The Unchecked World of Normalized Misogyny

Nick Kyrgios has been added to the BBC’s Wimbledon commentary roster. The move serves as a reminder that sexism is well entrenched.

The Unchecked World of Normalized Misogyny

Back in 2016, we learned one of the more painful lessons in modern history: Bragging about sexually abusing women does not prevent a man from being elected president of the United States of America. 

Last week—in a similar vein—we learned another lesson: that having a track record of misogyny, sexism and bad behavior doesn’t prevent someone from being selected to join the commentary team for one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments in the world, after the BBC chose Nick Kyrgios as a commentator for this year's Wimbledon coverage.

Kyrgios, a 29-year old Australian, has been a mainstay of the top-tier tennis circuit since turning professional just over a decade ago. He made a name for himself beating the best men in the sport: Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about him has nothing to do with his victory record or serve speed. 

Writing in the New Yorker in 2017, Louisa Thomas—perhaps somewhat charitably—described him as having an “unusually aggressive game.” The Guardian has labeled him “one of the most combustible characters in tennis.” Others have called him “mercurial,” “unsportsmanlike” and a “bad boy.” 

Kyrgios has been fined tens of thousands of dollars for swearing and spitting during matches. In 2019, he was handed a suspended 16-week playing ban for “aggravated behavior” after verbally abusing officials and spectators.  

Last year Kyrgios pleaded guilty to shoving his former girlfriend to the floor (but was spared a criminal record as the incident was deemed “a single act of stupidity or frustration.”) And in 2022, he was quoted in the online publication Tennis World as saying that he “low-key loves” Andrew Tate. (As a reminder, Tate, an online influencer, has made vitriolic misogyny integral to his personal brand. Since 2022, Tate and his brother Tristan have been battling human trafficking charges in Romania. In a separate case, Tate is facing allegations of “sexual aggression.”)

“If as a society we want things to change for the better, we have to stop elevating and promoting problematic men.”

Kyrgios’s brushes with the law, impulsive eruptions, and his affection for one of social media’s most prominent bigots haven’t exactly created a headwind for his career. The message sent to the world is clear: Even today, bad behavior—violent outbursts, casual misogyny and acts of abuse—can be brushed off as inconvenient (and perhaps even funny) as long as it's perpetrated by the right person. 

The implication of the BBC’s decision to add Kyrgios to its commentators roster (assuming he’s still injured and can’t play by the time the tournament kicks off in July) is that he’s a perfectly reasonable face of the sport. 

But so many things don’t add up: The Wimbledon Championship is an institution steeped in tradition and good sportsmanship. It’s so committed to ceremony and etiquette, it took until 2022 for the tournament to bend its strict all-white dress code and allow period-conscious players to wear dark-colored undershorts beneath their skirts or shorts. Kyrgios’s behavior seems at odds with all that.

Glossing over Kyrgios’s track record is normalizing casual misogyny, and doing so at a time when violence against women is already on the rise and, in some places, rampant. 

In Kyrgios’s native Australia, for instance, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese last month declared that violence against women had become a “national crisis.” According to the United Nations, a woman is killed by a man every three days in the U.K., and one in four women in the U.K. will experience some form of domestic violence in her lifetime. In the U.S. the picture is similar: One in three women experiences sexual violence, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner within their lifetimes. 

This is an issue on which there is no space for tolerance or justifications; no margins for interpretation. No famous athlete with a casual attitude towards gender-based violence and abuse should ever be put on a pedestal. Not by the BBC. Not by anyone. 

Harriet Waley-Cohen, a diversity and women’s empowerment expert, made this point most succinctly: “If as a society we want things to change for the better, we have to stop elevating and promoting problematic men.” But with the Kyrgios case, she adds, “it’s once again money over morals; viewers over integrity.”

Sports personalities have a unique opportunity to be cultural role models; to fill a void occupied, in the not-too-distant past, by religious and community leaders, even politicians. Being such a role model should be recognized as a huge responsibility. With that responsibility should be a simple expectation to be decent, to be human, not to entrench sexism (hello, Harrison Butker), and not to glorify violence. Clearly we still have a long, painful, way to go.

Josie Cox is a journalist, author, broadcaster and public speaker. Her book, WOMEN MONEY POWER: The Rise and Fall of Economic Equality, was released in March.