Friday, September 13, 2013

My Like-Dislike Relationship with American Football

 I have a like-dislike relationship with football these days (by which I mean American football). I won't call it a love-hate relationship because it's not that strong. I'm not passionate enough about football to feel that strongly one way or the other. I don't schedule my weekend around the football games I want to watch (although I have been known to schedule based on when a preferred soccer match will be on!) and I don't feel particularly heartbroken if I miss a game by one of the teams I support. However, I do enjoy sitting down on Sunday afternoon and watching a game, even if only absentmindedly while I read the paper or take an on-and-off nap. If I miss a game I do go online to see if my teams won or lost. I used to be much worse and the outcome of the weekend's games often affected my mood going into Monday morning. Given that my team at the time was the Kansas City Chiefs, that made for many a Monday with low spirits. These days I feel disappointed when my favorite teams lose, but I get on with life because I know there are far more important and interesting things in the world.

I am questioning more and more whether I can and should continue to support this sport, even in my relatively passive manner. Several issues prompt my doubt. The very nature of football promotes aggression and violence, albeit in a somewhat controlled manner. I don't object to the competitive nature of the sport. All sports are competitive in some degree. Someone wins and someone loses and within reason that's acceptable. But football isn't just about winning and losing. It's about the physical contact, the aggressive hits and the hard tackles. The fans want this kind of thing. Some have likened it to the Roman gladiatorial games. I don't know that it is quite that extreme, but the fans certainly experience some measure of catharsis watching the spectacle of crashing bodies on the field below (or the screen at home). We take part vicariously in the violence and in doing so, passively or actively celebrate and promote it. Do I really want to support an activity so fundamentally connected with aggression? I'm not sure I do anymore. I'm also not sure what it says about us and our society that we glory in this sport.

Even as we are enjoying the physical clash taking place on the field, those engaging in it are suffering bodily harm that in many cases will damage them for life. The indications that regular physical contact of this nature can result in long-term brain trauma seems fairly strong, strong enough that recently the NFL reached a settlement with a group of former players over the issue (without actually admitting any responsibility, conveniently). Some former players face debilitating brain injuries and some as a result have been driven to suicide. My enjoyment of their sport doesn't make me culpable in their injuries. Ultimately they are responsible for their choice to play and continue playing. But when I choose to watch, I help create the market that makes this sport financially rewarding and therefore help to perpetuate it. I realize that if I stop watching, the game will continue to be played, but my conscience need not bear the burden of supporting an activity that causes lasting harm to those who participate actively in it.

In addition to the issues related to violence and the physical harm the game brings, I am also disturbed by the sexism latent not only in the game itself but in the surrounding culture. I recognize that many women enjoy football and, in perhaps a paradoxical manner, am glad they do. Football shouldn't be the domain of only men as long as it continues to be played. Yet football (and related sports such as rugby) remains more male oriented than perhaps any other major sport. In other sports we see women's leagues being formed and growing. Although their popularity is not yet anywhere near that of the corresponding men's sport, we now have professional women's basketball and soccer. Women can play softball (although I fail to understand why they can't just play baseball), tennis, golf and even hockey. But women playing football remains a rare exception. On the one hand I would commend women for having the intelligence to avoid involvement in a sport that will, ultimately, harm them physically. At the same time the feminist in me revolts at the exclusion of women from this highly popular sport. And no, I don't count the lingerie football league as a true women's alternative. In fact, it's just another indicator of the underlying sexism in the sport. The only place we regularly find women involved in football at any level is on the sideline as cheerleaders. Without wanting to insult cheerleading, which can be a legitimate activity for both men and women (the fact that no NFL team I am aware of has male cheerleaders should tell us something), I find this very degrading to women. It insults me as a feminist and as a sports fan.

When you combine the exclusion of women from the game with the sexist attitudes that predominate in the advertising that fuels the football industry, it becomes apparent how women are viewed by a large portion of the football-watching world. Beer commercials, which provide a significant portion of sports revenue (I have no numbers on how much) regularly appall me with their blatant sexism (which, unfortunately, is not limited to commercials aired during football games, but that's a different topic.) As I said earlier, I fully affirm the right of women not only to watch but to play football. But I wonder why any woman wants to watch a sport that so fully excludes her from anything but observing and often reduces her to a sex-object to sell the sport and related products.

Finally, I question whether I want to support a sport that has come to pervert many educational institutions through corruption and scandal. I started reading today the article published by Sports Illustrated this week on the program at Oklahoma State University. I haven't even finished the article yet and already I am appalled. I would say I'm shocked, except that we have heard similar stories far too often in the past few years. It seems like every season we hear of another major university that, in the pursuit of football glory, has allowed and even fostered systems that promote winning over all else. Even programs that remain within the generous boundaries of NCAA rules still cause me to cringe when I read of the exorbitant amounts of money poured into them, even while academic programs at many universities struggle to find adequate funding. (I recognize that many athletic departments are effectively supported by their football program, but this does not necessarily make it right that so much money goes into football.) When we put so much significance on the success of a school's football program, we should not be surprised when rules are bent, ignored and broken in order to achieve that success. Do I want to support this system?

Yet even after saying all this I admit that I still enjoy a good football game. I still want to cheer for my alma-mater to beat the in-state and conference foes. In fact, somewhat ironically, I will be attending my first college football game this weekend for my father's birthday. I'm conflicted. I have a like-dislike relationship with this sport. My response at present will be to wean myself from watching football. I won't refuse to watch it if it's on, but I want to choose not to watch it when I have control of the remote. That won't be easy. It has become a sort of default behavior for me on Sunday afternoon over the years. But surely I can find better ways to invest my Sabbath day? I won't condemn or judge those who choose to watch football and cheer for their favorite teams, but I would encourage those of us who do to stop and think about what our support of this sport says about ourselves and our culture.

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