It’s Super Bowl Sunday! For football fanatics, this is the highest of holy days for our beloved sport. Football has been traditionally associated with the performance of masculinity in United States cultures; however, a growing number of women from a variety of social, economic, and cultural backgrounds count themselves among the football-obsessed. I include myself among this number: I have been bleeding Denver Broncos orange and blue since Elway stood behind center in the early 1980’s. My childhood featured weekly lessons on strategy from my father and mother—a high school lineman in Nebraska and a lifelong Broncos fan, respectively. I would have elected to play the game in high school if my protective parents had permitted me to join the primarily male high school team. I had profound admiration for my one female classmate who joined the junior varsity squad.
The NFL has taken note of the burgeoning number of women in its fan base. In fact, female fans now make up a whopping 45 percent of the NFL’s total following. The league has responded to this enthusiasm by developing female oriented events, retail, and communities associated with teams across the league. In Denver, for example, another one of my fantastic high school classmates is the “driver” of the Broncos Crush for Women organization, which aims to cultivate camaraderie and community among the team’s female fans through sponsored events and social media communities. In the NFL, women are not just the cheerleaders anymore. (But even these spectacular athletes—literally relegated to the margins of the game—make meaningful social contributions to community in their various locales.)
Beyond providing venues for female fans to connect and space for women’s voices in the public image of the league, the NFL has made a concerted effort to acknowledge various issues that profoundly affect women’s lives and to incorporate these concerns into its larger social platform. During the month of October, for example, every NFL team dons pink accessories in an effort to raise money and awareness for breast cancer research. Despite critiques of the league’s support of “Cancer, Inc.,” such philanthropic efforts at very least raise the profile of practices, procedures, and resources that can help save lives.
This year, however, Super Bowl XLIX arrives under a dark cloud for the league’s relationship with women. The league finds itself in hot water on the domestic front after the scandalous mishandling of Ray Rice’s violent attack of partner Janay Palmer that was captured on the video camera of a hotel elevator. Today’s game will only turn up the heat on this issue of the league’s gender shortcomings, casting harsh light on the commercialized objectification of female bodies and the perennial uptick in sex trafficking in the host city.
The league, in what appears to be a genuine act of concern and contrition, is sponsoring a PSA condemning domestic violence, which is scheduled to air during the coveted commercial time during the championship game. Preliminary reviews of the PSA have been mostly positive, stressing its effective attempt at capturing the audience’s attention and making a clear statement of its position. Yet, as Mychal Denzel Smith at feministing.com argues, this commercial represents a missed opportunity to level a more profound critique of this abusive culture:
The NFL is in a unique position, as one of the most visible arbiters of the cultural definition of masculinity. That definition of masculinity as dominant, violent, and controlling contributes to a culture in which violence against women is not regarded as a serious enough issue to warrant collective outrage. The NFL could be fostering a dialogue with men about how and why this definition of masculinity is dangerous and oppressive. It could be engaging boys and young men in an unlearning process and re-education around the values embedded in these archaic forms of masculinity, and questioning the health and vitality of those models. It should be starting that engagement and dialogue with its players and personnel.
Smith’s critique of the league’s response resonates with Ivone Gebara’s critique of the idolization of masculinity. Gebara argues that the orientation of women to masculine structures of patriarchy is a form of idolatry in which the identities and interests of women are falsely oriented toward the glorification of a bankrupt and immorally inflated image of masculinity. This is a grave social sin in violation of the first commandment where an image is oriented as the object of worship in the place of the one, true God.
Smith exhorts the NFL to interrogate these narratives. Indeed, the league possesses an important platform to do so. Here’s the question: Is an institution that rakes in billions of dollars in revenue from peddling this image of masculinity interested in undermining it for the sake of curtailing domestic violence and the perpetuation of misogynistic rhetoric, ideology, and practices? If so, is it willing to make any profound changes to its structures and cultures in order to eradicate this issue? My closeted Niebuhrian self suspects that the league, while it may very well be genuinely disturbed by instances of domestic violence and even the overall well-being of its revenue generating female fans, will act to protect its own skin over against engaging in the laborious task of structural interrogation and eradication of forms of misogyny both blatant and subtle.
Should we lose hope? Need fans committed to gender justice give up on the sport we love? Certainly not. First of all, simply abandoning sinful structures does very little to alter them. I think the persistent voices of women and men who want to advocate for these changes will help to hold the league accountable, illustrating how it is in their institutional interest to be concerned with these matters. Second, I think that the NFL women’s organizations offer one rich source of institutional response to these issues. Broncos Crush for Women, for example, is developing programs that speak directly to issues that affect women’s lives, starting with health and nutritional awareness (an important component in generating personal integrity and autonomy in domestic partnerships), and football safety clinics for mothers whose children play the sport in order to empower parents to make smart decisions about their children’s health. In my assessment, this demonstrates potential for the institution itself to initiate and sustain conversations that can contribute to necessary cultural shifts. Ultimately, the response to these issues lies in cultural changes leveled by the female fans ourselves, as well as our allies. How can we continue to speak truth to power in the context of this structure?