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Ronda Rousey KO's the ESPYs' Masculine Myths

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Everyone's talking about Caitlyn Jenner's inspiring ESPYs speech on Wednesday night -- and with good reason. The recipient of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage pledged to use her platform to shed light on the plight facing transgender people -- who suffer alarming rates of homelessness, suicide and violent attacks -- and did so in front of some of the biggest names in sports, a group that hasn't exactly been at the forefront of accepting sexual and gender difference. (Exhibit A: Brett Favre.)

In many ways, this year's ESPYs was a celebration of the progress the sports world is making in becoming more inclusive -- for trans folk, the gay and lesbian community, and women in general. You had Mo'ne Davis, who redefined what it means to "throw like a girl," winning the award for Best Breakthrough Athlete. You had the U.S. women's soccer players close out the night with their award for Best Team, a recognition of their Women's World Cup victory, which was watched by more people than Game 6 of the NBA Finals and started an important conversation about the disparity in both pay and coverage of women's sports. And at least two those of those athletes are openly gay, including Abby Wambach, who presented the award to Jenner and has long been an advocate for inclusion in sports and society.

But nobody should ignore the significance of Ronda Rousey, the formidable UFC star who took home the awards for Best Female Athlete and Best Fighter. Competing in a sport as violent as mixed martial arts, Rousey turns long-held notions of female athletes on their heads, dispelling the false dichotomy between traditional femininity and athletic prowess. She is the best at what she does, and she might even be better than a man, but that's not really the point. Rousey's mere presence exposes all the myths of sports being the "natural" sphere of straight men, exclusive of all others -- and she does it while speaking her mind about the issues facing many women today.

Rousey has been outspoken against domestic violence, with a bluster that is at times counterproductive but ultimately refreshing, given the timidity with which many image-conscious public figures approach the subject. Her initial comments about Ray Rice -- that things would have been "much, much different" if she were in that elevator -- were panned by some victims' advocates who noted that domestic abuse isn't always just a matter of physical strength. But those comments were made in passing, the result of the TMZ reporter posing a question intended to solicit such an answer.

Since then, her comments on the subject have been much more thoughtful. The dominance she's displayed in the octagon has led to the inevitable questions of whether she would be able to defeat a male fighter. Talk of pitting female athletes against their male counterparts is a common tactic used to degrade women's sports -- to contrast them with more highly developed men's games -- which offers a convenient distraction from the ultimate goal of equality for female athletes, which, as any WNBA player will tell you, isn't to play in the NBA.

That said, her answer to that question has been pretty perfect. In March, Rousey told the Daily Beast that she would bet on herself in a fight against a man, but the optics of such a match would be damaging given the current climate of domestic violence. "I don't think it's a great idea to have a man hitting a woman on television," she said. "I'll never say that I'll lose, but you could have a girl getting totally beat up on TV by a guy -- which is a bad image to put across. With all the football stuff that’s been happening, not a good idea."

She gave a similar answer back in May when asked if she could "take down" Floyd Mayweather: "I would never say that I can't beat anyone," Rousey said to Access Hollywood. "I don't think me and him would ever fight unless we ended up dating." This was a not-so-subtle jab at Mayweather's long and troubling pattern of domestic abuse. She said it in the run-up to his championship bout with Manny Pacquiao, when much of the media seemed content to ignore his violent history and concentrate instead on his cars, and it helped push the discussion back to what was really important.

And she did the same Wednesday night, when she accepted her award for Best Fighter. Rousey beat out Mayweather and others for the honor. Her reaction: "I wonder how Floyd feels being beat by a woman for once." It was nearly a perfect moment, using the levity of what really is a meaningless, navel-gazing night of awards to bring some focus onto a serious issue.

Here's why it wasn't totally perfect: Previously, Rousey had gushed about Mike Tyson, who had visited her earlier in the day and whom she called "my idol." Tyson, of course, has his own history of violence against women, from his abuse of ex-wife Robin Givens to his 1992 rape conviction. That just goes to show how easy it is to forget an athlete's crimes, especially if that athlete is an icon, and there has been enough time and distance to push the events out of our memory.

Rousey's selection as Best Female Athlete was more controversial, as many understandably thought it should have gone to Serena Williams. Williams is having one of the greatest tennis years of all time, winning the first three Grand Slams of 2015. Her win at Wimbledon has sparked much discussion over why an American athlete so dominant is still relatively uncelebrated and less marketable than far-less successful players such as Maria Sharapova. (Answer: a toxic mix of racism and sexism and undue judgments about her body, attitude and skill.)

So it's understandable that many lament Williams again being passed over in favor of a white, blonde woman who better fits into traditionally European beauty standards and might generate more buzz. But let's also remember -- and I can't stress this enough -- the ESPYs really don't mean anything, at least not the actual awards. The event has only really ever had impact in those inspiring stories and speeches and moments (and fundraising) it generates, from the original Jimmy V speech to Stuart Scott to Devon Still to Caitlyn Jenner. In the grand scheme of slights Williams has suffered, getting snubbed for an ESPY is small potatoes. (Besides, you know where Williams was on Wednesday instead of in L.A. at the ESPYs? In Sweden, winning her 40th match of the year.)

In looking at the comments criticizing the choice of Rousey, you see one that Serena, too, is familiar with -- as is the USWNT. As USA Today's Chris Chase remarked, Rousey's dominance is rendered less impressive because she's "an athlete in a sport devoid of any real competition." This is an argument commonly used to downplay the significance of Williams's achievements -- that she's dominated in an era in which the women's field in tennis has been relatively weak.

There's some truth to that claim in UFC, where the women's fights are relatively new and the depth in competition has yet to fully develop, but it's a ridiculous reading of women's tennis in the last 15 years. Instead of marveling at the sheer dominance of Rousey and Williams, commentators use it against them. It's hard to imagine people making the same argument against Tiger Woods a decade ago just to downplay his success.

Truly dominant, gifted, skilled male athletes are seen as the best of the best, while equally dominant, gifted, skilled women are seen as outliers, exceptions to the rule. Let's hope the show of strength by women in sports in this year's ESPYs is a sign that attitude is changing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net