By: Lilly Gelman | Opinions  | 

Skating by with a Double Standard

Back in the 90’s, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan furiously competed in national and international figure skating competitions in a never-ending, one-upping battle on the ice. Growing up poor in Portland, Oregon with both an abusive mother and husband, Harding lacked the resources necessary to portray the elegance and poise expected of female figure skaters. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA), as well as the media and figure skating fans, criticized Harding for her unconventional style, such as her homemade costumes and blue nail polish.

On January 6, 1994, Harding’s husband, Jeff Gillooly, hired Shane Stant to hit Kerrigan in the knee with a telescope baton, bruising her leg and forcing her to withdraw from a national competition. After an FBI investigation, the judge sentenced Gillooly to two years in prison. Harding, pleading guilty only to delaying the prosecution, denied any knowledge of the attack. She avoided a prison stay, but received three years probation, 500 hours of community service, and—what for Tonya may have equaled a prison sentence—a forced resignation from the USFSA as well as a removal of her title as U.S. Champion, prohibiting her from competing professionally in the future.

Harding’s story falls in line with other sports related scandals. Tom Brady’s Deflategate and former professional boxer Mike Tyson’s rape conviction serve as two examples of athletes caught up in scandal. Additionally, retired Baltimore Ravens’ Linebacker Ray Lewis, charged with murder and aggravated-assault after the 2000 Super Bowl, became the center of a murder trial. While Brady, Tyson, and Lewis retained popularity and went on to continue their sports careers, Harding failed to convince anyone of her innocence, losing her livelihood as well as the one passion in her life. What the media may have portrayed as justice appears now to be evidence of a double standard between society’s tolerance of male versus female athletes’ crimes.

The intention of the attack on Kerrigan to help Harding get ahead in the skating competition resembles the New England Patriots’ and Brady’s desire to defeat the Indianapolis Colts by deflating some of the footballs in their 2015 game. The Patriots, however, barely suffered from this scandal and went on to win the 2015 Super Bowl. Additionally, while the female Harding lost her life’s work and career due to her minor involvement in the aftermath of Kerrigan’s attack, the male Brady escaped with a simple four game suspension.

One could argue that the Kerrigan scandal involved a violent assault, possibly warranting a harsher punishment on Harding than Brady. Mike Tyson, however, while charged and convicted of raping an 18-year-old in 1992 and serving fewer than three years of his six year sentence, made a major comeback during his first fight after his release. The fight against Peter McNeely grossed $96 million dollars, and, in 2015, 50% of respondents in a Boxing News poll voted Tyson the Greatest Heavyweight since Muhammad Ali. Harding became the punchline of jokes and her name became the verb for sabotaging an opponent, while Tyson gained fame and fortune as he watched his conviction fade into the fog of history.

Tyson’s involvement in violent crime is not an outlier example. After Ray Lewis’s murder charge, he took a plea deal by testifying against two friends, saying that they had bought knives believed to have been used in the murders. Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a detail shockingly similar to Harding’s admission of delaying the prosecution, and ended up with one year’s probation and a $250,000 fine by the NFL. Despite the extreme nature of the crime and seemingly incriminating evidence against him--police found the victim’s blood in his limousine--the NFL named Lewis Super Bowl MVP in 2001 and he continued to play professionally until 2012. The FBI, on the other hand, had no concrete evidence against Harding, basing their accusation of her direct involvement on a scrap of paper with the name of Kerrigan’s practice rink scribbled in Harding’s handwriting. Nevertheless, Harding was banned from her sport and shunned by the media and majority of figure skating fans as well.

The incongruity between Brady, Tyson, and Lewis’s smooth comeback and Harding’s spiraling downfall reflects a major double standard in gender-specific sports scandal forgiveness. The NFL gave Brady and the Patriots a second chance, and society forgave Tyson and Lewis, excusing their crimes as mistakes and appreciating their athletic talents independent of their criminal flaws. Harding, however, was relentlessly chastised and mocked. In 2007, President Obama told a crowd in Vinton, Iowa that "folks said there's no way Obama has a chance unless he goes and kneecaps the person ahead of us, does a Tonya Harding.” These jokes and criticisms reflect the unfair severity of Harding’s consequences, one not seen in the cases involving male athlete scandals.

On The Daily, a podcast by the New York Times, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, while discussing the present life of Tonya Harding, expressed the guilt on the part of the media in harshly punishing Harding while letting male athletes get by with much worse. “Her mother abused her, her husband abused her, and then we abused her.” It may be too late for the media or the USFSA to make amends with Harding, but the recent revival of her story since the release of I, Tonya (2017) offers an opportunity for society to reevaluate the second chances we give and do not give to the male and female athletes involved in scandal. It’s time to stop letting things slide for the sake of the game and start holding athletes accountable for their wrongdoings.