob Okun: Brave stand taken by future fathers to change male athletic culture

Twenty-two graduating senior athletes from Phillips Academy in Andover signed a letter to the editor of the school newspaper May 30 that explicitly endorsed feminism.

Saying it was “time to speak out” about the campus male athletic environment that fosters an “imbalanced hook-up culture, classroom dynamics and even defining the gender roles of females on campus that younger students emulate and eventually internalize,” Tyler Olkowski, captain of the crew team, was lead author of the letter. He said he and his cosigners — the captains and leaders of every sport on campus — “realize our athlete culture has a problem.”

The poignant letter underscores that the athletes’ “collective character has been tainted by the objectification and sexism that pervade athlete culture. This culture may not be our fault, but it is our problem to fix. ... It is time for Andover’s athletes to find new, constructive ways to bond and develop team camaraderie that aren’t based on conquering [at] dances and competitively targeting females; not by prodding teammates to ‘hook-up’ and teasing those who don’t. The definition of ‘cool’ doesn’t have to be a traditionally masculine figure who objectifies [his] sexual partners or who climbs [his] respective social ladders through hook-ups.”

The letter, which has begun to circulate among pro-feminist men’s organizations and on gender justice websites, is a hopeful indicator that another generation of men is learning to be allies to women at a younger age. There’s every reason to believe these young athlete-leaders will arrive at college and university campuses this fall primed to take their commitment to challenge sexism and male (athlete) privilege to a new level. Their bold stand is inspiring and allies and leaders on their new campuses will surely be ready to embrace them.

The door of gender equality has been more widely opened because of these young men. Their statement should be be on the agenda of athletics departments across the country.

After reading the Phillips Academy 22’s letter, can there be any question that male awareness of gender inequality is growing? In its wake, won’t it be more difficult to ignore voices advocating for a culture shift away from male domination and toward gender equality? Those of us who have been working for decades on this shift proudly stand with these young men.

Their voices embolden us to continue our work.

Now is the time to amplify those voices by encouraging colleges and universities to convene teach-ins and trainings on transforming student-athletes into student leaders for gender justice beginning as soon as this fall. Phillips Academy, which in 1996 established the Brace Center for Gender Studies might play a leading role in organizing or hosting such a gathering.

At Voice Male magazine, we’re always on the lookout for good news. As the Andover group has just graduated high school, it’s premature to know if any of the Phillips Academy 22 will become fathers. I hope, though, that their fathers — and mothers — use this Father’s Day as an occasion to say how proud they are that their sons published the letter.

Its last sentence asks next year’s senior class athletes to make a decision — whether to “silently perpetuate the culture we inherited, or choose the culture our teams and community deserve.”

They ask the rest of us to choose, too, not from the sidelines, but from our very real positions throughout the stadium of life.

Rob Okun lives in Amherst. His new book, “Voice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement,” will be published this fall. He is editor of Voice Male magazine and can be reached at
rob@voicemalemagazine.org.

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