NYT profile senationalizes female athletes’ history of sexual assault

Quanitta in the ring

Quanitta Underwood is a a badass female boxer. She is a five-time national champion. She is ranked fourth in the world in her lightweight division. She’s being hailed as America’s best hope for an Olympic medal in boxing in London this year. She’s a beautiful black American woman who embodies strength, power, and speed like few ever have.

She’s also a survivor of sexual assault.

I am completely inspired by Quanitta’s intensely dramatic personal story of overcoming obstacles, including being assaulted by her father as a child, to achieve greatness in the ring. I love that her story is being told to the world, and that she is on the brink of making history at the Olympics. I join a lot of people who are rooting for her to succeed.

I’m glad to see her story featured in the New York Times this weekend, but I have to say, this article just… hits me the wrong way. I appreciate that the author is covering Quanitta’s story. He’s clearly a gifted writer with great ability to highlight compelling details about the athletes he profiles- that’s how he came to be a sports writer for the Times! But I’m weirded out that the opening paragraphs of the article give so much unnecessary detail about the abuse Quanitta suffered. Exhibit A, the article’s opening sentence, which reads more like a novel than an athlete profile [*Trigger warning*]:

“The two sisters shared a bed, and each night, with their hearts hammering, they would listen for the turn of the knob and the push of the door…

Quanitta pinched her eyes shut when her father entered the room, but she could imagine the presence of his familiar silhouette. She felt his weight sink into the bed while his hands traveled beneath the covers. As Quanitta feigned sleep, her father groped her sister and often rolled on top.”

Can you imagine a reporter similarly sensationalizing an assault that took place against a male athlete, or thinking it important to describe the salacious details of a past trauma that wasn’t sexual in nature?

There are some wonderful details about Quanitta in the article. “Quanitta (now better known as Queen), her hair braided, her smile wide, her voice playful, is something to behold. People take to her right away,” the author writes. But I’m disturbed that, for the most part, the article is  framed around the abuse Quanitta experienced, rather than around her and her career as an athlete more fully. I wanted to hear more about the most significant fights she’s won, or how her life trajectory now manifests itself in her fighting style in the ring.

In the article, Quanitta is described as a “very private person” but also as someone who wants her story to be told. She is quoted as saying “I can be an example. I am a survivor of child abuse, and I became strong and independent.” I believe there were ways to highlight the realities of Quanitta’s story without sensationalizing the abuse she experienced. I highlight this not to nitpick or be unnecessarily critical, but because I believe that how and why we tell stories about strong women, about abuse survivors, and about female athletes, are critically  important parts of our engagement with mainstream media.

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