Opinion by Frankie de la Cretaz
(CNN) — Taylor Swift broke sports media when she showed up to the Kansas City Chiefs game on Sunday, seated next to tight end Travis Kelce’s mother, Donna. The outing capped a frenzied period of speculation in which the rumor mill had been working overtime to speculate whether Swift and Kelce were, in fact, an item.
There is an obvious narrative appeal to a potential relationship between one of the most popular NFL players and one of the most popular pop musicians, like fairy-tale lyrics from one of Swift’s early songs come to life. The proliferation of song puns everywhere aside, whether or not Swift’s next album will contain songs about Kelce remains to be seen; their entanglement is still quite new and undefined. And regardless of if the two go on to date long term or never see each other again, the way sports media has handled the news about the potential relationship has revealed a lot about the way heterosexual male entitlement still permeates so much of mainstream culture.
For some quick background: Nearly a month ago, Kelce mentioned on his podcast that he had wanted to give Swift a friendship bracelet with his number on it during her “Eras” tour stop in his city. He was not successful in doing so and admitted he was “butthurt” about not getting to talk to her. Her team appeared to try quietly to shut down rumors about them dating.
Men, however, seemed intent on keeping the rumors going. Kelce’s brother, Jason, a center for the Philadelphia Eagles, went on a podcast and joked that the rumors were “100% true,” which resulted in media outlets running headlines “confirming” the relationship. While sports media was foaming at the mouth over the idea of Kelce and Swift being an item, she said absolutely nothing, continuing to be photographed out and about with famous women and seen at the MTV Video Music Awards gushing over every single woman in attendance.
Her “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” vault track list was being released, she was doing a pap walk with Sophie Turner, and yet it seemed nothing could bury “Travis Kelce” from the search results when you typed in her name.
Finally, on Thursday, Kelce was asked directly about the rumors on “The Pat McAfee Show.” He backpedaled and deflected quickly, saying he told her, “I’ve seen you rock the stage in Arrowhead (Stadium). You might have to come see me rock the stage in Arrowhead and see which one’s a little more lit.”
It seems that Swift decided to take him up on his offer. However, her doing so — and the reaction of mammoth proportions from across media and her fandom — made the preceding media coverage all the more concerning. Because at the end of the day, whether or not Swift and Kelce are actually dating, the boys and men who consume sports media have ingested some incredibly harmful messaging about entitlement, consent and how to get the girl.
Swift has been incredibly vocal about how much she dislikes when people speculate about her dating life. She does not like being known for the men she is dating. The deluge of podcasts, social media posts and in-game references to a potential relationship between the singer and the tight end — before there was any encouragement or confirmation on her end — seems to completely disrespect her wishes and boundaries.
“I feel like watching my dating life has become a bit of a national pastime,” she told Rolling Stone in 2014. “And I’m just not comfortable providing that kind of entertainment anymore. I don’t like seeing slide shows of guys I’ve apparently dated. I don’t like giving comedians the opportunity to make jokes about me at awards shows.
“I don’t like it when headlines read ‘Careful, Bro, She’ll Write a Song About You,’ because it trivializes my work. And most of all, I don’t like how all these factors add up to build the pressure so high in a new relationship that it gets snuffed out before it even has a chance to start.”
Not only that, the woman has written multiple albums about how relationships are better when they’re kept secret and no one knows about them. “I don’t talk about my personal life in great detail,” Swift told Glamour in 2012. “I write about it in my songs, and I feel like you can share enough about your life in your music to let people know what you’re going through.”
The entire maelstrom of attention here comes off like a bunch of men spinning a narrative they want to create, with no encouragement from the woman on the other side of it. A bunch of male journalists patting some dude on the back for getting with the hottest girl in school, even though the girl hasn’t so much as glanced his way or expressed any interest in him.
ESPN First Take host Stephen A. Smith joked that he sincerely doubts Kelce will find anyone more successful than [Swift], adding that “champions like champions.” Kelce tried to deflect answering questions from two Chiefs commentators while they tried to convince him to fly and meet her at her show at SoFi Stadium. A Barstool Sports podcast commented in vulgar and demeaning language that Kelce was potentially missing a game because he was “too busy” being intimate with Swift. Commentator Colin Cowherd speculated that the two would get married, as did the Undrafted Amateurs podcast, saying, “Travis Kelce seems like he has that swagger … to pull a T Swifty.”
All of this matters because boys and men are consuming this content and internalizing the messaging that it feeds them. They are learning that if you are just persistent enough, you can wear a woman down and eventually she will say yes. That narrative is reinforced by romantic comedies, where stalking often has a happy ending. Or on-screen tropes about the dogged nice guy who doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually gets the girl.
It’s why most straight women who have ever been on a dating app have horror stories about the men who keep messaging them over and over again despite them showing no interest. There was a trend of women posting screenshots of messages from men who message them for years despite no encouragement from the women themselves — MEL Magazine called it “pleading into the void.”
Whether that was the intention or not, the locker room culture that emerged from sports media about this story was ugly and hammers home the issues of sexism and misogyny that still exist in the world of men’s sports and the way so many men feel entitled to women and their attention.
Even after she showed up at the Chiefs game, Swift’s PR team seemed eager to manage expectations for the budding relationship. “Taylor is very focused on work right now and hanging out with her girlfriends,” a source told People magazine. “Travis invited her to the game, and of course she said ‘yes’ … She just thought it was a fantastic way to spend Sunday.”
Whether the fans and media will get the hint remains to be seen.
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