In sports, hard truth on ‘soft’

Kevin Garnett (

Kevin Garnett (

The word “soft” ignites professional athletes. To be successful, they need to be “hard,” i.e. tough, aggressive. That goes for men and women. But too often, the “soft” label on male athletes is interpreted as a sign of femininity. And in the sports world, that apparently is a major insult, unfortunately.

The latest example is from my very own Boston Celtics. After a recent loss, Celtics coach Doc Rivers described his squad as “soft” — because they played passively. Women’s teams that play soft typically lose, too. Two nights later, they played “harder” (my analysis), and won.

When you play harder, you have a better chance of winning. Done.

But after the second game, Celtics star Kevin Garnett brought gender into the mix. Garnett, reflecting on his coach’s comments, said: “I don’t know any man that likes to be called soft; maybe some women.” Seconds later, Garnett correctly noted that Rivers had described the team’s effort, and that he wasn’t “coming at us as men.”

But he concluded his remarks this way: “But yeah, that was disturbing. Who likes to be called soft in anything, if you’re a man?”

I’m betting most women — not just men — wouldn’t like to be described as “soft.”

In the scheme of things, Garnett’s comments are mild. And it’s easy to envision him just repeating what he’s probably heard from his youth coaches, school friends, on the playground, etc. I doubt that’s changed much.

A more egregious example was the war of words between NFL players LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles and Osi Umenyiora of the NY Giants. McCoy, via Twitter, called Umenyiora “overrated” and, wait for it, “soft.”

Umenyiora responded by referring to McCoy as “she” as well as “Lady Gaga,” and a “Chihuahua.” He later tweeted “Happy Mothers Day” to McCoy. He later apologized “to any woman offended.”

Lady Gaga (

Lady Gaga (

Gaga, btw, is a native New Yorker and a huge Giants fan. To boot, she’s among the hardest working performers in the world. And Chihuahuas can be mean as hell. Just sayin’.

ESPN columnist Sarah Spain addressed the problem in May. She wrote: “Assigning characteristics like ‘tough’ and ‘strong’ to men and ‘soft’ and ‘weak’ to women is not only lazy, it perpetuates stereotypical gender roles and can be harmful to both boys and girls. Those qualities are personality traits, not gender traits.”

The media is partly to blame. The very same ESPN produced a nearly 5-minute-long segment on the McCoy-Umenyiora feud in September — not to examine gender issues, but rather as a preview the Eagles-Giants game a few days later. In interviews, Umenyiora restrained himself but McCoy offered that Umenyiora is “a ballerina.” The female reporter who interviewed McCoy didn’t challenge him on it (if she did, it didn’t make the final cut).

Even worse, sportscaster Erin Andrews tweeted #taketheskirtoff in response to Brooklyn Nets player Kris Humphries, who had tweeted a photo of scratches he sustained in a fight with Celtics player Rajon Rondo (the same game that prompted the ‘soft’ critique by coach Rivers). It was retweeted more than 4,000 times.

Jen Lada, a Milwaukee TV sports anchor, called out Andrews. Lada tweeted: “How does a female sportscaster tweet #taketheskirtoff & not see she’s proliferating implications that her gender is weak/inferior? Bueller?”

Oh, and read this if you think ballerinas are soft. Natalie Portman, discussing her training for “Black Swan,” said “you are constantly putting your body through extreme pain.”

And don’t forget the infamous Jim Rome-Jim Everett on-air dustup in 1994. Rome, an ESPN host, referred to NFL quarterback Jim Everett as “Chris,” as in female tennis great Chris Evret. The “slight” emerged from the perception that Everett was not tough enough on the field. The irony was that Evret the tennis player was far more successful than Everett the QB. Evret won 18 Grand Slam singles tournaments. Everett made it to one NFL Pro Bowl. Ah, details.

There’s plenty of gender studies research on this stuff. Look up “hegemonic masculinity” for a more general overview.