Feminism and the NFL are not compatible

There's no way around it: Football is the most brutally misogynistic sport ever created. So why do feminists watch?

Published September 28, 2014 2:59PM (EDT)

Baltimore Ravens cheerleaders perform in Baltimore, Maryland August 25, 2011.       (Reuters/Larry Downing)
Baltimore Ravens cheerleaders perform in Baltimore, Maryland August 25, 2011. (Reuters/Larry Downing)

This is a piece about football and feminism so before I proceed, let me offer an obvious but necessary caveat. I’m a dude. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to write about feminism. But it does mean that some readers can and will object to a piece by a guy about women who call themselves feminists and who also watch football.

So let me say for the record that I am not trying to mansplain the evils of football to feminists, or suggest how they should feel about something as complex as football. What I am trying to do is to understand why women, and feminists in particular, not only tolerate but in some instances consume (and therefore sponsor) a game as flagrantly misogynistic as football.

But before I get into all that, I want to talk about Hannah Storm, because she’s the one who got me thinking about all this. Last Sunday, Storm took a few minutes on Sportscenter to rebuke the NFL for its conduct around the Ray Rice scandal and violence against women more generally. The veteran broadcaster and ESPN anchor explained that she and her three daughters were all huge football fans. “One of my daughters has her first fantasy football team this season,” she noted. “But at breakfast this week, instead of discussing how her team was doing, we watched the Ray Rice video play out again, in all its ugliness.”

Storm added that she’d spent the week answering a series of “seemingly impossible questions” from her daughters about the league, then posed a few of her own, such as when the NFL would “take the lead on the issue of domestic violence,” and, more dramatically, “What exactly does the NFL stand for?”

The response to this soliloquy was a rousing chorus of Give ’em hell, Hannah! So maybe I’m the only person in America who came away with a few questions of my own — for Storm.

For instance: If you’re so troubled by the NFL, why do you collect a salary promoting it? Also, why would a mother watch with her own daughter a video of a man knocking a woman unconscious? And as a mother with three daughters, how do you justify glorifying a game that defines men as heroically violent warriors and women as sexual ornaments who jiggle on the sidelines?

Again: I realize this sounds like one of those smug cable-news questions, especially coming from a man. It’s not. I’m genuinely baffled. As a fan (a heartbroken former fan, anyway) I understand why football exerts such a powerful grip on men. The game is an exalted cult of hyper-masculinity, a place of refuge where dudes can escape the moral complexities and disappointments of adulthood, where heroism is defined as courageous and brutal and, above all, male.

But as a father of daughters, I can’t help wondering: What’s in it for women? This is an especially timely question not just because of recent events, but because the NFL is constantly bragging that women make up 45 percent of its fan base.

As it turns out, a number of female fans have addressed their fandom over the past few weeks. The most prominent of these pieces, by Eliana Dockterman, a writer for Time, carried the headline “Why Women Don’t Have to Boycott the NFL.” The entire piece, in fact, exuded a kind of panicky defensiveness.

“I am a feminist who writes about feminist issues,” Dockterman begins. “When accusations surfaced that the NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and many others in the league might have systematically tried to cover up a video of Ray Rice punching his wife, I was disgusted and outraged. And yet on Sunday, I kicked back and tuned in to football without any qualms. Am I a hypocrite?”

Oddly, she spends much of the rest of her piece detailing the many qualms about football that she absolutely positively doesn’t have, such as the fact that the sport is inherently sexist. “The NFL doesn’t care if I’m a conflicted fan,” she observes, “as long as it is getting my money … Only actions will bring about change because words of outrage result in lackluster press releases.”

The tag line of Dockterman’s piece is "An Argument for Feminists Who Watch Football." But Dockterman never actually talks about feminism itself. She never addresses the belief (for instance) that women are entitled to equal treatment in the workplace and shouldn’t be reduced to sexual objects or otherwise marginalized.

The game Dockterman loves is, in fact, a $10 billion industry made up almost entirely of men: male players, male coaches, male trainers, male executives, male owners. Its gender roles aren’t antiquated; they’re medieval.

(In fact, about the only powerful woman in football is former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a devout fan who is nearly a lock to replace Goodell when he gets the shit can.)

So what is Dockterman’s goal-line stand on behalf of the game? “Boycotting the NFL is simply not the best way to change its behavior,” she insists. Instead, female fans need to advocate “for change within the system.” How? Well, for instance, by tweeting.

“But let’s be honest,” Dockterman intones, “despite what I said earlier about hitting the NFL where it hurts the most—their wallets—nothing will ever stop the cash flow. If you feel strongly about women’s rights and have a platform from which to express your views (say, a Twitter account) then you can make a difference at least in your circle of friends and contacts by forcing them to think about the debate … Tune out if you want to. But the real solution is to scream at the top of your lungs.”

Dockterman, in other words, is attempting to guilt trip those female fans with the integrity (and common sense) to turn away from the game. It seems never to have occurred to her that one might protest football without actually watching it at the same time.

