On Tony Robbins and Kareem Abdul Jabbar
Over the weekend, I followed the mini-drama that was Tony Robbins, which culminated yesterday in him making an apology that Tarana Burke noted he’d vowed not to make.
On Monday, I read an OpEd by Kareem Abdul Jabbar in the Guardian writing on sexist rules in the NFL.
I was struck by the deep difference between these two men commenting on the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp. I’d love to see more Jabbar, and a lot less pre-apology Tony. And my women! A lot more of women like Nanine McCool and Tarana Burke, who challenged Robbins in the most public settings possible.
Tony Robbins is a massively popular motivational speaker who leads giant seminars on how to succeed with an evangelical style. He’s a big man in every sense of the word – tall, physically powerful, a moving speaker and very rich from the millions of people who buy his recordings, books and seminars. Last week, Robbins got himself into trouble by citing #MeToo as an example of how women use incidents to make themselves “significant.” What we were seeing in #MeToo, he said, was “people making themselves significant by making someone else wrong.” That of course implies that the “someone else” wasn’t actually wrong.
Nanine McCool got up and, quite gently in my view, told him he was blaming women for harm done by men, and that would not do. He pushed back on her with a story about a “very famous man, very powerful man” who was super stressed because he rejected hiring a more qualified woman for less qualified men because she was very attractive and it was too big of a risk. What exactly the risk was, Robbins doesn’t say, but we can assume that it went along the lines of “I’m going to do something I shouldn’t to this very attractive woman,” or “this attractive woman is going to use her looks to accuse me of sexual harassment,” both of which would be gross. Robbins is not wrong that powerful men are thinking this way – several have said similar things to me in private.
I read a long Twitter thread by Vanessa Harris, a Robbins fan who was at the seminar and who felt that his statements were taken out of context. Harris writes
Harris admits that Robbins was inarticulate, boorish and ineffective in making his point that, while abusers should always be held accountable, some women use #metoo for gains other than accountability.
Nanine McCool responded to the contextualization with her own read:
Tarana Burke’s long Twitter thread explaining the real purpose of #metoo as being about healing rather than revenge got Robbins to apologize. Robbins pledges to keep looking at his blindspots and thanks Burke for the lesson. Twitter is awash with dismissal, but apologies are always a good outcome in times like these, and now Robbins has millions of coaches to keep him on a just path.
By contrast, yesterday I read The NFL’s Plan to Protect America from Witches by Kareem Abdul Jabbar in The Guardian. Jabbar takes up the case of Bailey Davis, a 22-year-old former cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints, who was fired for posting an Instagram photo of herself in a teddy. Davis has since filed a discrimination claim against the team for having discriminatory rules.
Jabbar compares the policing of Davis, and other cheerleaders, to witch hunts of centuries ago in which 40,000-50,000 people, 80 percent of them women, were killed. He cites the 1487 tome of Heinrich Kramer witch hunter, which he says constitutes the reading material of NFL owners: “Kramer explains that [the targets are women] because a woman “is more carnal than man, as is clear in connection with many filthy carnal acts.” He notes that the HR manager’s response to Davis’ complaint was that in her photo she has “a dirty face” and he’d never let his granddaughters post a photo like that.
The Saints cheerleaders face some strict rules. If a player walks into a restaurant that the cheerleader is already in, she must leave. They are restricted in what they can say to players: “hello” and “great game.” The players themselves are not penalized in any way for pursuing cheerleaders. All of the burden is on the women. Jabbar calls out the many layers of hypocrisy here. “A cheerleader poses in modest lingerie and she’s fired; a player knocks out his wife on video and is suspended for two games. Boys will be boys, but girls must be what the NFL tells them to be.” Later he writes, “Because nothing says wholesome family entertainment than lithe young women in skimpy shorts and plunging tops doing the splits. I’m sure 13-year-old Jimmy and his leering father are watching their energetic performance thinking only the purest of thoughts.”
I especially appreciated Jabbar connecting the NFL’s sexism to its racism when he writes, “This 1950s, Father Knows Best soundstage fantasy doesn’t stop with paternalistic and puritanical gender stereotypes, but also promotes simplistic notions about race and patriotism.” But he doesn’t go too far down this road, keeping the focus on sexism.
Here’s the thing. Famous men have a particular responsibility on this issue because fame gives you a megaphone. I know that men are anxious about the effects of #metoo and #TimesUp on their reputations, careers and families. I know they fear false accusations, as anyone would.
The solution for both women and men is a robust system for dealing with sexual harassment and discrimination. Such a system would include education for all workers and managers on how to spot and report bad behavior. In such a system, there would be someone to report to who was charged with crafting a fair resolution, rather than with protecting managers and the organization. That someone would guarantee that any claim was immediately and thoroughly investigated, as in this program that has protected women farmworkers from sexual abuse. The investigation, properly done, will sort reality from fantasy and institute a right-sized remedy.
The solution to men’s anxiety, as well as women’s inequality, is a better system. It may feel like we are lightyears away from that system now, but there's no reason that all of us smart humans can't come up with something better than our current situation. The defense of men who are afraid to hire “attractive” women is never going to work out well because that is in itself discrimination. Tony Robbins advocating for a new system, as Jabbar does, will tell me whether his apology and pledge to do better are for real.
Men, be like Kareem.