Okay, I understand why I’m an American football fan. I started watching hockey with my dad when I was 13, and soon branched into watching almost every sport I could find on TV. (Yeah, I watch curling.) American football (different from the international term “football,” which some of us know as “soccer”) is exciting, strategic, and often just a big, dramatic circus to watch. It’s my favourite way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
But football is also a really, REALLY violent sport, more violent than a lot of other sports. The basic concept of the sport, for those who don’t know, is that two teams line up along the width of a 100-yard field, with one team (offense) throwing and running the ball, trying to go forward toward the end zone to score points, and the other team (defense) trying to prevent them from getting there. If the offensive team doesn’t advance far enough after a few tries (downs), the teams switch and the other team tries to go the other way.
There are lots of rules about what you can and can’t do to try to stop the other team from getting past you, but some of the most common tactics are blocking (throwing your weight against someone to keep them from pushing past) and tackling (grabbing someone and bringing them down to the ground, sometimes landing on top of them). Players are understandably heavily padded with protective equipment. Concussions are common. Often, the bigger the hit, the louder the cheers.
It’s not actually the violence in the game that disturbs me about my fanship of the National Football League (NFL), although I should probably think about it more often than I do. What’s really been getting me lately is the culture of violence, racism and misogyny that’s spilling out of the game and into the personal lives of a number of NFL players – and the way these cases are treated by the league, the media and the fans of the game.
A couple of years ago, star New York Giants Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg with a concealed handgun in a night club. He was suspended from the team but an arbiter ruled he could keep his $1 million signing bonus. (He also ended up serving just shy of two years in prison – but that $1 million was safe.) He’s now playing for the New York Jets.
Former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is pretty infamous, even outside of sports circles, for being convicted of dog fighting charges in 2007. He served under a year in prison and was suspended from the Falcons. He re-joined the NFL as a member of the Philadephia Eagles in 2009, and won the teammate-voted Ed Block Award for Courage that year (gag me!).
The media and many of the fans raked Vick over the coals for the cruelty of his dog-fighting activities, and he didn’t play football for three years. But when Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was twice charged with sexual assault (he was never convicted), Roethlisberger was suspended for six games, then only had to sit out four. Okay, he wasn’t convicted, but his celebrity and status as a star quarterback certainly played a part in his second accuser’s decision not to pursue the charges.
Finally, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow was featured in an ad for “Focus on the Family” during the 2010 SuperBowl – before he was even playing in NFL – in which his mother recounts his “miracle” birth. He’s gone on to write a book in which his anti-choice values figure heavily. Blogger Sophia at Abortion Gang came up with the now-viral #10forTebow campaign, in which fans donate $10 to a pro-choice charity every time Tebow scores a touchdown. (He scored three in yesterday’s playoff win against the Steelers. Canadians for Choice got $30 from me.) Who is Tebow to tell women what to do with their bodies?
These are just some of the high-profile examples of violent or misogynistic behaviour from very prominent members of the NFL. There are countless instances of weapons-related and domestic violence-related charges being brought against NFL players on a regular basis. As I mentioned above, I believe race plays a factor in the way these players are treated by the media, fans and the league. Does it come as a surprise that Burress and Vick, the players who served jail time, are black, while Roethlisberger, the player whose accuser chose not to pursue charges, is white? Racism also plays out in observable ways in the playing culture of NFL football: it’s also worth noting that there were only six black starting quarterbacks in the 2011 season, of 32 teams. At the college level, 65% of quarterbacks are black. The message to black football players is clear: you’re not good enough to be the team leader at the highest level.
All this to say nothing particularly conclusive. I enjoy watching the sport, but I can’t help but believe there is a connection between the violence and racism institutionalized in the league, and the violence and racism brought against both the players and the people surrounding them in their personal lives.
I’m not sure if there’s any way to reconcile this as a feminist football fan. I doubt it. I’m sure I’m not alone in this – what are your thoughts?