What’s most frustrating about this piece, and others like it, isn’t the illogic of its arguments but the absence of self-reflection. It simply never offers any insight into why some women love football, and how they square this love with their feminist beliefs.

One piece that does begin to do this hard work is a long and vigorously reasoned essay by Louisa Thomas of Grantland.

Thomas’ subject is domestic abuse. But her essay manages to transcend the crime-blotter mentality that has beset so much recent NFL coverage. The real problem isn’t Ray Rice or Roger Goodell, she insists, but the ugly truth that the “infliction of pain is romanticized and ritualized” in football.

“I smile instinctively when I see a hit,” Thomas admits. “I feel it. It taps into some dark and thrilling part of me … I wish I could say that feeling is harmless … that it is a substitute for violence, that it releases and diffuses that domineering, competitive instinct latent in human nature, and leaves us with some measure of self-respect—some awareness of courage and strength. But I think I’m lying to myself. Because when I’m honest, I can see that within the culture of football, as a woman, I’m not respected. The women I see are cheerleaders, sideline reporters, WAGs. I hear men talk, and I know that when they use the word ‘girl,’ it’s shorthand for something weak.”

Against this dark knowledge, Thomas lists the very real reasons that she digs football: the connection it provides to her father, the social pleasures of fandom, the grace and athleticism of the game itself. In essence, the same reasons most male fans would cite. Thomas confronts the essential psychic dilemma that football presents: It is both profoundly pleasurable to consume and inherently corrupt.

What’s more, the values of football culture — the celebration of violence, the objectification of players and cheerleaders alike, the nihilistic greed of the Football Industrial Complex, the misogyny and homophobia — are not the values of most of its fans, male or female. So the question of why we choose to sponsor the game isn’t just one for women.

If you truly believe women deserve equal rights, doesn’t this imply a need to confront those aspects of our culture that reinforce the degradation of women, even and especially ones as entrenched and normalized as football?

One of the most dispiriting aspects of the past month’s media shark feed is that it has lacked a true feminist perspective. This piece from Jezebel comes closest. But no one to my knowledge has called out the NFL for what it is: a refuge for patriarchal thought and behaviors. Nor has anyone interrogated the galling cynicism of the NFL’s efforts to attract female fans: the pink-cleated gimmickry, the corporate-sponsored content (“The Savvy Girl’s Guide to Football”), the transparently ulterior decision to fund shelters for battered women only after the Rice scandal erupted.

This is the NFL game plan whenever something threatens its bottom line. League execs load up a cannon with money and P.R. gimmicks and fire away, confident in the knowledge that a shallow and slavish press corps will applaud, or at least publicize, these ploys.

It goes without saying that female fans are entitled to watch whatever sporting events they damn well please. But it’s also worth understanding their motives. And so, for the past month, I’ve made it a point to ask. Of the two dozen women I’ve spoken to, every single one has mentioned a father who watched the game. Several also talked about boyfriends or husbands or peers who were fans. I can’t help wondering: If these male pressures didn’t exist, would they still have an interest in the game?

There were a few outliers. I had a fascinating discussion on the radio with a transgender fan who confessed that he loved football as a girl in part because the sport offered such stark gender roles, which she found comforting given her own confused feelings. One lesbian told me that her butch friends view football as a way of claiming space for themselves within the dominant masculine culture.

The most honest response I received was also, in many ways, the saddest. The writer Diane Roberts, an avid fan of the Florida State University Seminoles — whose infamous quarterback, Jameis Winston, is not only a rather ill-advised public speaker, but an accused rapist -- had this to say about her fandom:

I’m a feminist. I'm a Florida State Seminole. I am not a fan—that implies some distance, however small, between me and the whole enterprise. Although I have tried to abjure the realm of football, I fail. I fall back into the rhythm of autumn Saturdays, getting ready for the tailgate, putting on my lucky earrings (yes, really--garnets, set in gold), going to the stadium, standing and clapping for the fight song, spelling (we spell out F-L-O-R-I-D-A  S-T-A-T-E to prove that the state education system has not been completely in vain) and scream. And feel dirty. Dumb. Conflicted. Addicted. Maybe "addicted" is a cop-out. I mean, how many rapes, how many concussions, how many illiterate graduates and multi-million dollar coaching salaries and brand new indoor practice facilities--while the university cuts Philosophy and German—will it take before I get disgusted enough to say enough?

No doubt I could get lyrical and throw down some "fine writing" about the beauty of the game. But ballet is just as athletic and just as gorgeous. Is the violence the key issue? I can only say that culture is strong. My sense of belonging to something which feels profoundly Southern, profoundly Floridian, something my father loved—my mother, aged 83—still loves, is important to me. My great-great-great-grandfather graduated from the Seminary in Tallahassee which later became FSU. These are my people. This is how we live. I can both love it and despair.

Roberts’ incisive thoughts helped bring into focus one of the main reasons I turned away from football, after 40 years of fandom: because I don’t want to send my daughters the message that connecting to me, or feeling a part of our family legacy, involves watching a game that ultimately degrades them.

By Steve Almond

Steve Almond's new book is "Against Football." Follow him on Twitter @stevealmondjoy.

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